Alan John Ainsworth Photography: Blog en-us (C) Alan John Ainsworth Photography (Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Mon, 16 Mar 2020 06:49:00 GMT Mon, 16 Mar 2020 06:49:00 GMT Alan John Ainsworth Photography: Blog 75 120 "The Interview" by the Gao Brothers, Saathci Gallery "Pangea II"

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:

  • transparent and literal when it functions to document the particular crash
  • it is moved toward the formal if the style of the photograph or the oeuvre of the photographer becomes an issue, but it may still be a literal document
  • It is moved toward the transcendent range of meaning if it is taken as embodying a statement about, say, human inhumanity, heroism, or the tragedy of war
  • and into the formal-transcendent range if its efficacy as a bearer of this message is held to lie with its formal rather than strictly denotative features

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.











[1] Martha Rosler, “Lee Friedlander: An Exemplary Modern Photographer” in Decoys and Disruptions: Selected Writings, 1975-2001


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Sat, 05 Sep 2015 09:55:27 GMT
PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE HISTORICISM OF POVERTY: Shirley Baker at the Photographers' Gallery 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.




Date 29.08.15

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

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(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Exhibition reviews Photography Sat, 29 Aug 2015 12:50:01 GMT
PONTE CITY, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 6 December 2014-26 April 2015

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.


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Sun, 23 Aug 2015 20:51:53 GMT
CHRIS STEIN’S PHOTOS OF DEBBIE HARRY – the journey of a personal archive 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



Date 12.12.2014

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

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(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Exhibition reviews Photography Sat, 27 Dec 2014 16:43:40 GMT

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.


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Tue, 16 Dec 2014 21:53:00 GMT
THINKING ABOUT EDWARD STEICHEN – the architectonic use of light

I was shocked on one occasion to read Edward Steichen described as a ‘street photographer’. It is hard to imagine a photographer for whom this label is less appropriate and probably says more about the confusion which currently surrounds the term. Even to call him a ‘photographer’ would be to underestimate his artistic and practical contributions, which embraced painting, graphic designs, horticulture, printing, curating, a spell in the military and as a writer-cum- propagandist. 

Steichen was one of the most influential early photographic modernists. Initially within the ambit of Alfred Steiglitz’s pictorialism, he came to understand better than many others the primacy which artistic modernism accorded the medium – that is, photographs which exploit the distinctive technical and optical characteristics of the camera as sui generis. His contribution was skillfully to develop and hone those features of photography inherent to the etymology of the word – painting with light.

We have had an opportunity over the last month to see Steichen’s photography in the London Photographers’ Gallery current exhibition. Showing work between 1923-37, when he was chief photographer for Condé Nast’s Vanity Fair and Vogue, this superb exhibition reminds us not only how consummate an artist he was in even the relatively restricted field of commercial fashion and celebrity portraiture but also how that achievement was built on integrating light as an architectonic element into his compositions.

Steichen’s career was a long and varied. Born in1879 in Luxembourg, his family emigrated to the United States settling eventually in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Seemingly never constrained by mid-west provincialism, he absorbed advanced artistic ideas from an early age. Steichen made his first photographs well before the turn of the century and continued photographing until his death in 1973. Over nearly seven decades his intelligent and tasteful images covered the gamut of practices and styles from high art to commercial assignments, late-nineteenth century romanticism to twentieth century modernism to fashion and celebrity portraiture, and even two spells as a war photographer. 


His photographic styles evolved over time, shaped by changing social and artistic trends and a personal quest to realise the inherent qualities in photography itself, particularly to capture and harness the effects of light. Initially under the influence of the artists he met in Paris as a young man and Alfred Steiglitz’s pictorialism and the Photo-Secession, he later described himself at the time as an ‘impressionist without knowing it’.  He travelled widely in Europe, met many artists and arranged exhibitions on their behalf and contributed articles and photographs of haunting urban scenes, elegant women, nudes, flowers and mystical landscapes to Steiglitz’s magazine Camera Work.


His service during the first world war in the US Air Service Photographic Section however caused him radically to rethink his practice. He broke with the dreamy pictorialism of his early work and became chief photographer at Vanity Fair, in which his cubist and constructivist-influenced images perfectly suited the modernist couturiers of the 1920s. This is the period which the Photographers’ Gallery illustrates so vividly.


Steichen went on to become a much sought-after society portraitist and his theatrical style and careful use of accessories attracted many lucrative advertising contracts and portrait commissions from actors and (particularly) actresses. He never saw any conflict between his commercial and artistic work; co-curator of the exhibition William Ewing recounts in an article accompanying the exhibition how Condé Nast assumed that Steichen would not want such obviously commercial output to be credited - only to be informed by the photographer that he saw no difference between fashion and celebrity portraiture and ‘fine art’. 


Early photographers employed elaborately naturalistic or classical backdrops to their portraits. Stripping this away, Steichen’s genius was to create a form of unladened mis-en scène – minimal yet fully capable of arresting the attention of the viewer. Using props sparingly (this might have been partly due to limited availability in the Condé Nast studios although he did have access to other company locations) Steichen often deployed only one element – a chair perhaps. Far from detracting from the subject as so much early portraiture had done, so integrated was his staging that the human figures and their costumes were inevitably enhanced. Lighting was the most important element in this modernist mis-en-scène and was employed by Steichen as a structuring element in place of in place of physical props. In his hands light  - often complemented by the use of vertical or horizontal divides – becomes an architectonic element in the composition and he combined this with the radical realization that backlighting was more important than figure lighting.

In his photograph ‘Black’, which appeared in Vogue in 1935, the sleek figure of Margaret Horan is framed off-centre by silhouetted black horizontal and vertical divides while backlighting creates a triangular frame for the models upper body. The curves of the silhouetted piano lid echo those of the figure although a weaker front light throws a shadow from the keyboard to complete the frame around the figure. Half-turned, Maraget Horan’s face is lit from the rear.  The 1932 portrait of Noel Coward employs only two physical props – a chair and the silhouetted cat. The figure of Coward and the props are linked by the sinuous shadow which snakes up from bottom left. The shadow frames the figure and traces the line of his posture and even the smoke from his cigarette. It is not too much to read evocations of Coward’s witty lyrics and plots from the way in which Steichen has chosen to structure light. In both photographs, the mysterious figures top left form a counterpoint to the human subjects as well as gazing down on the scenes. They are again linked by the lighting. Steichen’s quest for timeless messages in the abstract symbols of images emerged clearly during the phase of his career on display at the Photographers’ Gallery, which is well worth at least one visit.


   (1) William A. Ewing, ‘Edward Steichen: A Curator’s View’ available at


Edward Steichen: In High Fashion, The Condé Nast Years 1923 – 1937

The Photographers’ Gallery, Ramilles Street, London

until 18 January 2015.


Date 12.12.2014

Copyright   © All text and photography (other than where indicated) Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.

Cite   Alan Ainsworth, 'THINKING ABOUT EDWARD STEICHEN – the architectonic use of light', 3.12.2014 available at

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(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Exhibition reviews Photography Fri, 12 Dec 2014 12:24:06 GMT
A MASTER OF CAR PHOTOGRAPHY - Peter Harholdt's set up Image - Peter Harholdt's brochure


If you're attracted to the idea of photographing beautiful cars – vintage, classic, racing or whatever - you might think about buying a 30' trailer first. That's what top car photographer Peter Harholdt needs to transport his mobile studio.

A car in the process of being lit in Peter's light tent

Peter, who told me that he used to be a jazz drummer, combines his passion for racing cars (he has raced the 24 hour circuit at Daytona) and other types of cars with his skills as a professional photographer. He also photographs works of art for museums and collectors and has worked for clients like the Smithsonian, the White House and the Louvre. He photographs for private collectors, private or public automotive museums and on books about cars and motorcycles. His photographs combine technical expertise with intimate knowledge of the styling and engineering of top flight cars.

One of two battery racks powering the flash units

Peter has developed a portable studio based on a 30' trailer that allows him to transport a professional studio virtually anywhere. This way he is able to take a fully-equipped studio to the car collections, where he will typically photograph the entire collection. I met him in the Revs Institute in Naples Florida where he is currently spending two days a week on an assignment to photograph the entire collection which was initially started  by Baron Collier and which now comprises over 100 vehicles. In another project, more than 100 cars were photographed by Peter for 'Art of the Hot Rod' at 25 sites across the United States.

Exposure is controlled and monitored from an imac on site

Peter uses a demountable light tent long enough to accommodate even the largest vehicles. The tent is lit from above with a flash tube and from the sides, creating an even light over the car. White reflector boards on the floor fill in the light to the darker areas around the tyres and the lower bodywork.  I assume these are removed post. The flash units are powered by 6 car battery-like cells on portable trolleys.

Peter checking the color balance of a shot

Peter controls the set up using an imac. He shoots tethered and controls the shutter of his medium format equipment from the screen. The flash units are fired by using optical transmitters. He takes numerous shots and builds up the final image optimised for exposure and color balance from a number of shots.

Various reflectors control light spill

I looked at some of Peter’s prints and the quality is astounding. You can see his work on his website at



Date 3.12.2014

Copyright   © All text and photography (other than where indicated) Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.

Citation   Alan Ainsworth, ''A MASTER OF CAR PHOTOGRAPHY - Peter Harholdt's set up', 3.12.2014 available at

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(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Photography Thu, 04 Dec 2014 00:40:14 GMT
'PWA MODERNE' - US Depression-era architecture

The entrance to the Nashville Post Office (converted in 2001 into the Frist Center for the Visual Arts)

I recently visited two stunning art deco-influenced buildings in Minneapolis and Nashville.  As both were built as post offices, I wanted to find out more about how such fantastic buildings came to be designed for this purpose. It turns out that there are many more examples and most were built during the New Deal program of the mid-1930s, the architectural legacy of which is especially rich.

During the Roosevelt New Deal period (1933-36) thousands of new buildings were designed and built under the aegis of the Office of the Supervising Architect (OSA) which was soon to become part of the main New Deal agency, the Public Works Administration (PWA).  Among these public buildings were over one thousand post offices, many of which are architecturally significant and/or contain valuable murals.  As in the UK, the Unites States is now rationalizing its post office network by closing relocating and selling thousands of postal facilities, including New Deal Era post offices. Unlike the UK however many of the buildings are worth saving and various campaigns are underway to save these buildings or to have them creatively and appropriately repurposed.

Minneapolis Post Office, east elevation

The OSA designed federal government buildings (customhouses, federal courthouses, post offices, federal office buildings, and other structures in thousands of communities across the country) from the early 1850s to the late 1930s. The OSA employed scores of architects and was the most important federal agency shaping the architectural character of American cities through the design and construction of monumental and ornately-decorated buildings.  Courthouses and post offices in particular were intended to be symbolic of the prosperity of the cities in which they were located; they were constructed to last with durable materials such as granite masonry and symbolised the strength of the federal government

The work of the OSA was cut short by World War II and it faded from view in the post-war era. In 1949 responsibility for design, preservation and construction of federal buildings was given to the Public Buildings Service division of United States General Services Administration.

Staircase in the Frist Center

In the 1930s the OSA became a part of the PWA, whose remit focused as much on job creation as design work. .  Nevertheless, headed by architect Louis A. Simon (1867-1958) between 1933-39, the OSA was artistically vigorous during the Great Depression era.  Simon favoured a "conservative-progressive" approach and most of his own buildings, including many post offices, were Colonial Revival in style or in some other restrained or more stylized classical style. Yet the OSA issued guidelines encouraging architects to follow both of the most important architectural styles of the period, classicism and art deco. One history of the period notes that:

During the Depression, architects working for the federal government were expected to express the vales of permanence, stability and order in their buildings – values that a classical style had traditionally embodied – but in streamlined forms to suggest progress and simplified to lower production costs. (1)

The architectural style of many buildings completed between 1933 and 1944 sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) branch of the PWA emerged as what has come to be known as ‘PWA Moderne’ (or sometimesFederal Moderne’, ‘Depression Moderne’ or ‘Classical Moderne’). Drawing on beaux-arts and art deco examples, but often with zigzag ornamentation added, the exterior of these buildings was often ‘stripped down’, exhibiting conservative and classical elements which have a monumental feel.  They show classical balanced and symmetrical forms, with windows arranged as vertical recessed panels and surfaces sheathed in smooth, flat stone or stucco.

  Minneapolis Post Office, west elevation

The Minneapolis Post Office, located on the west bank of the Mississippi River, was completed in 1933 and is still in use as a postal facility. Built of granite and stone in the PWA Moderne style it cost $4.5m. at the time.  The main building is 540 feet (165 m) long. Its interior is unchanged and customers still utilize its original bronze teller cages and fixtures, marble terrazzo floor and sandstone walls. Perhaps the longest light fixture in the world, a 350 foot (107 m), 16 ton (16256.8 kg) bronze chandelier runs the length of the lobby, originally designed to regulate temperature. Peepholes were installed in the corridors so that inspectors could protect the mail and observe employees. The main building contained a three-room suite panelled in walnut for the postmaster, recreation rooms and a hospital unit for employees as well as a shooting range in the basement.

  The Grand Lobby in the Frist Center

Nashville Main Post Office (1933-34) at 919 Broadway was converted into the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in 2001 after the postal service relocated to a new facility. This is a quite stunning renovation, funded by a public-private partnership, which brings out all the marvellous art deco features which the local firm of Marr & Holman designed in and adds a number of new sympathetic features. In spite of the OSA’s exhortations to cost-savings, the designers specified cast aluminum doors and decorative grillwork as well as colored marble and stones on the floors and walls. True, the designs on the grillwork – displaying symbols of progress and productivity – came from a federal building planning manual, but they are stunning for all that.

  Cast aluminum 'Progress' icons in the Grand Lobby of the Frist Center

  Photograph Bob Schatz © Frist Center for the Visual Arts

The light floods into the huge, high-ceiling sorting rooms which make ideal galleries. The former skylight has been resurrected in the new design. Two beautiful new staircases take visitors between the two floors of exhibition space. Sadly, I was not allowed to photograph in the gallery spaces themselves.

  Cast aluminum grillwork in the Grand Lobby of the Frist Center

Other examples of PWA Moderne post offices include Simon’s Long Beach Main Post Office (1933-34), a registered historic building located on Long Beach Boulevard in downtown Long Beach, CA. Architectural historians David Gebhard and Robert Winter have described the design as ‘PWA Moderne  accomplished with restrained and sophisticated taste.’ (2)  The Santa Monica post office, another New Deal post office in the distinctive PWA Moderne style, is also one of about 200 post offices that the Postal Service has indicated it will sell because of its financial problems.


(1) Frist Centre for the Visual Arts, From Post Office to Arts Center: A Nashville Landmark Repurposed, n.d.

(2) David Gebhard and Robert Winter. An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles,  2003, Kindle edition



Date 13.11.2014

Copyright   © All text and photography (other than where indicated) Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014. Photograph reproduced with the permission of the Frist Centre for the Visual Arts

Citation   Alan Ainsworth, ''PWA MODERNE'  - US Depression-era post office architecture', 24.11.2014 available at

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(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Architecture Photography Tue, 25 Nov 2014 00:41:09 GMT
ELGER ESSER'S PHOTOGRAPHY - a new romanticism?

No one would be surprised to learn that one of Germany's most respected contemporary photographers was a student of Bernd Becher at the Academy of Arts in Dusseldorf. After all, the Dusseldorf School, under Becher and his wife HIlla, has produced photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer and Thomas Struth. What might be surprising is that the photography of Elger Esser, who studied with Becher in the 1990s, seems at first glance to be totally different from that of his famous colleagues.

While Andreas Gursky and other photographers from the Dusseldorf School bring a conceptual eye to the motifs to be found in urban and industrial buildings, interiors, houses and modernity in general, Esser's images are rooted in history and a sense of time passing; and if the analytical conceptualism which emerged from the Becher's relentless documentation of industrial structures marked the work of Dusseldorf alumni, Esser has concentrated on landscapes, seascapes and lakes, villages and old buildings. His photographs evoke a melancholy evocation of time past and childhood memories. He seems to have replaced conceptualism with a return to romanticism.

Esser's embrace of beauty in photography seems to support this view. With his commitment to the traditional crafts of wet darkroom photography and fine printing, he says that he 'can't help but generate beauty. If you want to create something timeless, something removed from the flow of time, then you need to search for things which endure time'.   Esser's evocation of past worlds draws heavily on his love of literature -  Proust, Maupassant, Fabre, Flaubert, Mann. Of these, Proust has been a continual source of inspiration and Combray (Giverny), currently on display at the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts (FMPA) in Tampa illustrates his primary artistic concerns in drawing on Proust. Indeed, À la recherche du temps perdu  probably summarises well Esser's photographic quest.

But Esser does not stand for some uncritical return to the cult of beauty. Romanticism was a genuine revolution that challenged the classical past driven by the 'soul within', a reversal of the enlightenment emphasis on the laws of the natural world. Enlightenment rationalism did not seem to offer an adequate explanation for the pace of change and its effects. This reorientation away from natural laws to the artist was as profound as the other revolutions of the time. And Esser has embraced the revolutionary potential of the romantic mindset when he says that 'Romanticism was a movement which shook-up very elementary things; it was an insurrectionary movement'. Reacting in his turn to the conceptualism of Dusseldorf, Esser launched a radical quest for the 'landscape within'.

Raised by a German author and French photojournalist, Esser 'grew up with German values, but with a certain Italian and French spirit.' This changed his perspective on the world and time. It led him in particular to realise that Germany's adoption of modernity in the wake of 1945 seemed to fracture the country's relationship with the past.

Today he lives in Germany 'in order to retain a sense of longing for the other' - in this case, France, a country in which he regularly travels, photographing extensively in an effort to create a kind of 'mind atlas' of the country. He seems to find in France that relationship with the past which Germany has lost,  a sort of counterpoint to Germany's relentless, if forced, modernism. 'Landscapes are like states of mind,' Esser explains, 'Everyone carries a landscape within them, one they naturally idealize.' (1)

And so we find in the Combray series currently showing in Tampa a collection of images of a France past - unpopulated scenes of villages, buildings and fields which bring to mind a feeling of gentle, quiet decay. The photographs are beautifully printed on large sheets of robust hand-made paper which hang on the walls unframed.  Esser's photographs are printed as large-format heliogravures, a painstaking and high-quality etching process developed towards the end of the nineteenth century which produces remarkably fine details and subtle gradations of tones. Combining traditional craft printmaking with photography leads Esser to describe his practice as that of an artist using photography rather than that of a photographer. Their very materiality points us towards a past world.

All the photographs are monochrome. The severely restricted range of tones of each offers a wash of midtones which suggest a scene pulled from memory rather than the product of a precise and impersonal machine called the camera. Is it not the case that when we think back to the places of our childhood the images we see are vague and generalised, lacking in detail but charged with atmosphere?  Esser's flat-toned photographs mirror the process of memory recall, the way in which we pluck out impressions from the millions of details which we encounter during our lives.

The scenes which Esser presents are unpopulated; not a single figures beyond a few horses appear in the images.  Again, isn't this how we remember the places of our past as the broad shapes of buildings and towns vaguely delineated?  In our mind we reshape reality - romanticism, perhaps, but a process which exposes the revolutionary potential of the romantic mindset.

In the end it may be that Esser's photography is not quite so different from that of his mentors and contemporaries in Dusseldorf. 

In her notes accompanying the FMPA exhibition, Joanne Milani Cheatham suggests that for Esser 'it is as if you can take humans temporarily out of the landscape, but you can never erase the marks they have left behind in their stead.'  With his love of nineteenth century literature and acute sense of its relationship to the history of photography, it would not be surprising if Esser had Atget's photographs of old Paris in mind. Atget's long exposure times resulted in people - up to that point the main subject of photography - blurring into indistinct forms in his photographs or even disappearing completely.

This was one of the features which attracted the surrealists and, later, Walter Benjamin to Atget.  In Benjamin's view, Atget's photographs of  deserted Paris streets and alleys were like 'the scenes of a crime', signposts without direction. Everyday objects of ordinary experience were revealed by photography as strange and unsettling: all was not as it appeared at first glance. In his Little History of Photography written in1931 Benjamin said that Atget 'looked for what was unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift' his photographs running contrary to the 'romantically sonorous names of the cities; they suck the aura out of reality like water from a sinking ship.'

In a similar way, the photographs in Esser's Combray series evoke the past by representing it much as our own mind processes might do. In the process that reality is reshaped. The romantic palimpsest of Esser's photographic techniques turns into a process of radical reappraisal of the past - a goal surely as conceptual in its way as that of the Bechers and their followers.

The curator for the Elger Esser exhibition Combray (Givernyy) is Zora Carrier who has arranged for Esser to give a lecture on his work and the Combray  series in March. Keep your eye on the FMPA's website for dates and more details.


(1) All quotations by Esser taken fron Jochen Kürten, 'Elger Esser Captures the Landscapes of Longing', Deutsche Welle, 11 July 2012 available at


Elger Esser: Combray, October 4 - March 29, 2014

Florida Museum of Photographic Arts
400 N. Ashley Drive, Cube 200
Tampa, Florida 33602

Date 13.11.2014

Copyright   © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014. Photographs reproduced with the permission of the FMPA

Citation   Alan Ainsworth, 'Elger Esser's Photography - a new romanticism?', 15.11.2014 available at

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(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Exhibition reviews Photography Sun, 16 Nov 2014 14:16:23 GMT
RUTH BERNHARD: BODY AND FORM - Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, Tampa. The Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, which opened in 2001 and now located in the museum quarter in Tampa, has built a reputation for well-curated, stimulating exhibitions. My annual visit coincided with exhibitions by Ruth Bernhard and Elgar Esser (who I'll write about separately). Both exhibitions are well worth visiting if you're in the area.

In an interview a few years before she died, Ruth Bernhard said that  'photographs are really a reflection of the photographer. A photographer’s work is like handwriting. I’m sorry for people who have to put the worst part of themselves in public view.' (1)  Later in the same interview she was explicit about the role of the artist being the creation of beauty. It would be fair to say that the best part of Bernhard is on display in the photographs chosen for the FMPA's exhibition, Ruth Bernhard: Body and Form. If these images are her handwriting, they speak to a kind of delicate harmony which emerges from her eye for the beautiful interaction of light with shapes, form and surface.

Ruth Bernhard, a leading twentieth-century photographer of the nude female, was born in 1905 in Germany. Her father was a graphic who specialized in posters and typeface design. Bernhard studied art in Berlin before following her father to New York City in 1927 where  she worked as a photographer's assistant and began to make personal photographs. During the 1930s, she photographed for her father and for industrial designers. Around 1934, she began making images of women in the nude.

In 1935, Bernhard met photographer Edward Weston who had a major influence on her life. 'When I first saw Weston’s work, I burst into tears. It was a revelation,' she wrote. 'It was as if I were hearing the music of Bach for the first time.' Weston revealed to Bernhard her true artistic path and the exhibition includes what she considered her real first work of art made soon after this encounter: Creation, in which a doll’s head emerges from the darkness cradled in a wooden hand, may convey an obvious message but hints at the inner beauty for which she was now striving. In 1953, Ruth Bernhard moved from to San Francisco where she became part of an influential group of photographers that included Ansel Adams, who considered her one of the greatest photographers of the female nude figure, and Imogen Cunningham. She made her living by photographing a variety of subjects and started teaching, inspiring younger photographers with her emphasis on personal vision and the qualities of light. Public knowledge of her work spread through exhibitions and books of her images. Following an unfortunate accident in the early 1970s she made no new negatives. Bernhard died at her home in San Francisco in 2006.

Bernhard's relationship with Weston was intense though seemingly purely artistic; she had a number of relationships with men and women throughout her life but  always strived to maintain the independence necessary to pursue her own artistic path. Weston's influence is clear in her photographs of nudes in which light is subtly employed to bring out line and shapes like triangles. In the Box (Horizontal), probably her most famous image made in 1962 (above), is unusual in that the figure's face is revealed but in other respects shows her concerns with light and shadow. For Bernhard, a nude was no different from a still life - a subject to be explored and its beauty exposed through the application of light to its shapes and form. Facial expressions were a distraction: 'When the model and the photographer look at each other, it’s very different than seeing a shape that is strong all on it own, without a facial expression. So I don’t have any facial expressions. And if the face is showing, it has to have an inward look, not an outward look. You cannot exchange glances with another person without making it a personal exchange. When you close your eyes and you seem to be alone, that is how I like to have my models in my photographs.'  Consistent with these thoughts, In the Box (Vertical) is a remarkably graphic photograph, an exercise in using photography to reveal hidden forms; the figure's arms stretched to the top of the box, her ribs clearly describing their lines, her head is thrown back to obscure the face.

Alongside her nude studies, we see Bernhard's love of surface, form and line in still life photographs of doorknobs, a dramatically lit skull and rosary, sea shells, seed pods, the surface of leaves and the textures of a hand covered in sand. In each of these she explores an aspect of the subject using light to expose its contours -  sometimes a graphical composition of lifesavers (an American candy) or drinking straws, sometimes an exploration of shapes and at other times the textures of a natural or artificial surface. In all cases, careful composition and tonal range leads our eye to an inherent beauty. I felt that the juxtaposition techniques of the surrealists emerges in a number of compositions - Kitchen Music (1937) in which an egg slicer (remember Ansel Adams' famous still life?) becomes a stringed instrument of some kind - perhaps a harp. A photograph of a desolate Victorian house is full of pathos and a sense of loss; shot through a rain-spattered window, the remains of dead leaves grow up from the lower edge of the frame, emphasising the past nature of the life the house once knew - we are reminded of  of Atget's people-less scenes from old France.

The exhibition's curator, Joanne Milani Cheatham, describes how for Bernhard, the female nude  and still life photographs are capable of conveying the same beauty. Both hold latent within themselves 'an embryonic power' and the photograph has 'the ability to bring life into the future'. It is hard to think of a more accurate precis of Bernhard's artistic goals.

(1) A Conversation with Ruth Bernhard', Interview by Donna Conrad, Photovision: Art and Technique, Vol.1, No.3, 2000


Ruth Bernhard: Body and Form, September 6 - December 28, 2014

Florida Museum of Photographic Arts
400 N. Ashley Drive, Cube 200
Tampa, Florida 33602


Date 13.11.2014

Copyright   © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014. Photographs reproduced with the permission of the FMPA

Citation   Alan Ainsworth, 'Ruth Bernhard: Body and Form - Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, Tampa', Alan Ainsworth Photography, 15.11.2014 available at

Keywords    Photography, Exhibition reviews

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(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Exhibition reviews Photography Thu, 13 Nov 2014 17:43:32 GMT
INSIDE CLYDE BUTCHER'S STUDIO - a master printer at work Clyde Butcher is one of America's leading landscape photographers. He has photographed in most areas of the United States but is probably best known for his work in Florida where he lives. His iconic images of the Everglades are now as well-known as Ansel Adams' photographs of Yosemite and he continues in the tradition of fine art mono landscape photography using traditional darkroom methods pioneered by Adams. Like Adams, Clyde is active in conservation work; his photographs did much to highlight the dangers to the Everglades environment and deserves credit for helping to bring about the policies to protect the wetlands which are now in place.

Clyde's work is distinguished by elegant composition and superb tonal control in the printing process. He differs from Adams in the scale of his work, often printing his negatives up to 60 x 48 inches. At this size, the superb rendition from his large-format view camera, delicate tonal gradations achieved in the printing process and his ability to seize the right moment when natural elements cohere into the perfect composition give his image huge impact. No wonder he is so popular in America today.

Clyde Butcher's large enlarger

Having seen his huge photographs many times, I was pleased to be able to visit Clyde's studio in Venice, Fl. today and joined a tour of the darkroom led by his assistant Paul. In the middle of his huge workspace is the enlarger he uses to project negatives onto sheets of photographic paper to make his large images. Paul explained that when you're working at this size virtually every piece of equipment has to be custom-made. The enlarger is in fact a large commercial view camera which Clyde bought and then adapted himself. The paper is held on a large board which moves along a track to a maximum distance of about 15 feet between the enlarger lens and the paper. Huge home made metal frames which resemble bed frames are used to crop the images. Clyde dodges and burns in the traditional way even on this large scale.

A print about half way along the enlarger track

The enlarger provides c.310mm and c.450mm Nikon lenses Even Clyde's test strips are on a massive scale!

There are 10 enlargers in total in the darkroom, mostly old equipment which Clyde has bought used but all large scale. Paul told us that he often works a number of prints at a time, keeping all the exposure times in his head.

Three of Clyde's 10 enlargers

When the paper has been exposed they are transported into a neighbouring chemical rooms and developed, fixed, stopped and washed much as we all did in our darkroom days, the only difference being the huge scale on which he works.

The chemical tanks in Clyde's darkroom Print drying racks

This was a fascinating look at the studio and work process of a great photographer and superb printer. In discussions with Clyde, everyone wanted to know what he thought of digital imagery. Paul told us that he is experimenting with digital but, at the age of 72, he is unlikely to make any major changes. He is proud of his outstanding skill in traditional wet printing methods and believes the uniqueness of each individual print is what makes film photography a superior process to digital.


Clyde Butcher's photography can be seen at


All text and photographs  © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.







(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Photography Sat, 08 Nov 2014 23:26:47 GMT
O. WINSTON LINK - more than a railway photographer

I confess this post doesn’t sound promising. 

It is about O. Winston Link, a little-known photographer who specialized in photographing steam trains. But stay with me - it’s a fascinating story for any photographer and further testimony to the power of photography to break free of categorization.  

I’d never heard of Link before seeing a small exhibition of his photographs at  The Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. This got me interested and I started to research his work. As well as being technically fascinating, his photographs are a remarkable document of the interaction between technology and the rural environment. Anyone who has ridden American trains will know that even today many lines go right through the centre of small towns which came to depend on the rail link. The intimacy of the relationship between the railroads and settlements is much greater than has been the case in the UK and it is this relationship that Link seems to have spotted and portrayed so well.

Link's lighting rigs

Link made a name for himself by photographing steam trains just at the point they were being phased out, lugging huge self-designed lighting rigs around the hills of Appalachia in search of  old locomotives passing through towns, past houses, stores, swimming pools and interacting at many levels with rural human settlements.  He started shooting the trains of the Norfolk & Western Line in 1955, one of the last routes for the steam engines that had provided the foundation for Americas economic ascendancy in the first half of the century. The company announced a few months later that it planned to shift to diesel and Link decided to document the last of the steam-powered trains.

 Link, a commercial photographer born in New York with an idealized vision of small-town America, made meticulously composed photographs which testify to his engineering training. He compositions could take hours and even days to set up. He usually posed the railway workers for his 'candid' shots. He preferred nighttime shots to avoid the continually shifting intrusions of the sun. He built elaborate lighting arrangements and used multi-camera setups to produce hyper-real  photographs of these massive engines shrouded in clouds of steam. The project, which ended in 1960, also portrayed railway workers and the people and places that lined the tracks.  Link was fascinated by small-town America  and the ideals it represented  although we see now that he was documenting the end of a prosperous Appalachia and the small-towns that lined its hills and valleys.

Surreal yet real - smalltown America and the railroads

Photographing at night allowed Link to present the huge powerful engines as magnificent in their commanding presence, steam plumes dramatically lit by his synchronized Sylvania Blue Dots. The elaborate artificiality of these photographs and strange juxtapositions with people along the line whose lives they affected sometimes seem surreal.  The photos hover somewhere between kitsch, documentary and fine art. But their impact is enormous evoking, as Richard Shepard put it in the New York Times,  'an unmatched sense of Americana, doing for the eyewhat the sound of a wailing whistle in the countryside does for the ear'.

A dedicated museum - the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Va and housed  in an old N&W station -  opened in 2004. A book by Tony Reeve called  O Winston Link: Life along the Line was published a few years ago but doesn't seem to be listed on


Trains that Passed in the Night: The Photographs of O. Winston Link, 

Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 333 E. River Road, Minneapolis 

Until February 9 2015


All text  © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.

(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Exhibition reviews Photography Mon, 27 Oct 2014 16:44:33 GMT
AMERICAN PHOTOGRAPHS - Alec Soth and others in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin

A certain meaning and format has come to be associated with the term "American Photographs" which seems to reflect the detached and laconic fashion in which a number of important photographers there have portrayed their society.

This meaning has evolved as a body of work stretching from Walker Evans (one of whose own photobooks was in fact titled "American Photographs") through Robert Frank, Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld and Alec Soth has taken shape over the last 70 years. "Photographs from within America" comes closer to defining this meaning: a lyrical, detached and often sideways exploration of the soul of America through the photography of the mundane - that sometimes tacky and tasteless yet somehow dignified and always human reality of life in America. The photobook was the chosen format for this work, allowing a narrative to emerge from photographs sequenced to lead - visually and metaphorically - from one to the next.

This body of work is not sufficiently engaged to be labelled documentary photography - although the basis of "American Photographs" was surely laid in the documentary tradition - nor is it in the tradition of overt social comment.  These forms must always particularise their subjects in order to make a message clear. The tradition of 'American Photographs' is more in the nature of an aesthetic investigation which moves beyond the constraints of documentary and social photography through the universalisation of its themes.

The aesthetic purpose behind American Photographs is vividly on display at two (coincidentally) thematically related exhibitions currently running in Wisconsin. As the gateway state  to the American mid-west, this is surely fitting. The Madison Museum of Contempoary Art is showing From Here to There, a retrospective of Alec Soth's photography while the Milwaukee Art Museum has Postcards from America -  pictures of Milwaukee and surrounding communities, from State Fair to women labourers, by Bruce Gilden, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Martin Parr, Paolo Pellegrin, Mark Power, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Jacob Aue Sobol, Alec Soth, Zoe Strauss, and Donovan Wylie.

The exhibition of Minneapolis-based Soth's work is certainly significant. It surveys Soth's work from early mono large-format portraits, mainly taken in Minnesota in the 1990s and in which he found ways of overcoming his shyness in order to photograph people, through to his very latest projects.  Several concerns run through all this work. His Niagra project comprised photographs of urban scenes, decaying motels  and everyday shots of couples - mundanity which contrasts bleakly with the romance and grandeur of the Falls. A photograph of the Surf Ballroom  from 1999, where Buddy Holly played his last concert, summons up the ghost of an American icon. By the 2000s Soth was using an 8 x 10 inch view camera to capture more portraits in Minnesota and Wisconsin, perhaps now more focused on extracting elements of poetry from the everyday. The emptiness of corporate life is evoked in his 2009 multiple candid photographs of The Loneliest Man in Missouri.  His book Sleeping by the Mississippi  casts the river as a metaphor for his (and other peoples') journey in life. A series of 33 photographs of movie theaters returns to the theme of American culture expressed through the aging built environment. His latest project explores people who life in remote, unforgiving place, way from all others and completely off the radar.

Soth's Mary, Milwaukee, WI, 2014 provides the link to the Milwaukee show of Postcards from America.

Soth is one of eight leading Magnum photographers commissioned by curator Lisa Sutcliffe to respond to the city in the own way over the course of a year. Bruce Gilden, Susan Meiselas and Martin Parr came to Milwaukee last summer, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Jacob Aue Sobol and Donovan Wylie came  over the winter and Jim Goldberg, Alec Soth, Paolo Pellegrin, Mark Power and Zoe Strauss were in the city this spring.   Art and photography students acted as guides to the photographers and  Milwaukeeans were invited to share leads with photographers via social media sites. Goldberg, who was looking for particular types of unsung personalities, pursued subjects via Craigslist, Facebook and word-of-mouth. The photos were turned round rapidly for the exhibition in order to respond with immediacy, to share pictures publicly and to create dialogue along the way.

In his extensive portrayals of British life and culture, Martin Parr has shown over many years that the American Photographs aesthetic is not confined to Americans and he responded enthusiastically to the idea of taking pictures in Milwaukee, particularly of the Wisconsin State Fair. Bruce Gilden, who is very well-known for his harsh flash-lit street portraits, took tight, candid street portraits, exploring non-conventional standards of beauty by focusing on people who might be thought unattractive or apparently worn down with worries. Goldberg created a video that draws on the Google Maps-style surveillance we've become so accustomed to. Meiselas was interested in looking at the lives of women in factories. Pellegrin's abstract work looks at Milwaukee from its deserted rail and industrial yards and Donovan Wylie made this remarkable image of the Milwaukee freeway intersection. This is an innovative exhibition in taking the risk of commissioning original works by contemporary artists with relevance to a time and place and engaging  the community.


Alec Soth, From Here to There,

Madison Museum of Contemporary Art from September 13, 2014 through January 4, 2015

Postcards From America, Milwaukee Art Museum, July 10–October 19, 2014

All text  © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Exhibition reviews Photography Fri, 24 Oct 2014 17:03:35 GMT
SARAH CHARLESWORTH 'STILLS' - Chicago Institute of Art As part of their celebration of 50 years of photographic curation, the Art Institute of Chicago is currently showing  'Stills', a work from 1980 by the American artist Sarah Charlesworth (1947-2013). This is an example of the 'unfixed photograph' (co-incidentally the title of another exhibition running at the same time) i.e. the appropriation of photography as an element in an artistic medium.

'Stills' comprises a series of 14 very large photographs (78 inches tall) of solitary people falling from buildings - presumably to their deaths. To make these images, Charlesworth roughly tore photographs out of newspapers and magazines, re-photographed them on mat board and then enlarged them to a such a size that they were the first large scale photographs used in contemporary art. They are grainy, as the originals were, and presented as documentary evidence. Yet the photographs in the show (6 of which previously not exhibited) marry conceptual art and documentary reportage - an important moment in American contemporary art with the emergence of the Pictures Generation, a loose-knit group of artists working in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s concerned with how images shape our everyday lives and society as a whole.

What is that gives these photographs their impact? Charlesworth understood that by extracting the photographs from their original context as small indistinct images in newsprint and enlarging them to the point that their defects are pushed into the background by the immediacy of their size, a degree of realism emerges which is unavoidable and shocking. You don't have to be as queasy about heights  as I am to shudder when you look at these photographs. With their arms and legs flailing wildly, the real shock is seeing something so real and knowing that it did not end well.

I found the most striking image to be that of a woman falling horizontally in front of a shop front. We know that she is milli-seconds from hitting the sidewalk, yet our eye moves from the woman to the mundane signs on the facade of the building- a barber's pole, an advertisement for coffee and sandwiches at 10c. and a notice ironically saying "it hurts". This juxtaposition of the awfulness of the event with significations of the everyday is certainly powerful.


Charlesworth seems to have expected that her work would be  associated with “Falling Man,” the harrowing Associated Press photograph of a man jumping to his death from the North Tower on September 11, 2001. I noticed that several reviews suggested that the figures were somehow abstracted but I cannot agree with this. The falling figures are frozen with such immediacy that it is impossible not to complete the jump subjectively - with its terrible consequences.


Sarah Charlesworth, 'Stills',  Chicago Art Institute from 17 September 2014 to 4 January 2015


All text  © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Exhibition reviews Photography Thu, 16 Oct 2014 00:36:28 GMT

Why has black and white photography been able to maintain a vibrant presence in a world dominated by color images? The answer must be that monochrome images are particularly effective in conveying ideas directly and with impact, unmediated by colour tones. Taken to its extreme, then, pure black and white, without intermediate grey tones, should be even more powerful. A fascinating exhibition of over 140 examples of Mexican political poster lithography and paintings currently running at the Baker Gallery of the Artis-Naples, Florida, shows how true this can be.

This outstanding exhibition, Art as Activism: Taller de Gráfica Popular, is the result of an important donation to the Baker Museum by Harry Pollak, a noted south eastern collector of Mexican art, and the particular emphasis of the show is the work of the artists associated with the Taller de Gráfica Popular (People's Graphic Workshop, TGP). Established in 1937 by a collective of revolutionary artists during the years of instability which followed the Mexican revolution of 1910, the TGP workshop produced hard-hitting posters promoting the cause of reform and highlighting the hardship of the Mexican working class and peasantry. Many of these artists were previously unknown to me but, like the better-known Diego Riviera, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Siqueros, the aesthetic of the artists associated with TGP drew on the satirical social critiques of the printmaker Jose Guadaloupe Posada (1852-1913). International infuences on these artists are also evident, particularly German expressionism and the visual impact of the Soviet avant-garde.

Riviera and Siqueros had been among the founders in 1934 of the Liga de Escritoras y Artistas Revolutionarios, LEAR, whose communist affiliations led its artists to devote their art to the revolutionary cause. LEAR was soon disbanded, but was succeeded by Siqueros' Taller-Escuela de Artes Plasticas, TEAP. The TGP stemmed from both these organisations as a centre for politically-committed graphic arts. TGP produced posters, leaflets and other material to promote the cause of marginal and dispossessed groups in Mexico, in support of education and literacy campaigns, support of women in traditional as well as political roles and improvements in living conditions, housing and infrastructure. They were pasted onto walls or handed out to workers at demonstrations, and a number of supporting materials at the exhibitions gives context to this usage. There are photographs of walls in Mexico City plastered with posters from the presses of TGP, samples of various types of printed materials, newspapers and manifestos, and even a printing press from the period. Over time the concerns of the TGP widened; under the direction from 1942 of Hannes Meyer, formerly a director of the Bauhaus, the attentions of the Taller artists inevitably turned towards international politics and the crusade against fascism.

Siqueros, Orozco and Riviera are represented only tangentially. The large photographs of the Gabino Ortiz public library, created by President Cardenas and with murals by Orozco was a discovery for me. His eight murals and two frescos create a tableau of social comment which looks down on the readers in the library. Around these photographs the murals are reproduced as lithographs. With titles like las Massas, Fusilamiento del Gral Alvarez, they offer a searing and stark critique of huddled masses, murders and cruelty. Riviera is represented by a peon to the power of collective labour, his Sawing Rails, a product of his 10 month stay in Moscow in 1927 (see above). Siqueros' painting Imprisoned Farmer may be well-known but its stark realism ensures its impact.

The significance of this exhibition is the introduction it provides to around 30 artists of the TGP. An information board helpfully gives us brief information about each, but we discover them primarily through their single-minded black and white lithography and the activities they represented or causes they promoted. These artists grasped the essential that, so long as their black and white posters conveyed one simple idea, the medium was perfectly suited to getting across messages to a population among whom illiteracy rates were sky-high. Satirical portraits of cruel masters and politicians are favoured subjects: Posters from Ignacio Aguirre and Fernando Pacheco show the ruthless President Huerta murdering his political opponents and those by Isidoro Ocampo and Alfredo Zalce satirise Huerta ruthlessly for his actions during the '10 tragic days' of 1913. Francisco Mora's Contradictions Under Ruiz Cortines (left) graphically illustrates the church sheltering state oppression. Popular uprisings were well-represented in the work of TGP artists. A late poster (1960) by Alberto Beltran depicts guerilla activity while Emiliano Zapata, the heroic popular leader of the southern Mexican peasants, is illustrated by Mariana Yampolsky, Sarah Jimenez, Ignacio Aguirre and Angel Bracho.

Other posters celebrate the role and contribution of Mexican women. While paintings by Alfonso Zalce and Maximo Pacheco show women in traditional Mexican roles other posters portray them as soldadera and revolutionaries, or heroic figures like Josefa Ortiz de Zdominguez, a woman who fought tirelessly for the rights the indigenous Mexican people and who is vividly captured by Elena Huerta. TGP artists designed posters promoting education and literacy campaigns, particularly in the 1920s when President Obrehon forced through reforms. The campaigns of industrial nationalisations carried out by President Cardenas in the 1930s spurred the TGP artists to produce posters celebrating Mexico's agrarian reforms: Luis Arenal depicted how Mexico lays Claim to its Electrical Resources, Ignacio Aguirre pictured The National Petrochemistry and Celia Calderon symbolised the country as a woman carefully harvesting her resources in her Mexico, Owner of all its Resources (above). The broadening of the TGP's horizon's in the 1930s and '40s spurred a number of depictions of world affairs. Leopold Mendez, Mexico in the War: The Labourers go to the United States, 1960 (above) shows how carefully composition adds to the power of the message. Shocking images by Jose Chavez Morado, Iron Mask and Death, War Science, 1953, evoke the horrors of war.  TGP artists also explored significant moments in Mexican history, such as the Franco-Mexican war of 1861-67 and the revolution of 1910. Luis Arenal's Juan Alvarez and the Ayuta Plan, 1960, commemorates the liberal movement of 1854. Sarah Jiménez celebrated the constitutional reforms of Benito Juárez in the mid-nineteenth century in her Juárez and the Reform, 1960.   There are a number of paintings in this exhibition which show how the work of these artists was not simply confined to poster art. Two significant works are Alfredo Zalce's Woodcutter and the surrealist-inspired painting called Mule Drivers by Gullermo Meza.


Art as Activism: The Taller de Gráfica Popular Artis-Naples, The Baker Gallery Naples, Florida

September 6-October 5 2014


All text  © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.

(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Exhibition reviews Wed, 24 Sep 2014 12:54:10 GMT

Photography challenges the idea that rapid take-up and commercialisation of new technology is a feature of the modern age. Within just a few years of its introduction in 1839, photography had spread rapidly, not just in France, England and other European countries but to America and Asia.  The Photographers' Gallery's latest exhibition 'Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia', which surveys the uses of colour photography  from the 1860s to the 1980s, demonstrates that photography rapidly gained a foothold in this country too. Just as the colourful primrose flowers early in Russia, so to did her photographers experiment with colour from a very early stage. Interestingly, its trajectory paralelled that of western Europe, at least until it was derailed by the communist interregnum.

The exhibition shows that Russia, often regarded as 'backward' (not least by Lenin and the Bolsheviks), embraced the new technology. As in England, France and America, photographers were not slow in opening commercial studios and making the portrait photographs which affluent families required to bolster their self-image, parade their children in national costumes and celebrate the military exploits (or at least the splendid uniforms) of the sons.  As early as the 1860s, hand-tinted colour portraits were emerging in great numbers from the studios of A. Nechayev, Usnakov & Eriks, Eihenwald, Pavlov and Fedestsky, while V. Yankovsky and P. T. Ivanov made portraits of the officer class in their uniforms. Also similar to other countries was the way in nostalgic themes and pictorialist photography was evident in images of landscapes and panoramas while a  whole series of images of children and adults in Tatar, Caucasian, Ukrainian and other national costumes demonstrates the abiding interest in the traditional nationalities of Russia.  Yelena Meozovskaya's remarkable portrait 'Little Girl in Russian Costume' from the 1900s seamlessly blends photography and overpainting.

Hand-tinted architectural photographs became commonplace, many by photographers associated with religious studios such as the Trinity Sergius monastery.  Alongside idealised family portraits, nostalgic themes and pictorialist escapism, Russian photographers celebrated modern achievements mirroring the twin-concerns of photographers elsewhere. In the early-twentieth century the Royal family sponsored Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii, himself an innovator in colour imagery, to document in colour the various regions of their empire much as official commissions in England and France had been tasked with recording the changing urban landscape as modernisation advanvced. Dimitri Yezuchevsky's 'Construction of a Bridge' is an example of industrial photographs which began to appear as interior decoration. Russian photographers quickly adapted technological developments, importing and mass producing the Lumiere brothers autochromes technology. Russian photography continued to evolve: in the idyllic summer of 1914, Russian portrait photography seems to have become less formal, even modern in its muted colours and loose compositions. Only months before the carnage was unleashed, Vedenisov' portraits of children and their families on the swings of sunlit gardens feel fresh, contemporary; the podtrait of 'Sofia Andreyevna Kozakov' is relaxed, intimately-composed and protomodernist. 

To judge from this exhibition, there was little or no interest among Russian photographers in documenting other cultures in the way that Gustav Le Gray in France or John Thompson in England had done. Yet, on the eve of the first world war, trends within Russian photography appear to have been broadly similar to those in France, England and America: photography had rapidly commercialised to meet the apparently insatiable demand for portraits; adopting pictorialism, some photographers sought to glorify natural or traditional subjects while others embraced the modern industrial  achievements; documenting a changing world  and a fascination with architectural subjects prevailed.

All was to change with the Russian Revolution in 1917. Lenin and the Bolscheviks embraced photography as a weapon of propaganda and by the mid-1920s were encouraging photomontage as a means of fostering the socialist myth. With official endorsement, colour Photomontage was turned into a 'visual weapon' by avant-garde artists like Rodchenko, Gustav Klutsis, El Lissitsky and Varvara Stepanova. These artists produced posters lauding the promise of a new society. Rodchenko revived hand-colouring and embraced positive-negative techniques for both propaganda posters and intimate portraits. His 'Portrait of Regina Lemberg' (1935), with its unusual angles and sculptural lighting, presents a sharp contrasts with traditional portraiture made just a few years earlier.

By this point, Russia was leading artistic photographic innovation, its avant-garde experiments reverberrating across Europe and America and influencing photographers as diverse as Alfred Steiglitz and Laszlo Maholy-Nagy. Yet this was to be the last flowering of photographic modernism in Russian before the dead hand of socialist realism squashed innovation. In 1932 socialist realism was made offical policy and all photography studios were soon outlawed; photography became a monopoly tool of the state. Modernist, constructivist and pictorialist modes were proscribed and a bland form of idealised documentary photograhy glorified the achievements of the socialist state. Many photographers were imprisoned and those who were freed, like the former pictoriaist Vasily Ulitin, tried with some difficulty to adapt to approved revolutionary subject matter.As the socialist dream faded, Rodchenko returned in the 1930s to classical themes like ballet and opera adopting the aesthetic of his erstwhile pictorialist enemies and miroring their retreat into inner space as a defence against the realities of life.

Without domestic colour film production, these photograhers relied on German or American stock. Colour film production started in Russian in 1946 but was only made available to officially approved photographers - such as Ivan Shagin's colour photo reportage of the USSR - producing the staged reportage and other ideologically sound images (see his 'Student' from the 1950 s opposite). In the 1960s and '70s, after the Khrushchev 'thaw', Vladislav Mikosha, Georgy Petrusov, Dimitry Baltermants (well represented in the exhibition) and Vsevolod Tarasevich photographed Russian life in the approved style. These photographs remain stilted although the exhibition notes suggest that the Khruschev years tolerated a degree of humanism and genuine reportage.  Generally though Baltermant's portrayals of Soviet life in the 1950s fail to escape the blandness required for official approval, but several examples manage to break through the restrictions. An image of a show-window from the early-1970s shows luxury goods unavailable to the general population set against the reflections of modern high-rise buildings;  this could be an image from the modern city. The high vantage point he adopted for a striking composition called 'Rain' is a strong graphic achievement.

By the 1950s and '60s hand-coloured portrait photographs had begun to reappear as underground photographers tried to subvert official policy. In the 1960s and '70s, as colour diapositive film became available, photography began to form an important patt of this unofficial art challening the official communist othodoxy.  Boris Mikhailov is presented by the Photographers'Gallery exhibition as the leading exponent of the trend twoards subverting images from the communist past. He rephotographed and and enlarged the kitsch output of official photographic policy in a secret laboratory, tinting the originals in garish colours in order to undermine the false presentation of the socialist ideal; the deconstruction in images of the official Soviet myth was an approach which would become the basis of a new aesthetic in the 1980s. By hand-colouring the stultified output of  the past, Mikhailov's series 'Suzy Et Cetra' uses diapositive film to record the squalid reality of soviet life in the '70s. As the notes to the Photographers' Gallery exhibition put it:" Using colour, [Mikhailov] showed the cheerless sameness and squalor of everyday life and...helped to unify people whose consciousness and life had begun to escape from the dogmatic net of Soviet ideology whoch only allowed for one colour - red"

An exhibition at Tate Modern in 2011 showed how Mikhailov built on these ideas with his project 'Red', in which he sets up in order to undermine the pervading atmospshere of the communist ethos. The exhibition comprised around 70 images hung as a huge rectangle; the pervading colour in these images is red.  Throughout these images of all aspects of everyday life under an oppressive regime, we see bright red swimsuits, lipstick, sheets, blood, signs, typography and signs,  These images give us the clear impressison that virtually all important aspects of life were dominated by this colour symbol of the pervading regime and how the regime seeped into life and the way it was lived.

For photographers, this is a distinctive approach: the use of colour as the the most important among a number of organising elements in making a political statement.Of course, colour is often considered as superficial and this is Mikhailov's point.  The regime atatempted to control all aspects of life and the most visible symbol of this was the colour red.  Yet we see how this was surface while the essence of life continued much as it does elsewhere.



Primrose: Early Colour Photography in Russia
The Photographers' Gallery, Ramilles Place, London, until October 9, 2014

Boris Mikhailov, 'Red'
Tate Modern, March 2011


All text  © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014. Photographs from the Photographers' Gallery website.

(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Photography Mon, 22 Sep 2014 10:55:16 GMT
FRANCESCA WOODMAN, 'ZIGZAG', VICTORIA MIRO GALLERY Artists who choose to make themselves the subject of their work are obvious targets for the charge of narcissism while  figurative personal elements in their work militate against the subtleties of ambiguity.  Francesca Woodman, an exhibition of whose photographs opened today at the Victoria Miro gallery in London, was able to avoid these pitfalls. This is, perhaps, why I have always been a fan of her photography.

In this new exhibition the Victoria Miro Gallery is showing 25 of Woodman's photographs, ten newly-released from the artist's archive of over 800 images, around the figurative theme of the 'ZigZag'; most are small (10 x 8") square photographs, beautifully mounted in mid-grey frames while two large sepia-toned images offer composite ensembles of zigzag effects which Woodman herself described  as '...a long string of images held together by a long compositional zigzag, thus the corner of a building in one frame fits into the elbow of a girl in the next frame into a book in the third frame'. She went on to describe these photographs as 'very personal mysterious ones and harsh images of outdoor city life'.

Born in 1958 In Denver, Colorado, Francesca Woodman lived and worked in New York until her early death in 1981 and has been exhibited widely since. Her work is often described as containing surreal and symbolic imagery but the use of recurring compositional motifs is equally present. Certainly, her photographs are immediately recognisable: Woodman herself features in the majority of her images and the mise-en-scène almost always comprises deserted houses, bare floorboards and walls with only sparse use of other objects within the frame. Within this minimal palette of elements, Woodman's skill as a photographer allowed her to create images which set out as realistic representation but which quickly shade into ambiguity without one really noticing when the shift occurred. And here precisely lies her skill in the medium: without the advantages of digital post-production techniques, Woodman's handing of the camera as a tool of both representation and ambiguity represents the hugely impressive core of her art.

The starting point for many of Woodman's projects was often a representational or graphical figure - bridges, tiaras and - in the case of this exhibition - the ZigZag. Combining this point of departure with (in most cases) her own body within the frame, we start with what appears to be a representational image. Adroitly deploying the graphical theme, in many of these photographs the artist's body is set against the fall of light or form of another object to create a zigzag figure. Sometimes Woodman's arms or legs create the shape; in other images, her body is combined with material ot lighting to form a zigzag. All the photographs are superbly handled and many show an acute yet delicate use of light.

Yet these are not mere representational photographs. In each, an element of ambiguity creeps in. Sometimes an insertion in the image seems to distort our perception - perhaps a diamond or square shape comprised of material, a blurred element within an otherwise sharply-focused image or perhaps a piece of pure surrealism as with a door floating in mid-air. In every case though these insertions undermine the reality of the images, introducing a sense of indeterminacy. We seem to be looking at the real world - a real figure in an all-too-real desolate setting - without being able to grasp the reality of the scene. Woodman's approach is unsettling, throwing us off balance as we struggle to understand the reality of the scene presented to us.

If Woodman herself is the subject of all her photographs - whether or not she appears in each, although she does in the majority - we have no sense of the narcissism of the performance artist.  Look through all these photographs and we observe or sense her presence; but we do not know her. Her face is usually excluded from the frame. When it appears, it is more than half-hidden by her hair, material of some other object. The ambiguity is compounded and Woodman avoids the ultimate trap of resolving the image into herself through the zigazg - an ambiguous graphical device, seemingly rhythmically flux without a sense of resolution.

Victoria Miro Mayfair, 14 St. George Street, London, W1S 1FE. Exhibition runs 9 September to 4 October 2014



(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Exhibition reviews Photography Thu, 11 Sep 2014 07:26:36 GMT

Portland Building (1982), Michael Graves

The news that Michael Graves' seminal postmodern work, the the 15-storey Portland Public Services Building, is under threat of demolition only 32 years after completion following news that the building needs more than $95 million worth of repairs, raises some questions about the longevity of postmodernism.

Michael Graves (b.1934) is an American architect whose firm, Michael Graves & Associates, has built an international reputation since Graves founded the practice in 1964.  MGA is responsible for master plans, architecture and interiors of over 350 buildings worldwide, including hotels and resorts, restaurants, retail stores, civic and cultural projects, office buildings, healthcare, residences and a wide variety of academic facilities. Michael Graves belonged to the group of five New York City architects (Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, John Hejduk  and Richard Meier and Graves) who had a common allegiance (stemming from the mentoring role of Philip Johnson) to a pure form of architectural modernism. Their book, Five Architects, published in 1972 evoked a stinging rebuke in 1973 in a group of essays, "Five on Five", written by architects Romaldo Giurgola, Allan Greenberg, Charles Moore, Jaquelin T. Robertson, and Robert A. M. Stern. Known as the "Grays", these architects attacked the "Whites" on the grounds that their pursuit of the pure modernist aesthetic resulted in unworkable buildings that were indifferent to site, indifferent to users, and divorced from daily life. The "Grays" were aligned with Philadelphia architect Robert Venturi and the emerging interest in vernacular architecture and early postmodernism. 

Certainly, Graves’ earliest designs show the strong influence of purist modernist principles, especially those of the great modernist theorist Le Corbusier.  However, he was to move away from modernism towards the post-modern movement in architecture. While it displays modernist ideas and geometries, the Snyderman house in Fort Wayne, Indiana (1972-77) was also considered a transitional work for Graves, bridging from his earlier modernist phase to an emerging approach that would break away from strict principles of modernism.

In 1977, Graves heralded a new movement in architecture with a groundbreaking home design on a hillside in Warren, New Jersey. Echoing elements of an Italian palazzo Graves’ design for Plocek house did more than just break free of the constraints of modernism. He playfully connected with architectural history, helping to create a new vocabulary of design that would inform an emerging school of postmodernism.


Effectively burning his modernist credentials, Michael Graves’ Portland Building boldly showed what was next: postmodernism, writ large. In this high-rise civic structure, his unorthodox use of color, texture, and classical allusion defied modernist principles – and provoked broad debate.  The Portland Building truly put Graves’ postmodern ideas on the map. With its vibrant colors and classical references, the 15-story Portland Building helped spark a new architectural movement. Its significance led the building to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.  Above the front entrance is a statue of “Portlandia” that Graves conceived, designed, and named. The statue, installed in 1985, was executed in hammered copper by sculptor Raymond Kaskey. Architectural historian Charles Jencks underlined the importance of the building in his influential book The Language of Post-Modern Architecture: "The Portland still is the first major monument of Post-Modernism, just as the Bauhaus was of Modernism, because with all its faults it still is the first to show that one can build with art, ornament, and symbolism on a grand scale, and in a language the inhabitants understand."

However, the Portland Building has been plagued with major structural problems and defects ever since its completion, many of which are attributed to the tight $25 million budget of the original construction.The possible  demolition of the Portland Building is one of several options under consideration by city officials following a recent analysis of the building's condition. According to the assessment, a complete overhaul of the building would require $95 million (£58 million), while replacing it or relocating could cost anything between $110 million and $400 million (£67 million and £243 million).

The Graves design had won a 1980 competition chaired by Philip Johnson. According to Randy Gragg, the former architecture critic of The Oregonian, “Johnson was really only interested in changing the dialogue around architecture at that time, and Graves was his boy.” The design won in part, says Gragg, because the energy crisis dictated the need for an efficient building. In that era, that meant minimizing the glass, and Graves obligingly supplied the notoriously small windows that have led to unhappy, sunlight-starved public servants. Actually, as Jencks has written, Graves was forced to win the competition twice, because his initial victory was challenged by the local AIA chapter, which suggested his design belonged in Las Vegas. Graves prevailed in part because, according to Jencks, “his scheme was the cheapest.”

Costs at the Portland Building were cut to the bone and structural problems were first discovered during construction. These were fixed, but there was more trouble in the 1990s. In late 2013, a survey determined that the building was leaking and structurally deficient and needed a $95 million rehabilitation. The recommendation of the report was to renovate the structure, which would take two years and require finding a temporary home for 1300 employees. However, city commissioners have branded it a "white elephant" and are considering pulling down both this building and a neighbouring courthouse to make way for an all-new public services complex.

Graves went on to design and complete other striking postmodern buildings. He was commissioned in 1990 to renovate and design an extension to the Denver Central Library. Sited next to Daniel Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum, the Denver Central Library is one of the  largest libraries in the United States and attracts over a million readers each year. Graves designed a series of abstracted classical forms, natural materials and colors commonly characteristic of the postmodern mind but attempted to allow the existing library  building designed by Burnham Hoyt in 1956 to maintain its own identity.  So Graves’ addition and the original library are two parts in a larger composition that are connected by a three story atrium which serves as a new main entrance that becomes the main focal point for visitors  and circulation to either wing of the library.  The interior of the library is fairly conservative when it comes to the decorative aesthetics.  Most of the spaces appear to be traditional library spaces composed of natural wood.  Only in the reading rooms is there any trace of the post-modern aesthetic.

There is no news yet on the decision whether to demolish the Portland Building.


All text and photographs © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014




(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Architecture Photography Sun, 22 Jun 2014 16:45:00 GMT

The École de Nancy Museum

Central panels of the vitriol “La Salle” - “Colombe et Paon”, c1904 Jacques Gruber (1870-1936)Central panels of the vitriol “La Salle” - “Colombe et Paon”, c1904 Jacques Gruber (1870-1936)Central panels of the vitriol “La Salle” - “Colombe et Paon”, c1904
Jacques Gruber (1870-1936)

Photographic reconstruction of the verandah window at Maison de la Salle, 4 rue de Général Drouot in Nancy.

The École de Nancy was an important arm of the European art nouveau movement and the École de Nancy Museum is one of the few museums in France dedicated solely to this artistic movement. The movement was founded in 1901 by Émile Gallé, Louis Majorell, Victor Prouvé, Antonin Daum, Eugène Vallin and, later, Jacques Gruber. I visited the museum recently and can certainly recommend it. Salle à manger, 1903-1906 Eugène Vallin (1856-1922) in collaboration with Victor Prouvé (1858-1943)Salle à manger, 1903-1906 Eugène Vallin (1856-1922) in collaboration with Victor Prouvé (1858-1943)Salle à manger, 1903-1906
Eugène Vallin (1856-1922) in collaboration with Victor Prouvé (1858-1943)

This collection was commissioned by Charles Masson for his apartment in the rue Mazagran in Nancy. Vallin created the furniture and the ébéniserie. In 1903, Prouvé provided the moquettes du bûcheron de la ciminée and the vendengeuse du buffet, the panneaux de cuirs for the walls in 1905 and in 1906 he pained the panneaux de toile marouflée on the ceiling on there theme of the five senses. The assembly was moved to Masson’s new apartment in Paris during the first world war. It was recreated in this form in 1961 and slightly modified to fit the dimensions of the present room.
The museum is housed in a property formerly owned by Jean-Baptiste Eugène Corbion, an important patron and collector of École de Nancy artwork. The garden was restored in 1998 in École de Nancy style as well as an oak door  created in 1897 by Eugène Vallin at the request of Emile Gallé for his workshop, a funerary monument, erected in 1901 at the Preville cemetery in Nancy and the work of the architect Girard and Parisian sculptor Pierre Roche and the pavilion aquarium  attributed to the architect Lucien Weissenburger and decorated with Jacques Gruber's  stained glass. PIano à la queue, 1878 Auguste Majorelle (1825-1879)PIano à la queue, 1878 Auguste Majorelle (1825-1879)PIano à la queue, 1878
Auguste Majorelle (1825-1879)

Piano made by Mangeot Frères et Cie., decorated by Majorelle.
Inside the museum, furniture, objets d'art, glasswork, ceramics and fabrics show the diversity of techniques employed by the École de Nancy artists. The museum does not aim for a strict recreation of the 1900s décor, but instead tries to reproduce the atmosphere and ambiance of the period by placing the artwork in an appropriate context. The small wood inlaid furniture, acid engraved glass and ceramics demonstrate how important the thos of  'art for all' was for art nouveau artists. 

Aube et Crépuscule bed, 1904 Émile Gallé (1846-1904)Aube et Crépuscule bed, 1904 Émile Gallé (1846-1904)Aube et Crépuscule bed, 1904
Émile Gallé (1846-1904)

Commissioned by the Parisian magistrate Henri Hirsch
There is an extensive collection of glass and ceramic works by Émile Gallé in the museum including examples of Gallé's furniture designs including Les Parfums d'autrefois ("The Scents of the Past"), Le Rhin ("the Rhine") table and the Aube et Crépuscule ("Dawn and Twilight”) bed. Louis Majorell's  elegant furniture is also on display, a notable example of which is the grand piano decorated with pinecone motifs and Victor Prouvé's  marquetry design. Prouvé contributed to the production and realization of the extraordinary Masson dining room. Carried out in 1904 by Charles Masson, brother-in-law of Eugène Corbin, the dining room affirms Vallin’s virtuosity and demonstrates École de Nancy’s originality in its search for the unity of art. Library Banquette, 1902 Eugène Vallin (1856-1922)Library Banquette, 1902 Eugène Vallin (1856-1922)Library Banquette, 1902
Eugène Vallin (1856-1922)

Commissioned in 1902 by the coal merchant Jules Kronberg for his house in the Blvd. Lobau in Nancy. The glasswork is attributed to Jacques Gruber, drapery to Charles Fridrich


Musée de l’École de Nancy
36 - 38 rue du Sergent Blandan
54000 Nancy
Email : [email protected]

Wednesday to Sunday, from 10:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Architecture Art Photography Wed, 18 Jun 2014 18:30:00 GMT

Funding for the new Seattle Central Library building was provided by a $196.4 million bond issue approved by Seattle voters on November 3, 1998. The project also received a $20 million donation from Bill Gates.

The Seattle Public Library's Central Library is an 11-story (56 mtr.) glass and steel building in downtown Seattle. It was opened to the public on Sunday, May 23, 2004. Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of OMA/LMN were the principal architects, Magnusson Klemencic Associates and Arup were the structural engineers and Hoffman Construction Company of Portland, Oregon, was the general contractor. The 34,000 m² public library can hold about 1.45 million books and other materials, has underground public parking for 143 vehicles, and includes over 400 computers open to the public. Over 2 million individuals visited the new library in its first year.

The library has a unique, striking appearance, consisting of several discrete "floating platforms" which appear to be wrapped in a large steel net around glass skin. Although the library is an unusual shape from the outside, the architects' philosophy was to let the building's required functions dictate what it should look like, rather than imposing a structure and making the functions conform to that. The "Books Spiral," is designed to display the library's nonfiction collection without breaking up the Dewey Decimal System classification onto different floors or sections. The collection spirals up through four stories on a continuous series of shelves. This allows readers to browse the entire collection without using stairs or traveling to a different part of the building. Other internal features include anAuditorium on the ground floor, the "Living Room" on the third floor (designed as a space for patrons to read), the Mixing Chamber (a version of a reference desk that provides interdisciplinary staff help for patrons who want to have questions answered or do research), and a Reading Room, with views of Elliott Bay, on Level 10.

The opinion of architectural critics and the general public has been mixed. Whilst the exterior is striking the interior seemed to me to be functional, the fixtures don't look the best quality and seem not to have worn particularly well. There seemed to be vast areas of open speace which might have been usefully employed. It will be interesting see what the building looks like in 20 years' time.

All photographs (c) Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014

(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Architecture Photography Travel Sun, 01 Jun 2014 09:30:00 GMT

Cuban Art

Here in Naples, Florida, the von Liebig Art Museum has just opened an exhibition of Cuban Art with over 30 exhibits comprising paintings, photography, and mixed media from private and public collections. There   are exhibits from artists who live in Cuba  as well as from Cuban-American artists  in the US.

One might have thought of Cuba as a closed country and its art relatively homogeneous.  But the art of Cuba, at least judging by this exhibition,  seems to be very varied: there are bight, colorful images, sometimes drawing on African or folk themes, mono photography, abstracts and representational paintings.  It makes one realise that Cuba seems to have been fairly liberal in it's treatment of artists - as the curator pointed out in her introduction, probably because the Castros know the value of art to the island.

For all that, there seems to be a different between the artists in Cuba and those who have left.  “You get two points of view, one from the artists who have left Cuba and see the voyage they made to freedom, but who recognize that they left behind much that was important to them. ...If you’re living in Cuba, you’re not going to be making overt political statements,” Damian said.

One  artist prominent artist is Eduardo Miguel Abela Torrás. Another  is Eduardo Roca Salazar ("Choco"). He creates limited edition collagraphs, and his subject matter frequently includes human figures. He is a distinguished printmaker who lives and works in Havana and his expressionistic prints are full of Caribbean color. They are simple, powerful images that are enlivened by intricate textural details.

Lydia Rubio was born in Cuba and now lives in Miami. Her paintings of landscapes, birds, and women who resemble classical goddesses have an airy, delicate quality.  Cirenaica Moreira is a photographer living in Cuba who creates sensual, poetic and sometimes disturbing images that explore her experiences as a woman, often using herself as a subject.

Humberto Castro, who was born in Cuba in 1957 and lived there until 1989. His paintings are haunting and nostalgic, focused on isolated figures that express a sense of transience and dislocation. He is fascinated by ancient mythologies of distant journeys and exile from a familiar home.

I got the clear impression from Damian that she thinks Cuban art will become the next hot area for collectors, particularly when the country opens up, as many assume it will do post-Castro.



(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Exhibition reviews Tue, 20 May 2014 18:02:00 GMT

The beach at Dungeness

A couple of straightforward shots from the shingle beach at Dungeness.








(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Photography Sun, 11 May 2014 17:45:00 GMT

The shape of pylons




Pylons are ugly things but sometimes make strong graphics.  These two images were taken around Dungeness and rely on the strong shapes and lines created by the pylons and the cables against a setting sun.





(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Photography Fri, 02 May 2014 06:18:00 GMT

The desert of Dungeness

Dungeness, a stretch of shingle at the most southerly point in Kent  pointing out in to the channel, is an unusual  place.   Dungeness is a wild, isolated, and constantly shifting lunar landscape and is the only officially-designated area of desert  in the UK. Although on the coast and surrounded by large man-made lakes the climate is very dry and water scarce and what at first glance seem lifeless peddles and shingle dominate the landscape. I have read it described as  the English Seaside redesigned by Tim Burton.

But it isn't lifeless.  Dungeness is an important bird reserve as well as being home to various rare species of plant, insect and animal and is a Designated Special Area of Conservation. Bird species seen in the area include the Smew, Bittern, Slavonian grebe, Wheatear, Marsh Harrier, Stonechart and Cormorant. Hundreds of moth species along with the protected medicinal leech and great crested newt also find home amongst the lakes and shingle. 

Dungeness Point also attracts a certain type of person who chooses to live there . There are around 80 scattered houses, huts and sheds, and these provide their occupants with the isolation and quiet not found anywhere else in the country.  Many of the homes are converted rolling stock from the Southern Railway and contribute to the distinct look of the area. Fishermen, artists, the occasional worker at the Nuclear power station that overshadows much of the area and those looking to escape the pace and stress of modern life live in these unique, eclectic homes. Perhaps the most famous is film maker Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage, although the Rubber House – a traditional Dungeness Cottage encased entirely in black rubber - and the Mad Max bunker (a boys den built out of drift wood and complete with Union Jack flag) are also well known landmarks. 


I spent a few hours there and enjoyed poking around in the many  abandoned huts.  The shot above came from one of these, where the old fishing nets and other paraphenalia  evoked its former use.  It's an HDR image - normally a grungy technique, but one which I think works well here.


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Photography Thu, 01 May 2014 18:04:00 GMT

Jeanne Simone street theatre at Sotteville

My visit to the Sotteville street theatre festival in June was enhanced by the presence of Dr Susan Haedicke, who is an expert in this type of performance art and has written extensively on the subject.  She introduced me to two actors from the Jeanne Simone Company, who are pictured here, and we later witnessed one of their street "interventions".  

This is an except from the report of a lecture she gave on their work:

The first video Haedicke showed was initially confusing. It was a 3-minute excerpt of a 45-minute film of the Jean Simone street theatre company. The actors in the clip repeated bizarre movements, such as circling a streetlight pole, while keeping their heads touching the pole, this movement complemented by wild arm flailing. Viewers could have been puzzled by what sort of radical change would come of a performance like the one featured.  The presenter responded to such criticism of this performance by explaining that these performances constitute events, not content. The performers have targeted the “perception,” “disgust” and “tension” of the public bystanders.

 From the point of view of a photographer, the opportunity to photograph these actors in one of their performances was a chance to portray ambiguity.  Without background information, the viewer of these images would probably describe them as a street "incident", but it's hard to know what's going on.  Is the woman in the top picture a dancer who's decided to use the road to practice? has she lost her mind?  has the man just had a row with her?  are the three people in the middle image embarassed by her antices and have to look away?  was the bottom image taken seconds after a mugging?  if not, why is the woman on the road?




Susan emphasises the way this type of theatre aims to bring about radical change in attitudes. Thanks to Susan, I had a chance to talk with the actors and I liked and understood the emphasis they place on the relationship between their actions and the space in which they take place.  Part of their aim at least is to get the "audience" (actually, a large group of people following them round the streets) to reassess the space and look at at it in a very different way.  I think they achieve this objective.


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Photography Street theatre Travel Thu, 20 Mar 2014 07:15:00 GMT

Street theatre in Rouen

There is a strong tradition of street theatre in northern Europe and the annual festival each June in Sotteville-les-Rouen, a small town about 5 kms from Rouen, is one of the biggest in France.  I went this year with my daughter Olivia and a few of her colleagues from University and took a number of interesting photographs.  I'll post more in the near future.

This image is from a show called Tango with Fire, a small company who acting out a narrative in dance over the course of an hour with lots of fire effects. 



(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Photography Street theatre Travel Sat, 15 Mar 2014 07:17:00 GMT

Guler Ates, "Orientations", Hoxton Art Gallery

A delightful small exhibiton by the Turkish-born artist, photographer and print-maker Guler Ates is coming to a close at the Hoxton Art Gallery.  By the time you read this, I fear it will be too late - but do look out for her work. 

Guler Ates, who was born and brought up in Turkey, graduated from the Royal College of Art with an MA in printmaking in 2008. Her photography strikingly illustrates the cross-cultural themes often explored by the deracine artistcontemplation of the homeland and its customs from the standpoint of the adopted country.  In Ates case, the images interweave Turkish dress, colours, customs and costume with western interiors and artistic traditions.  The title of the exhibiton plays on the etymology of the word Orientation with its implications of east-facing and, by implication, the western interpretation of all that “eastern” implies. 

Bold slashes of primary reds and blues punctuate dark interiors which mostly fade to solid black.  Before disappearing into the darkness, we glimpse sections of tables, chair arms and other furniture or furnishings.  The colours turn out to be the costumes of an anonymous female figure, present in each image, part-spectral yet vibrant.  The womens’ heads are covered, veiled both as if by Muslim custom as much as by the women of classical Dutch interiors, which the photographs clearly reference. 

 Guler Ates, Garment of Desire, 2010
Woman in Redabove, and Trace of Blue, below, present all these themes.  In these images, the interior becomes the exterior as we are forced to move from the rooms and furnishings to the interior life of the women.  We do not see their faces, we can deduce nothing from their expressions and so we must cast ourselves into their minds through contemplation of their situation - strangers in “western” settings - although what is “west” and what is “east” is part of the problematic.  

Guler Ates, Garment of Desire, 2010


Guler Ates, Garment of Desire, 2010 
  In Present and Absent, above, the woman is even less evident to the viewer as she half disappears as she goes down the stairs.  Again, the interior becomes exterior to these women: this is, perhaps, the main point Ates wants to make and  asks us to contemplate.   

Ates has exhibited consistently during the last 10 years so there should be opportunities to see her work in the future.  This is the first time I’ve seen her photography and I’ll make a point of looking for future examples of her art.


Hoxton Art Gallery, 64 Charlotte Road, London, EC2A 3PE



(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Photography Wed, 08 Jan 2014 07:16:00 GMT

Cloud burst

 I took this image just north of the English border as I was driving home from the Edinburgh Festival this year.  It was a bright, clear evening and I pulled into a lay-by to capture the beautiful cloud formations and colour reflections in the calm sea.  

I knew that straight shots would be effective and I took a few which turned out fine.  But I also wanted more of an ethereal look so I took a few more in which I moved the zoom during the exposure.  I thought this would work but I also know that it's a hit and miss technique, so I took  a number of shots in this way.  This one was the best of the crop.


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Photography Tue, 27 Aug 2013 06:17:00 GMT


When I left Santa Fe I followed the old 66 route for a while east  then rejoined I-40 (which swallowed most of the old road) to Santa Rosa. But stretches of the old road do remain though and the real enthusiasts come on and off I-40 to experience them: here’s one section just outside Santa Rosa.

By now the red rocks and mesas of western New Mexico have vanished and are replaced with wide open flat scribland: I guess this is in preparation for Texas, which is the next state.

The I-40 freeway bisected the town of Santa Rosa and cut its old Route 66 frontage in two, but for over 65 years people crossing New Mexico along Route 66 made a point of stopping here for a meal at Club Cafe. Thanks to signs lining the road for miles in both directions with the smiling face of the “Fat Man,” the Club Cafe became  famous for its food. It closed in 1992 and all that remains is (as usual) the old sign:

I stopped to eat at Josephs' - yet another unusual 66 cafe with good food.

Among the decorations in Joseph's is a Schwinn bike. The fortunes of this classic American brand, as well as his own life history involving being stationed at Greenham Common in the 1950s, being transported back from Paris drunk, spending 20 years as an alcoholic and then recovering and become an AA advocate, were related to me by Jim, who is pictured below as well.


As so often in these Route 66 towns, there are plenty of examples of old motel signs and here are a couple in Santa Rosa:

The Route 66 Auto Museum looked to be worth a visit, offering exhibit on “anything to do with wheels,” but it was closed.  The cars outside were worth a photo though.

East of Santa Rosa, along the south side of I-40, you can trace one of the older stretches of Route 66, only partly paved. These stretches convey a sense of what travel was like in the very early days, when less than half the route’s 2,400-odd miles were paved. I met Joe and Jane Walsh from Athens, Georgia, who were traveling Route 66 both ways along every single stretch of the remaining road. Their guide book had mile by mile turning instructions to ensure that the real enthusiast (like the Walshes) travel every remaining mile of the old road. They told me they needed 8 weeks for the trip as their dedication to experiencing every single inch of the old road meant that they could only clock up about 150 miles each day.

My next port of call was Tucumcari, “the town that’s two blocks wide and two miles long” (though the main drag which follows old Route 66 through town stretches for closer to seven miles between Interstate exits),  My plan had been to drive on through to Amarillo, Texas, but I stopped to take a look at the  famous Blue Swallow Motel. Built in the early 1940s, Lillian Redman took over in 1958 and turned it into “the last, best, and friendliest of the old-time motels.”. 

The new owners, Kevin and Nancy Mueller, gave me some of the history. Motels used to have individual garages but over time owners turned these into rooms in order to maximize revenue. The Blue Swallow has kept its individual garages and this makes it almost unique. The Muellers have tried to keep the old spirit while catching up on restoration work. The Blue Swallow is renowned for its mid-twentieth century authenticity: each room comes with its own decorated garage and the rooms are period pieces in their own right with original fittings and furniture, black bakelite telephones and even a 1948 edition of National Geographic.

The restored period room at the Bluw Swallow Motel

The neon sign alone is worth waiting until dark. Which is exactly what I did and after a little persuading by Karen, I stayed the night and cancelled my Amarillo hotel.


Nancy was positive about the future in Tucumcari. One reason is a plan which has just been adopted to restore and turn on again all the abandoned motel neon signs, of which there are many in the town like these below:

Across Route 66 from the Blue Swallow stands another survivor, the landmark tepee fronting the historic Tee Pee Trading Post.



Known as the Panhandle because of the way it juts north from the rest of Texas, this part of the route is a nearly 200-mile stretch of flat plains. Almost devoid of trees or other features, the western half, stretching into New Mexico, is also known as the Llano Estacado or “Staked Plains,” possibly because early travelers marked their route by driving stakes into the earth. The Texas Panhandle was the southern extent of the buffalo-rich grasslands of the Great Plains, populated by Kiowa and Comanche Indians as recently as 100 years ago. Now oil and gas production, as well as trucking and Route 66 tourism, have joined ranching as the region’s economic basis.

Even more so than in New Mexico or Oklahoma, old Route 66 has been replaced by I-40 most of the way across Texas, though in many of the ghostly towns like McLean, Shamrock, or Vega, and the sole city, Amarillo, old US-66 survives as the main business strip, lined by the remains of roadside businesses.

First stop on the way was the Mid-Point Cafe at Adrian, so called because it is exactly half way between Chicago and LA (1139 miles in each direction on Route 66).  The town’s water tower is painted with the “Midpoint” logo.

It’s another funky 66 roadside cafe (with the obligatory gift shop), but my visit was enliven by meeting Fran, who ran the cafe for 20 years before selling it recently and opening a shop next door. She told me about life in Texas and how it is changing: the ranches are now so big, mostly owned by trusts and corporations, and they use helicopters to herd the cattle. Fewer and fewer people lIve in Adrian now.

Fran was college educated and came from Massachusetts and I wondered how long it had taken her to get used to life in Texas. But she obviously loved it.

I somehow missed the famour cadillac graveyard west of Amarillo, but I did see a VW graveyard just east of the city. 


I also called at the famous Big Texan restaurant and motel, where they will serve you a 72 oz. steak - which is free if you can eat it within an hour.  This place has to be see to be believed - completely over the top yet truly fascinating. Real Texas.


Next stop was McLean. This town was founded  by an English rancher, Alfred Rowe, who later lost his life on the Titanic in 1912, I thought that McLean (with a population of 830) was perhaps one of the more evocative town along the Texas stretch of Route 66. I took some photographs of the Texaco gas station which has been restored - a neat conjuring up of what motoring the Route 66 must have been like in the 1930s and ‘40s. 

I met a couple from Mexico and we were discussing how the towns along 66 are so often deadly quiet with plenty of evidence of failed motels, restaurants and garages. Bypassed only in the early 1980s, the old main drag in McLean is virtually silent, with a few businesses—a barber shop, a boot shop, and some motels, including one with a fine Texas-shaped neon sign—holding on despite the drop in passing trade. The building of I-40 hit these towns badly. In McLean, there are two wide roads surrounding the town andf they have a one-way system. But there are virtually no cars.

I made the quick 20 mile trip to Shamrock to see the famous Tower Conoco and take some photographs of its neon after dark. 

This unusual building was one of many similar commercial structures built during the early 1930s along the new US Route 66.  When it became clear that the newly established Route 66 would cut through the north end of Shamrock, the owners of the prime corner lot  agreed to sell the land and in return have a custom designed building constructed on the site for their own use. The Tower Conoco was designed by Pamper architect J.C. Berry and built by local entrepreneur J.M. Tindall in 1936. It is one of the best examples of a 1930s gas station/diner and shows many art deco influences particularly in the geometric detailing, glazed ceramic wall tiles, curves and neon lighting.


The original building combined the Tower Conoco gas Station, the U-Drop Inn Cafe and a retail store, never used as such but soon used as a ballroom and overflow dining room. The building fell into decline and reached its nadir in the 70s when it wa s painted red-white-and-blue and converted to a FINA station, finally closing completely in the mid 1990s. The Shamrock Chamber of Commerce has now restored the building and the cafe is to be reopened. 



Unfortunately like a few other old Route 66 settlements, the first town over the Texas border, Texola, has all but dried up since it was bypassed by the interstate highway I-40. The completion of this huge highway in 1966 was a severe blow for a lot of towns on the old 66 route, although many have bounced back, particularly as 66 enthusiasts visit the old road in increasing numbers. A few remnants still stand in Texola but mostly you’re struck by the number of broken down houses and old gas stations.

East from this borderline ghost town, a mile south of the I-40 freeway, a nice stretch of late-model Route 66 continues as a four-lane divided highway, passing through the great little town of Erick six miles east of Texola.

There are a number of “official” Route 66 museums along the way. I came across two just on this day. In the Old Town Museum in Elk City has the “official” National Route 66 Museum, which has an old pickup truck decorated to look like the one from Grapes of Wrath along with the usual Route 66 memorabilia. Much better, though, is the offering in Clinton. Clinton started life as a trading post for local Cheyenne Arapahoe people and is now in the home of the official Oklahoma Route 66 Museum.

This is a proper showcase, and not just another souvenir stand, which reopened  in 1995 after undergoing a massive,  expansion. Collectors from all over the country have donated signs, artifacts and memorabilia which have been organized into a comprehensive exhibition of Mother Road history and culture.

This museum offers illustrated tableaux and interactive information screens tracing the history of the road from its commissioning to the present day. It’s interesting to see how Route 66 played such an important part over the decades, changing its functions as the needs of the day dictated: originally conceived as a means of opening up the west to further development, its soon developed truck traffic to compete with the railways, spawned many different types of business and entertainment offerings, was a key deployment route during the war years, became the playground of the post-war rock and roll generation and a symbol to the hippy generation in the ‘70s. Today, it is seen as a key part of American culture and this helps explain the growth of enthusiasm for the old road.

There’s no greater contrast between the charms of the old 66 road and the blandness of the I-40  than at Hydro, a tiny town between Clinton and Oklahoma City.  A really picturesque stretch of old Route 66 runs along the north side of I-40  right past the ancient service station and souvenir stand operated by Lucille Hammons from 1941 until her death in August 2000. Visiting Lucille’s place to buy a drink or gas was apparently an old Route 66 ritual.

West of Lucille’s, a surviving six-mile stretch of old Route 66 pavement follows the undulating lay of the land up and down and offering a better sense of the landscape  than the interstate, which is far enough away from the old road at this point to make you think it doesn’t exist.

Now tragically synonymous with the terrorist bombing carried out by Timothy McVeigh in 1995, Oklahoma City (pop. 506,132) has long been one of the primary stops along the Mother Road and where I finished my trip. 

The city was the biggest boomtown of the 1889 land rush when Oklahoma was opened for white settlement after being set aside “for eternity” as Indian Territory. Between noon and sundown on April 22, over 10,000 people flocked here to claim the new lands.  A second boom took place during the Depression years, when oil was struck; there are still producing wells in the center of the city, including some on the grounds of the state capitol and at the airport. The collapse of the oil industry in the 1980s hit hard, but the shock of the 1995 bombing helped revitalize the City and it has a new baseball stadium, a concert arena and canal-side cafés in the “Bricktown” warehouse district south of downtown.

The impact of the terrorist bombing on April 19, 1995 the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, where 168 men, women, and children were killed, comes across wonderfully from the Memorial Museum. Between the capitol and Bricktown, the site of the bombing has been preserved as a museum and memorial park, beautifully landscaped with a shallow pool around which rows of sculpted chairs. Each chair represents a person killed in the blast, and the chairs range from very small to full-sized, marking the varying ages of the dead (who included 19 kids from the building’s daycare center.)  The museum tells the story of the bombing, its perpetrators, and its victims and is simply outstanding.


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Architecture Photography Travel Thu, 25 Oct 2012 01:08:34 GMT

Everyone associates bright, colorful neon-lit signs with the United States and most for people they define Route 66.

Neon lit signs, which work when an electric current is sent through gas in a glass tube, were first introduced in Paris barber in 1912. By the 1920s, neon was seen as the most modern and stylish way to advertise and been a hallmark of American roadside commercial advertising since. Neon signs were brash, colorful and eye catching, a revolutionary form of advertising for business owners and often great entertainment for travelers.

Each sign was unique and handcrafted and could be made to reflect the creativity of the business owner. The colors, shapes, sizes and messages conveyed by neon signs through their long association with Route 66 are as varied as the businesses that made up the road during its long history. The significance of neon signs goes further: the evolution of these signs over time and the aims of the sign-makers reflected cultural and economic trends of American society during much of the 20th century.

The amazing neon sign at the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcai

By the 1950s, however, neon sign production began to diminish in favor of less expensive and more esily produced plastic back-lit signs. By the 1960s and 1970s, when urban renewal became a priority, zoning regulations often banned new neon signs so that when businesses were sold or remodeled their neon signs often were thrown away. By the 2000s, hundreds of neon signs along Route 66 were become badly deteriorated, as  they were replaced by cheaper forms of advertising or - worse still - the Interstates destroyed businesses in hundreds of small towns which had previously benefitted from Route 66 traffic.

Examples (above and below) of abandoned neon signs on Route 66

So after being the advertising method of choice for many years the neon signs declined in popularity. But everything goes round and guess what?  Neon is now the target for a restoration project.

In 2001, New Mexico’s State Historic Preservation Office recognized the historical, cultural and artistic value of its neon signs and received a $50,000 cost-share grant from the National Park Service Route 66 Corridor Preservation Program. With the New Mexico Route 66 Association serving as project leader, nine neon signs in the communities of Tucumcari, Santa Rosa, Moriarty, Albuquerque, Grants, and Gallup were selected for restoration and sign owners participated actively in the project. The New Mexico Route 66 Neon Sign Restoration Project resulted in the restoration of nine classic neon signs in.  These signs include motels, restaurants, and a curio shop that served Route 66 travelers.  The neon sign for the Wig-Wam Motel in Holbrook and the Frontier Motel sign in Truxton, Arizona, and the Sno-Cap in Seligman has also been recently restored by Jeff and Kathy Register, two Arizona neon sign restorers.

Examples of restored neon signs along Route 66

The project has increased awareness of neon signs as outstanding examples of American folk art and ignited interest in their long- term care and protection.

The neon project is just one of a number of restoration plans for Route 66. The Friends of the Mother Road has been involved with the preservation of various forms of signage including the Vega Motel in Vega, Texas, and at Vernelle’s Motel near Arlington, Missouri. 

(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Wed, 24 Oct 2012 14:45:10 GMT
1350 MILES ALONG ROUTE 66 - PART 1 It seems to be the convention that Route 66 is travelled from east to west. I suppose this is because the road was the traditional route followed by economic migrants from the depressed mid-west in the 1920s and '30s to what they thought was the golden land of orange groves around Los Angeles.  For various reasons, I opted to travel the route in reverse i.e. west to east. Nor did I have time to do the whole route from LA to Chicago and my trip will finish at Oklahoma City. At least, though, I will have covered the route travelled by the Oklahoma migrants whose troubles John Steinbeck described in The Grapes of Wrath.





So the first state through which I travelled was California, where Route 66 passes through every type landscape, from the beaches of Santa Monica, through the citrus growing inland valleys, over mountains and across the Mojave Desert,  The guide book says that the old road survives intact almost all the way across the state and is marked for most of its 315 miles by signs declaring it Historic Route 66. This may be true, but it doesn’t make it easier to follow the old road through the LA metro area! 



Near where Santa Monica Boulevard dead-ends at Ocean Boulevard, a brass plaque marks the official end of Route 66, the “Main Street of America,” also remembered as the “Will Rogers Highway,” one of many names the old road earned in its half century of existence.


Plaque marking the end (or start for me) of Route 66


Santa Monica Boulevard where Route 66 starts

Route 66 across Los Angeles follows Santa Monica Boulevard through Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. East from Hollywood, Route 66 merges into Sunset Boulevard to downtown L.A.  66 then follows Figueroa Street to the soaring Colorado Boulevard Bridge, an arching concrete bridge at the western edge of Pasadena which used to mark the entrance to Los Angeles from the east. Recently restored, the bridge spans Arroyo Seco along the south side of the Ventura Freeway. 


East of Pasadena, the San Gabriel Valley used to be the westbound traveler’s first taste of Southern California and its orange groves. This seemed to last until the mid-1950s, when Route 66 gave way to high-speed freeways, and the orange groves were replaced by endless grids of tract houses.

From Pasadena, old Route 66 runs east along the foothills of the San Gabriel mountains although these are now all new roads. It goes past  the landmark racetrack at Santa Anita and past the classic Foothill Drive-In at Azuza, the last remaining drive-in on Route 66 west of Oklahoma, whose sign was saved when the land was recently developed. 

All that remains of the Foothill Drive-in Theatre in Asuza is the neon sign. Not my photo

I'm afraid, as it was dark when I arrived here so I've used a stock image.


At Rancho Cucamonga, 66 seems to become the I-15 which heads north over the mountains and the Cajon Pass. But before Victorville, old Route 66 survives as an “old roads” 36 miles trek across the Mojave Desert. It parallels the railroad tracks and the usually parched Mojave River, passing through odd little towns like Oro Grande, which is still home to a huge cement plant and lots of roadside junk shops before rejoining I-15. Sadly I had to miss out this loop because it was already dark when I hit this point.

East of Barstow all the way to the Arizona border, old Route 66 survives in a series of different stretches alongside the I-40 freeway. The first place of interest, Daggett, is a rusty old mining and railroad town six miles east of Barstow along the north side of the freeway. Again I had to miss out this stretch but the guide books say that if you want a taste of what traveling across the Mojave Desert was like in the old days, turn south off I-40 at Ludlow, 50 miles east of Barstow, and follow Route 66, on a 75-mile loop along the old road. This goes through Ludlow, where two gas stations, a coffee shop, and a motel represent civilization and Bagdad, a turn-of-the-20th-century gold mining town that’s now defunct. 


From Amboy, it’s another 48 miles back to I-40 at Fenner. Another stretch of Route 66 runs east from Fenner on a roller coaster of undulating two-lane blacktop, parallel to the railroad track through the desert hamlet of Goffs. My stop was at Needles, a town which trades on its Route 66 heritage although I could find little of interest in the town so I moved on into Arizona.







Traveling east from Needles, Route 66 crosses the Colorado river and turns north to Oatman. 


Route 66 crossing the Colorado River into Arizona


THe Santa Fe railroad, which parallels 66


The next stretch of Route 66  is said to be one of the most demanding and desolate stretches of the entire old road. Following at first along the wildlife refuge that lines the Colorado River, the old road then cuts across a stretch of desert that really is harsh. It then climbs the steep hills, winding over passes that bring you to Oatman (elev. 2,700 feet), an odd mix of ghost town and tourist draw that’s one of the top stops along Route 66. 


Route 66 over the Cajon Pass to Oatman


Route 66 over the Cajon Pass to Oatman


Oatman was a  gold mining town whose glory days had long faded by the time I-40 passed it by way back in 1952, Oatman looks like a Wild West stage set and its full of tourist shops, but it’s the real thing—awnings over the plank sidewalks, bearded roughnecks and a few burros wandering the streets, lots of rust and slumping old buildings.  Scenes from the town follow:



The gold mines here produced some two million ounces from their start in 1904 until they panned out in the mid-1930s; at its peak, Oatman had a population of over 10,000, with 20 saloons lining the three-block Main Street.  Apparently, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard spent their first night after getting married in Kingman in 1939 in the old Oatman Hotel. Saloons and rock shops line the rest of Main Street, where on weekends and holidays Wild West enthusiasts act out the shoot-outs that took place here only in the movies.

East of Oatman the road passes the recently reactivated gold workings at Goldroad before climbing up and over the angular Black Mountains. Steep switchbacks and 15-mph hairpin turns takes you through a 2,100-foot change in elevation over a very short eight miles; the route then continues for another 20 miles into Kingman


The only town for miles in any direction since its founding as a railroad center in 1880, Kingman has always been a main stopping place on Route 66. It still proviodes the only all-night services on US-93 between Las Vegas and Phoenix, and along I-40 between Flagstaff and Needles. Kingman is still  a way station although increasing number of people who have relocated here in recent years, attracted by the low cost of living.

The railroad station at Kingman


Quite a few of the old Route 66 cafés and motels still flourish alongside the old road including Mr. D’s Route 66 Diner where the coffee was really excellent:


A few miles outside Kingman along 66 a large green sign marks the entrance to Grand Canyon Caverns . These were once a major tourist destination along the old road. The Canyon Caverns were discovered and developed in the late 1920s and still have the feel of an old-time roadside attraction. 

My next stop Hackberry, which was little more than a general store surrounded by masses of Route 66 memorabilia collected by the guy who runs the store. 




The store at Hackman was overrun by a group of German Harley Davidson riders, who were traveling the length of 66. I spoke to them because I’ve always been fascinated by the attraction of the American south west to the Germans. They told me their trip was 40 days, so I guess they weren’t rushing back to pressing engagements.



The east end of the long loop of old Route 66 brings you to Seligman, the location of Andreas Feininger’s classic Route 66 photograph:



Here's my version showing the same scene today:



I found this town a little disappointing and most things seemed to be closed. The town retains a lot of its historic character with old sidewalk awnings and even a few hitching rails. The Snow Cap Drive-In has a sign which says “Sorry, We’re Open,” and the menu advertises “Hamburgers without Ham.” Behind the restaurant, in snow, rain, or shine, sits a roofless old Chevy decorated with fake flowers and an artificial Christmas tree. There are several old Route 66 cafes and motels and the (apparently) world-famous Black Cat saloon.



My next stop was Williams, the last Route 66 town to be bypassed by I-40.



Williams is primarily a gateway to the Grand Canyon, but it takes full tourist advantage of its Route 66 heritage and the downtown streets have old-fashioned street lamps and every other store sells a variety of Route 66 souvenirs.   




My final stop for the day was at Flagstaff, an old railroad and lumber-mill town. The natural beauty of its forested location has meant that, compared to other Route 66 towns, Flagstaff was less affected by the demise of the old road and its been given a new lease on life by an influx of students at Northern Arizona University and by the usual array of ski bums and mountain bikers attracted by the surrounding high mountain wilderness, So today it is an enjoyable, energetic town high up on the Coconino Plateau. Downtown Flagstaff has been redeveloped ; and is really attractive; I spent some time wandering around the area with its restaurants and coffee shops—probably a dozen within a two-block radius of the train station—and converted warehouses and buildings. The student population hang out here and have done much to change the character of the town.  I had driven there from the hotel and by mistake ended up in the campus of NAU. Its a huge facility and very impressive and I can understand the impact it has had on the town







From Flagstaff I drove to Walnut Canyon which is one of the most easily accessible of the hundreds of different prehistoric settlements all over the southwestern United States. Walnut Canyon contains some 300 identified archaeological sites. The Canyon is also very beautiful, with piñon pines and junipers clinging to the canyon walls and walnut trees filling the canyon floor. 


Walnut Canyon. Some of the many cave dwellings can be seen below

From the small visitors center gives a short but very steep path that winds through cliff dwellings tucked into overhangs and ledges 400 feet above the canyon floor.

East of Flagstaff, following old Route 66 can be frustrating task for those so inclined since much of the roadway is blocked or torn up or both. Unlike the long stretches found in the western half of the state the old road exists only as short segments running through towns, and most of the way you’re forced to follow the freeway, stopping at exit after exit to get on and off the old road through towns. One  of these is the only town mentioned out of sequence in the Route 66 song: “Flagstaff, Arizona, don’t forget Winona”; give it a miss - there’s nothing there.

Further along I-40 is Meteor Crater.  Formed by a meteorite some 50,000 years ago, and measuring 550 feet deep and nearly a mile across, the crater is a privately owned tourist attraction. I sotopped at the gas station and store but decided not to look at a hole in the ground.


More than the other Route 66 towns in the eastern half of Arizona, Holbrook feels like a real place, with lively cafés and some endearing roadside attractions around the center of town. I stopped for a coffee at a long-established 66 establishment, Mr. Maestas.  The owner collects bric-a-brac and told me he wanted to open as museum eventually. Until then, the restaurant is jam-packed with his collection of old Americana, household goods, clocks (mostly produced by Coco-Cola) and Route 66 memorabilia.


The other attraction in Holbrook is said to be the concrete wigwam village, but I gave this a miss. The Navajo County Museum  in the old Navajo County Courthouse, ifs good though.


One of the few remaining relics of the old Route 66 along this stretch is the Two Arrows Trading post. The store is now abandoned but the two arrows sign is still standing and can be seen from miles away as you approach the site - which was the idea, of course.


New Mexico

Following old Route 66 across New Mexico gives you a great taste of the Land of Enchantment, as the state calls itself on its license plates. There is less of the actual “old road” here than in other places, but the many towns and ghost towns along I-40, built more or less on top of Route 66, still stand. In Albuquerque, Route 66 runs through the center of this sprawling Sun Belt city, while in other places finding the old road and bypassed towns can take some time. Western New Mexico has the most to see and the most interesting topography, with sandstone mesas looming in the foreground and high, pine-forested peaks rising in the distance.  In the east, the land is flatter and the landscape drier as the road approaches the Great Plains.


There is a 15 mile stretch of the old road just before Gallup and I went off I-40 to follow if for a change of scene. Actually, there isn’t much of a change of scene as the old 66 runs alongside I-40 which itself parallels the Santa Fe railway, with it mile-long freight trains.

A stretch of Old Route 66 in New Mexico

Gallup was founded in 1881 when the Santa Fe Railroad first rumbled through, and calling itself “The Gateway to Indian Country” because it’s the largest town near the huge Navajo and other Native American reservations of the Four Corners region, Gallup has some of the Southwest’s largest trading posts and one of the best strips of neon signs on old Route 66.


Some examples of the old motel neon signs





Setting off from Gallup, I soon came across this amazing old (but apparently still functioning) garage. Unlike many of the old garages along 66, at least this one is still working although for how much longer I couldn't be sure:



Along with the usual Route 66 range of funky old motels and rusty neon signs, my first stop after Gallup was the former mining boomtown of Grants.  I took a quick look at its New Mexico Mining Museum. 

Most of the exhibits trace the short history of local uranium mining, which began in 1950 when a local Navajo rancher discovered an odd yellow rock that turned out to be high-grade uranium ore. Mines here once produced half the ore mined in the United States, but production has now stopped. The museum has a convincing re-creation of a uranium mine, complete with an underground lunch room emblazoned with all manner of warning signs

A dozen miles east of Grants and 50 miles west of Albuquerque, one of the Southwest’s most intriguing sites, Acoma Pueblo, stands on the top of a 357-foot-high sandstone mesa. Long known as “Sky City,” Acoma is one of the very oldest communities in North America, continuously inhabited since ad 1150. The views out across the plains are unforgettable, especially the Enchanted Mesa on the horizon to the northeast.



Few people live on the mesa today, though the many adobe houses are used by Pueblo craftspeople, who live down below but come up to the mesa-top to sell their pottery to tourists.  Its a diversion from Route 66 and I was undecided about making it but I’m very glad I did. The tour begins with a short bus ride to the mesa-top and end with a visit to San Esteban del Rey Mission, the largest Spanish colonial church in the state. Built in 1629, the church features a roof constructed of huge timbers that were carried from the top of Mt. Taylor on the backs of neophyte Indians—a distance of more than 30 miles.



An Acoma guide, who was excellent, spent 90 minutes taling us round the pueblo and talking with us to some of the people living there.

Another stretch of old Route 66 survives near here along the interstate, passing crumbling tourist courts and service stations across the Laguna and Acoma Indian Reservation.


My next stop was Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city which spreads north and south along the banks of the Rio Grande and east to the foothills of 10,000-foot Sandia Crest. For Route 66 enthusiasts, Albuquerque boasts a great stretch of the old Route along Central Avenue through the heart of the city—18 miles of diners, motels, and sparkling neon signs. The odd Aztec Motel, a very funky Pueblo-style 1930s motel kept alive as a live-in sculpture gallery and artists’ community, is an offbeat taste of the city’s Route 66 heritage.


One of the best parts of town is Old Town, the historic heart of Albuquerque. Located a block north of Central Avenue, at the west end of Route 66’s cruise through downtown, Old Town offers a taste of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial past, with a lovely old church, the 300-year-old San Felipe de Neri; as well as shops and restaurants set around a park.



I then made the northwards detour to the state capital, Santa Fe. The original Route 66 alignment ran north from Albuquerque along the I-25 corridor, then curved back south from Santa Fe, along what’s now US-84, to rejoin I-40 west of Santa Rosa. This was subsequently straightened out along I-40 for “political reasons”: apparently, there was a move to deprive Santa Fe of the Route 66 business. I must find out why.

The best sense of this old route across old New Mexico comes just north of Albuquerque, at  Bernalillo. Route 66 here follows the much older El Camino Real, which linked the Spanish colonies 400 years ago. Silva’s Saloon, whose walls are coated in layers of newspaper clippings, old snapshots, and other mementos, is the place to see.


I been to Santa Fe a few times so I didn’t spend much time in the town - just enough, though, to have breakfast at the excellent  - and very popular on a Sunday - Plaza Restaurant (“Since 1931”) in the colonial square and spend a hour in the Georgia O’Keefe museum.
(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Sun, 21 Oct 2012 02:32:06 GMT
An angle on the Tour of Britain  

An angle on the Tour of Britain

The final stage of this year's Tour of Britain was a 56 miles circuit: starting at Whitehall, along the Embankment to the Tower of London and back again, the riders did this loop twelve times, so there was plenty of opportunities to capture images.

There were thousands of photographers along the route.  Most of them seemed to have brought their long lenses and were looking for compressed depth of field shots of the peloton in the distance.  I opted for a different approach, using my 17-40 mm. more or less at the widest end, choosing a low angle and dropping the shutter speed to around 1/60.  I used flash to freeze the shot, while the slow shutter speed left a trail, which I felt would help convey the sense of speed.


I felt that these three images worked best.  I particularly liked the one above for the way in which I'd managed to capture the eyes and intense stare of the leading rider.  The second image is a dramtic angle, which I also felt worked well.


As always, I wanted to search out an angle that was unusual and I was pleased with these images. 





(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Thu, 15 Mar 2012 07:15:07 GMT

E J Major, Matt Roberts Arts

Two works at the Matt Roberts Gallery in Bethnal Green have recently showcased the young photographer, E J Major. 

Born in Hong Kong, E J studied photography at Nottingham and graduated in Fine Art from Goldsmiths in 2009.  E.J. was exhibited as part of the Salon Photography Prize 2011 and selected as the winner from over 960 artists for the Selectors’ prize supported by A Thousand Words Magazine.  She summarises her practice as creating:

photographic constructs that are, and are not what they seem [...and] aim to challenge the veracity of the photographic portrait finding an authenticity in a notion of self-portraiture that involves acting. Referencing both historical events and characters as well as those from popular culture, individual works have a narrative content but the work is predominantly concerned with ideas. The aim is to construct visually arresting images that can also be read.

The historical events referenced in Shoulder to Shoulder (2009-2011)  are the Sufffragette struggles of the early twentieth century and constitute a dialogue with herself as a suffragette. There are three panels in the form of monochrome contact sheets, showing Suffragette street protests, E J apparently in prison as a result and linking these events with modern day protests.  Individual images in between show E J in period dressed chained to railings as the Suffragettes often were.



These articulate into three large colour photographs, carefully constructed and photographed by E J and based on the attack by Mary Raleigh Richardson on Valazquez’s Venus in the National Gallery in 1914.  In the first, E J “plays” Venus and the cherub of the original (transformed into a nurse). Venus’ reflection in the mirror is, I was told, that of her mother.




In the second, we see E J as “Slasher” Mary in front of the reconstructed Velazquez.


In the final image, the destruction has taken place, a tangle of material from the previous images hides two hands slashing the painting. 

These are fascinating works, painstakingly constructed and cleverly executed.  What E J - who clearly identifies with this and other Suffragettes - would make of their subsequent support of British fascism is something I’d like to ask her about. 

Marie Claire RIP (2009-2011) references an article published in Marie Claire magazine showing the dreadful decline through police mug-shots of a woman a over a fourteen year period. The series, restaged again by E J, traces, recreates the woman's drug-induced decline over the period.  With titles like  Do not care, 1985. Hid in fear, 1988. Carried on, 1997. the awful descent into hell of the woman is traced out by E J herself.

The crux of E J's work seems to me to be the introduction of acting into photographic practice. Whether the woman is E J, or E J is the woman is perhaps the question at the heart of these images.


Matt Roberts Arts -


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Exhibition reviews Photography Thu, 15 Mar 2012 07:14:22 GMT
Homeless in photographs  

Homeless in photographs

I was in Newcastle one evening recently looking for some street photography ideas.  A man called Kevin, who lived on the streets, saw my camera and invited me to take photographs of him and his friends.  He showed me where he slept and he and his friends told me a little about their life on the streets.

Kevin has been sleeping on the streets for 20 years and sees little chance of getting accommodation. His bed is a collection of old blankets and cardboards under a foul-smelling archway.  I couldn't believe it when he told me he was only 50.




Kevin's friend was sitting in a doorway when I met him.  He was happy to be photographed but seemed resigned to his fate.




I looked at these images afterwards and thought how Kevin and his friend's eyes told the story of their hard lives. But this type of photography needs to be treated with care.  I only learned recently about the subsequent history of Dorothea Lange's famous image of Florence Owens Thompson,Migrant Mother, and the lessons it offers to photographers.




Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother


In March 1936, , Florence Thompson and her family were traveling to find work when their car broke down.  As she waited, Lange working for the Resettlement Administration, drove up and started taking photos of Florence and her family. Over 10 minutes she took 6 images.  Lange's field notes of the images read: "Seven hungry children. Father is native Californian. Destitute in pea pickers’ camp … because of failure of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tires to buy food.", and she later wrote of the meeting:  "I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food."

However, Florence, who only came to light as the subject of the image in 1978, claimed that Lange never asked her any questions and got many of the details incorrect. She claimed that Lange promised the photos would never be published, but the San Franscisco News ran the pictures almost immediately, with an assertion that 2,500 to 3,500 migrant workers were starving in California.

Migrant Mother had an immediate impact and achieved near mythical status symbolizing an entire era in American history.  As a whole, the photographs taken for the Resettlement Administration are some of the most remarkable human documents ever rendered in pictures.

Later, Lange was criticized for taking inaccurate notes.  Worse, Florence was quoted as saying:  "I wish  [Lange] hadn't taken my picture. I can't get a penny out of it. She didn't ask my name. She said she wouldn't sell the pictures. She said she'd send me a copy. She never did."  Thompson's daughter Katherine (to the left of the frame) said in a December 2008 interview that the wide distribution of the image made the family feel shame at their poverty.

Lange was funded by the federal government when she took the picture, so the image was in the public domain and Lange never directly received any royalties. However, the picture did ultimately make her reputation.


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Thu, 15 Mar 2012 07:13:20 GMT
Steve McCurry exhibition  

Steve McCurry exhibition

All is not lost for anyone who might have missed the exhibition by the renowned American photographer at the gallery of Chris Beetles Fine Photographs in London.  The exhibition has been extended until 15 October. 

A Magnum photographer since 1986, Steve McCurry has made his reputation with images from Afghanistan from before the Russian invasion, Burma, Sri Lanka, Beirut, Cambodia, the Phillipines, the former Yugoslavia and the Gulf War.   

McCurry is, perhaps, best known for his striking image of the Afghan refugee girl, Sharbat Gula.  Against a green background, the girl’s green eyes stare out, her head shrouded in a tattered red robe through which fragments of green clothing can be seen.  It’s a powerful but understated image of someone in a troubled land who has known hardship. 

Look around this exhibition of around 40 images from the centre of the gallery and McCurry’s palette of vibrant reds, greens and blues leaps out from almost every one of his images.  His street scenes are richly-coloured, with bright red and green headgear, vibrant oranges in the trunk of a car, blue walls, faces covered in red powders and red hand prints; red jackets punctuate the grim brown smoke clouds of the 9/11 image and red prayer flags stand out from the snow.  Everywhere in these images are bright costumes, sails on boats, the walls of brick and plaster buildings.  The colours are rich, saturated and immensley powerful.

 Scan (1)Holi Festival, Rajasthan, India, 1996

Yet, in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, McCurry says, “Most of the time I’m not looking for colour pictures...Colour is secondary...colour alone...does not make a good picture.  For McCurry, a powerful image is one that “reveals a deeper truth”.  


 Scan 1 (1)Monk at Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet, 2000

However, McCurry is, in the true sense of the word, a colourist. It is not, as he says, that he searches out colours.  He simply seems to have absorbed the colours of the lands in which he has extensively travelled and they permeate his images, but only as one of a series of compositional elements which help him to say something about his subjects.  The key is in his comment: “As I reflect back, I see that the vibrant colours of Asia had a big role in teaching me to write in light”.  Colours in McCurry’s hands become an organising principle, around which other elements fall into place. 

This exhibition is an opportunity to see the work of one of the world’s finest image-makers and is well worth the trip.


Chris Beetles Fine Photographs

3-5 Swallow Street, London, W1B 4DE


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Thu, 15 Mar 2012 07:12:10 GMT

Magic green socks


A couple of years ago, I was at a workshop run by Eddie Soloway.  Eddie is a great photographer based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  His creative images, mainly of the natural world, always bring a new perspective and the workshop Eddie runs is called "A Natural Eye".

One of Eddie's maxims is the "meter for the magic".  I thought about what he said and decided that it's not just a case of metering for the magic, but that the whole of an image should constructed around the magic. 


I was telling my daughter, Joanna, this when we saw this guy at a pavement cafe in London.  I asked her what would the magic in a photograph of him and she said immediately "his green socks".  I took the shot and then, as she went in close to do the same, the guy moved away.  She saw the magic but wasn't quick enough to capture it.


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Photography Thu, 15 Mar 2012 07:10:57 GMT
Seeing after the fact  

Seeing after the fact

Photographers often read significant things in their images after the fact.  It's only when they look at the image that they spot something  they didn't see it at the time.

Many say it is and it proves that photography isn't on the same level as other visual arts; a painter couldn't paint something "by accident".  But I'm not so sure.

When I took this photograph in Clerkenwell, I knew that I wanted the shallowest depth of field I could manage, and I knew I would focus on the tatoo.  I saw afterwards that the gradation of focus from the tatoo, through the girl's face to the defocused background was interesting.


Of course I knew what I was doing!


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Thu, 15 Mar 2012 07:10:27 GMT
Seeing before the fact  

Seeing before the fact

One of the most satisfying things for a photographer is to "see" an image in your mind, take the shot and then find that it works just the way you visualised it.

This happened to me with this shot.  I was standing at a bus stop, sheltering from the rain, watching the traffic pass.  I suddently "saw" a tightly cropped shot of cars and cyclists, quickly took out my camera and made this image.

15-41-37_0971_2011-08-20It would be great if it worked out like this every time!


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Thu, 15 Mar 2012 07:09:54 GMT
In the middle of a demonstration  



(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Thu, 15 Mar 2012 07:09:20 GMT

Pictures from the Blues Festival at Bonita Springs

The Bonita Blues Festival is now in its fifth year, and continues growing.  I went two years ago and managed to see gigs on one day this year.  The event is organised by several prominent local business people and aims to raise money for good causes as well as putting on top regional and national artists.

Bonita blues_03-11 31_web

It's a typical Florida event - sunny weather, people sitting on chairs, drinking beer, concessions selling gator burgers, sunglasses and tee shirts - all very relaxed and incredibly friendly.

Bonita blues_03-11 5_web
Of the three acts I saw, an English blues guitarist, Joanne Shaw Taylor, really jazzed up the crowd.  She plays blues-influenced rock, but throws herself into it with incredible enthusiasm.

Bonita blues 2_03-11 78_web



Bonita blues 2_03-11 96_web

A good time blues set from a large bunch of local musicians included one song with the memorable line: "I'm goin' to ditch the bitch and sell her car and buy myself a real cool guitar".  This being America, they had to consult the audience first as to whether the song was sufficiently politically correct.  The next song, including the word "faggots", was proceeded by a long justification and apology.

It seems that even they Blues has succumbed to the PC-fascists!


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) jazz Wed, 14 Mar 2012 19:01:11 GMT

Most serious photographers will have visited the Royal Academy’s recent exhibition “Eyewitness - Hungarian photography in the twentieth century” during its run.  Like me, you probably went several times to see this incredible collection of over 200 images from some of the greatest photographers of the last century. 

In 1931, eight Hungarian photographers figured in Modern Photography’s list of the best 100 photographs in the world - more than any other nation.  It’s interesting to consider the extent to which these images could be considered part of a single Hungarian School, or whether they are the works of individual photographers who happened to be Hungarian. 

The Hungarian tradition inevitably centres around its five most famous exponents - Brassai, Robert Capa, Andre Kertesz, Laslo Maholy-Nagy and Martin Munkacsi.  All left Hungary to live and work in west European or American cities, bringing their native grounding to photojournalism, fashion, reportage and art photography.  But did that grounding engender a commonality of style? 

Early Hungarian photography did seem to draw on distinctly national themes.  Rudolf Balogh and Erno Vadas’ images of the Hungarian landscape, farmers, shepherds, harvests, and even urban industrial themes, speak to a concern to use photography to convey Hungarian culture. A “Magayar Style” seems, at least briefly, to have emerged: these images showed an acute sense of light and shade, carefully considered and cropped compositions, strong graphical lines, but all linked with a profound sense of humanity. 

As the key figures left Hungary, their concerns and styles inevitably changed and developed.  Brassai left Hungary early to work as a journalist in Berlin and Paris.  Under Kertesz’ influence, he took up photography and his Paris de nuit (1932) was a huge success.  Capa also came from journalism: moving to Berlin, Paris and America, his reputation was established by his images from the Spanish Civil War and he continued photographing conflicts through to Vietnam in the 1950s. Kertesz moved to work in photojournalism in Paris in 1925 relocating to America in 1936.  Maholy-Nagy developed his photographic skills at the Bauhaus in the 1920s whilst Munkasci revolutionised fashion photography in the US in the 1930s after a spell in Berlin. 

Yet, throughout these widely differing concerns, key creative elements recur.  The success of Brassai’s book Nuits de Paris must surely rest on the striking use of light and dark and strong lines which Paris’ newly-installed electric lighting created on the wet cobblestones and street patterns.

Maholy-Nagy’s geometrical forms and unconventional photograms use light, shadow, space, mass and colour creatively, fusing native Hungarian and Bauhaus traditions. 


Scan 1

Scan 3
Similar concerns can be seen in Munkacsi’s Beach

Scan 10
In his Nude in straw hat, Munkacsi showed how emphasising light and shade and strong graphical design would revolutionise fashion photography.



Scan 6

Capa is best known for his iconic image from the Spanish Civil War, but we see how his style of war photography developed to become less formal, more humanist,  but the more powerful for it.  Second World War images of American pilots or civilians drinking tea show this, while  Woman who had a child with german soldier is quite chilling.

Scan 13

We must finish with Kertesz, the oldest of the five and perhaps the most Hungarian rooted. The cropping of Elizabeth and I reveals so much by hiding so much. But it must be the stunning graphics of Landing Pigeon, Lost Cloud and Washington Square that best illustrate the native tradition of which he was an early pupil. 


Scan 7
Scan 5



Scan 3 (1)

Whether these creative elements survived the dead hand period of Socialist Realism and beyond in Hungary is debatable.  The more recent images remain immensely powerful, but if there is a Hungarian School, it must rest in the work of the big five.



(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Exhibition reviews Photography Wed, 14 Mar 2012 18:53:06 GMT

I believe that photography should be situated alongside general artistic practice - a part of it, informed by it and  justified by its artistic merit.  Encouraging photographers to look at their practice in this way is one of the reasons I write these reviews.  

A new exhibition at the Royal Academy - "Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935" - speaks to these themes on several levels.  It is, most obviously, curated around the interplay between art (particularly painting) and architecture during the heroic period immediately after the 1917 revolution; at this level, it shows how the breaking down of barriers between the two practices is far from new.  On another level, the exhibition is illustrated with contemporary photographs of many of the buildings by the chronicler of Soviet modernist architecture, Richard Pare, many of which show the current state of constructions also illustrated in vintage photographs. 

The interplay between artistic practices might have been completed had the RA included period Soviet photography (one thinks particularly about Rodchenko's work), but that's a quibble about a really fascinating exhibition for art and architecture fans as well as photographers.

 Whatever you may think of the Russian communist system, there’s no doubt that from 1917 to the late-20s the Soviet Union witnessed an eruption of avant-garde and experimental art which many of its practitioners saw as being in the service of the new society. Soviet Architects were part of this upsurge, and they fused engineering and city planning with communal ideals. Alexander Vesnin, Vladimir Shukhov, Moisel Ginsberg, Ilya Golosov, Yakov Chernikhov, Konstantinos Melnikovand many others all laboured to this end, designing and building workers' clubs, sports facilities, offices, theatres, factories, communal apartment blocks, cooperative kitchens, collectivist living spaces and much more - all designed with a classless future in mind. It didn't last long and, by the late-1920s, had succumbed to the dead hand of Salin's Soviet Realism.  

But during these years, constructivist and supremacist artists, like Malevich, Popova, El Lissitsky and Rodchenko, and architects sought out new forms in the service of the Communist ideals.  Drawing on European Modernism, but with occasional references to classical traditions, Soviet artists and architects created constructivist paintings and buildings whose utilitarian lines and formal language seemed to resonate with the society being created.  The almost complete fusion between painting and architecture is seen clearly in a series in the exhibition from around 1919-29 by Liubov Popova called "Painterly Architectonics" and "Spatial Force Construction"; spurred by the new thinking about tectonics, they are effectively artiststic constructions.  Another well-known supremacist from the period, Kasimir Malevich, stopped painting between 1919-29 to concentrate on making white architectural maquettes which he called Architectonics, exploring how two dimensional art could be translated into three dimensional constructions. 

Connections like these are traced in this exhibition through industrial, residential, state and governmental,  communications and health service buildings and show how This innovative period created a new visual language which linked art and architecture.   This language employed pure geometric shapes, banded horizontal windows, flat roofs,mall often raised on pilotis or pared down columns.  The functions of many buildings were redefined in the process - housing became communal, factories were reconfigured to accommodate mass production techniques and startling new forms such as radio towers grew upwards from the ground.

Examples of these remarkable buildings include Melnikov's. Rusakov Workers' Club in Moscow, a construction topped off with striking angled boxes.  Golosov's Zuev Workers Club is an interpretation of modernism, comprising a large glazed cylinder grafted onto rigorously rectilinear building.  The huge Gasprom building designed in 1929 for the new city of Kharkov in the Ukraine is monumental in scale and reflects the vast ambition of the bureaucracy it was built to house. 

Photographers should be captivated by the use of line, shape and form by these artists and architects and should find here many ideas.  If this were not enough, the contemporary photographs of Richard Pare are outstanding.  Richard Pare was born in England in 1948. In his early years he was a chorister at Canterbury Cathedral. Later he studied photography and graphic design in Winchester and at Ravensbourne College of Art before moving to the United States in 1971. In 1973 he graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and since then he has beenworking as a photographer with a particular affinity for architecture.  

Pare's images are beautiful examples of architected photography, capturing the lines and shapes of these remarkable buildings in a straightforward way.  Some of the images, such as the panorama of the industrial scale bakery designed by Marsakov and the interior of the Red Banner Textile Factory in St. Petersburg, are huge in scale.


Screen Shot 2011-11-21 at 12.53.54
His almost-monochromatic study of the  Shabolovka radio tower is now a well-known image.  His image of the Moges power plant in Moscow features the striking angular glass bays which sit alongside the classical facade. 


Screen Shot 2011-11-21 at 12.58.47

Other images by Pare are more abstract, capturing the sweep and line of the modernist language - the curved ramp in the Tsentrosoyuz building, the remarkable spiral staircase in a Checkist housing scheme and the beautifully curved balcony and windows in the Pishchevik Club.


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Many recreate vintage photograph from the period, from which one cannot but be struck by the physical deterioration of many buildings.  Pare's images are themselves a kind of interplay between architectural, record and documentary forms and will fascinate any serious photographer.

Many of these Soviet artists and architects shared the rather elitist bossiness of their European modernist counterparts (one thinks of Le Corbusier here and, interestingly, he was directly involved in the design of some of the Soviet buildings in the period).  Herding families into communal living, designing better quality housing for the Party elite, seeking to change the soul of man through their work, these and similar aims lead us to question the motivations behind much of this work. Politically dubious it may have been; creatively inspired it certainly was.  

Go see!



(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Architecture Exhibition reviews Photography Wed, 14 Mar 2012 18:45:22 GMT

Andrea Arnold’s new take on Wuthering Heights took this year’s Cannes Film Festival by storm.  It’s only her third movie and follows Red Road, which won the Cannes Jury Prize in 2006 and Fish Tank which won the same prize in 2009.  Quite a start to a film career. 

Wuthering Heights attracted praise for its earthy, gritty and radical approach to a popular (and much filmed) classic.  There’s none of the sentimentality of many commercial cinema adaptations here: the Earnshaw farm is small, dirty and run-down; the treatment of Heathcliff by Hindley Earnshaw is vividly brutal; rabbits are stabbed, have their necks broken with sickening cracks and dogs are hung up by their necks wire fencing; the moors are cold, misty and dark. The broad dialect dialogue rarely moves beyond short, monosyllabic sentences.  There’s hardly a scene which isn’t gruesome, mucky, brutal or racked by passions. 

The movie has been generally very well reviewed although I wasn’t wholly convinced by it.  I somehow felt is was almost too consciously an anti-film movie, as if Arnold had made a list of all the features of commercial adaptations and resolved to do the opposite (“Sunning ladscapes? OK, ours will be misty, rainy, dank and dark”).  The result was a little lack of subtlety. 

But what do I know.  I just wanted to draw your attention to the work of Robbie Ryan, the film’s photographer.  Photographers don’t often spend time looking at the work of film cameramen - a pity, since they have a lot to teach still camera people. 

Ryan, a former Talking Heads frontman who was born in Ireland and now lives in the US, has a long list of films to his credit including Red Road.  His work in Wuthering Heights is remarkable.  There is a “hide what you want to show” quality about what he has done in this film.  He often chooses to show his subjects in half-light or their faces partially obscured.  In a  key scene in which Kathy tells Heathcliffe she is resolved to marry Linton, he is shown sharply shadowed and she is almost completely veiled.  Many times the subject is out of focus or thrown indistinct by narrow depth of field choice while some foreground subject - normally natural, like trees or grass - retain sharp focus.  Unsteady camera work is also used to follow the protagonist around. 

Many scenes are underexposed, for reasons which should by now be clear, but a few are startlingly overexposed.  When Heathcliff returns after several years to find Catherine (one of the few sunny scenes), the sun blasts the picture into bright white and lingers there for several seconds.  Very powerful. 

Perhaps most remarkable is Ryan’s choice of viewpoint.  Many scenes are filmed from ground level and the view is regularly obscured by foliage.  The effect is not just to ground the movements and actions of the subject in a physical sense but, equally, in a moral sense.  We feel that Heathcliffe, Catherine and certain Hindley rarely rise above the ground in the quality of their thoughts and words.  It is very disconcerting. 

But back to blur. Photographers are obsessed with sharpness.  The reason is probably that accidental blur looks awful.  If you want to use out of focus, you need to plan carefully and make sure the result looks like you meant it.  As most photographers aren’t taught how to take out of focus images, their results are - well, awful.  Making a great out of focus image takes as much skill as a “pin sharp from back to front” image (to quote the competition judge cliche).  And oftentimes much more effective.


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This still from the movie gives some idea, but take a look at the video trailer at this link:

Go see the film! 

There’s an interview with Robbis Ryan on IMDb at


(Alan John Ainsworth Photography) Art Film Photography Wed, 14 Mar 2012 18:33:13 GMT