My latest photography book on witches in Scotland can be viewed online in eBook format here.
It is also available to buy here.
There has been much debate in recent years as to the value of traditional frontline war reportage. One of the primary arguments is that this kind of warzone imagery is so lacking in context as to serve as little more than documentary evidence of isolated events within limited geographical locations. It neither informs nor stimulates us to think about the causes of war, the immediate effects of war on anyone outside of the frame of vision, nor the longer term impacts after the killing has stopped. If we add to the mix the highly technical nature of modern warfare where much of the activity occurs within computers potentially thousands of miles away, changes within news organisations with the new media possibilities, and broader geopolitical factors in the complex web of contemporary international relations, it’s perhaps understandable why many people perceive traditional war photography to have past its sell-by date.
By a similar measure, if we look back into photobook history we find relatively few examples of practitioners pushing the medium in trying to explore the broader context of war within their productions. There are notable exceptions of course – Philip Jones Griffiths with his famous work on Indochina, perhaps Stanley Green with his work in the Central Caucasus, Simon Norfolk with his work on Afghanistan and modern warfare generally, and Susuan Meiselas and her work in Central America immediately spring to mind – but one can’t help feel that photographically there has been somewhat of a failure to tackle the full vista of war with all it’s complexities, absurdities, and horror.
One individual who definitely transcends these criticisms is the German pacifist anarchist, Ernst Friedrich, who in 1924 produced one of the first (and arguably, still the best) photographic attempts at scrutinising warfare in his seminal photobook, WAR against WAR! Since its publication in 1924 there have been as many as a million copies in circulation, translated into forty languages. It’s a book that should be well known, however the majority of people I know with a deep interest in photography have never heard of it nor him. I first became aware of Friedrich last year at a Tate symposium on Violence and Representation. In a somewhat unusual scenario, a presentation was made which included some of WAR against WAR’s more horrific images. Such was their power the proceeding speaker (Susan Meiselas) was visibly shaken and struggled to make it through her own presentation, breaking down in fact during the Q&A that followed.
One of the strangest experiences I can recall in photography was being advised to take images out of an edit because they contained humour. The rational was that serious photography couldn’t be in any way funny and that inducing people to laugh or chuckle diminished the artistic merit of a work. I hear similar comments around photography focused on the natural world (landscape, wildlife, etc.) which for many so-called “fine art” photographers would be considered seriously off-limits lest it be consigned to the coffee-table book genre which in the present day seem to have little or no artistic credibility.
In relation to humour though, the assertion that it kills meaning is not only unfair but is belied by significant evidence to the contrary. What about Rimaldas Viksraitis’s Grimaces of the Weary Village and the work of Martin Parr and Duane Michels? All these photographers use humour as a conduit for evoking deeper truths.
And then there is the photography that is actually loaded with humour, but which may not have been consciously produced with it in mind. Does that make the work any less funny or worthy of serious consideration? This is where Kessel Kramer Publishing come in with their superb publishing programme, in particular their occasional Useful Photography magazine. Useful Photography is the generic name for the millions of ephemeral images, which are used daily and with a purpose all of their own: practical photography, often made by amateurs that has a clear function where the makers remain anonymous.
Useful Photography #008 celebrates the opening images of pornographic photo shoots. Pornographic films, websites, and magazines all plough the same furrow: the repetition of the same act, in all its variations. Where they differ is in their opening sequences, the patently fake and false scenarios, which are often afterthoughts to the main event. UP #008 commemorates these opening scenes, often clichéd, sometimes bizarrely inventive, but always supremely fake. Taken out of context, (without the pornographic scenes that follow) they tell a different story. Humdrum scenes of chess playing, coming to the assistance of a fallen roller skater, or a job interview take on supposedly sexual (but ultimately comical) overtones when the viewer is supplied with the knowledge of what is to come.
I recently showed these images to a friend who is studying Visual Anthropology who like me thought there was far more to them than meets the eye. Aside from being embodiments of the various cultures they were produced within (which is in itself a fascinating guessing game) there’s also an intriguing off-hand fantasy element to them that could only reveal itself within the context of ‘afterthought’ images which though produced for public consumption don’t actually have to be any good as they’re mere accompaniments to the ‘main event’.
Anyway, to the actors, actresses, and art directors involved in these photos and of course Eric Kessels and his team I salute you all for making me laugh whilst making me think.
In Werner Herzog’s 2004 journal, Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, photographer Beat Presser is described as a “long-time Herzog collaborator.” In view of the length of Herzog’s career and the sheer amount of films and documentaries he has produced it’s a significant statement. Spread across the books 300+ pages, in and amongst descriptions of the projects infamous day-to-day problems, including the frustrations of working with Klaus Kinski and grappling with almost every perceivable catastrophe one could imagine, Beat Presser crops up regularly. It’s clear he was an integral member of the Fitzcarraldo production team as well as the ensuing Herzog films he was associated with.
As with Peter Beard, the subject of a previous post, Beat Presser is a photographer less well known in the UK than he should be and like Beard once you become aware of him it’s surprising how often you see his images and hear his name mentioned. Born in Switzerland in 1952 he trained as a photographer and film cameraman in Basel, Paris, and New York and in the mid-seventies became editor of the magazines Palm Beach News and The Village Cry. In 1981 he began his collaboration with Herzog hooking up with him on three major films, two of which I include amongst my favourites of cinema: Fitzcarraldo and Cobra Verde, both starring the famous German actor and hothead Klaus Kinski. The author of more than ten photography monographs on diverse subjects he remains highly active as an international photographer producing and exhibiting almost constantly.
Via a long series of coincidences and events I first met Beat Presser in Cambodia during 2008 having been given the opportunity to work with him on photographic workshops for local students, which formed part of the educational program supporting his touring Oasis of Silence exhibition at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. We quickly became good friends though our shared love of photography and adventure, activities central to our independent beings, and have remained in regular contact. It’s true say he is a constant source of inspiration to me through my unfolding knowledge of his prior work and travels and also his continued striking out in search of new horizons. Approaching 60 years of age, he seems to be speeding up and it’s nigh on impossible to keep track of his various projects and activities.
He is perhaps best known for his work on Fitzcarraldo, acting as both assistant cameraman and still photographer, producing striking images of Herzog, Kinski, Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, and Matsiguenka and Campa Indians that have become some of the most iconic in the history of cinema. In view of the projects grand scale the production unit and budget on Fitzcarraldo was only a fraction of what they should have been which occasionally shows in the films low key lighting. Not so with his images though which he consistently gets absolutely bang on. And what about THE seminal image at the start of this post? Few photographers would have had the courage to position the aggressive and egocentric Kinski in miniature to the bottom right of the frame.
But there’s much more to Beat Presser than his Herzog work, which within the context of his career equates to a small proportion of his output. The majority of his personal photography is grounded in travel and his experiences of heterogeneous culture and elemental nature. His Oasis of Silence project for example was produced in monasteries in Thailand, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, India, and Korea where he travelled extensively over four years capturing the essence of Theravada Buddhism with his trusty Leica lenses. His ALPenTRAUM work (arguably his best book) is a documentation of the wild winter mountain landscapes of Switzerland. His most recent endeavour is an exploration of Dhow history and culture in East Africa, which involved six months sailing one of the ancient ships along the coast of Kenya and Tanzania.
Much of Beat Presser’s work is bound up in chance in so much that though he carefully chooses the places he travels to and carries with him outline ideas of the possibilities available to him (often as a result of extensive prior research) when he is insitu he lets fate/karma run their course embracing the opportunities that present themselves and developing them to the full, normally over extended timeframes. This is a method of working I mostly adopt myself (albeit less ambitiously) and is the primary method of almost all the great travel photographers and writers. Whilst his work is broad and varied he mostly considers himself a travel photographer, which I find refreshingly unpretentious in view of the cynical connotations often associated with the term.
The photobook is central to his output where through sophisticated design techniques, often in collaboration with his wife Vera Pechel who is herself a highly regarded book designer, he produces thematic monographs often shot over many years. He’s on book eleven and counting which is a fair return when one considers how much time he invests in obtaining the actual images.
I like Beat Presser. I like his books, I like his photos, I like his method of working, and I even like him as a person. I hope that through this post you’ve discovered something about a photographer you may previously have known little of but who has had the kind of rich and successful career all but the best photographers can really only dream of.
All images © Beat Presser.
“The tragic paradox of white man’s encroachment: the deeper he went into Africa the faster life flowed from it.”
Peter Beard, The End of the Game
Despite being one of 20th century photography’s most interesting characters and producing The End of The Game, one of its most intriguing photobooks, I expect the majority of people reading this post have never heard of Peter Beard. The notable exception of course are probably the readers with an interest in East African wildlife conservation where he is well known and I think fair to say pretty much celebrated. My own knowledge of him doesn’t come via the photography arena – it comes from my involvement with the animal charity Save the Rhino International where I volunteered for a few years. Once you know of Beard it’s surprising how often he crops up, most recently as part of the 2010 London Elephant Parade which was discussed in a separate post.
Coming from a long line of blue-blooded wealth, Beard first travelled to East Africa in the 1950’s supposedly after reading Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. On the back of his experiences there, which included a friendship with Blixen herself, the fate of East African wildlife and cultures and all of the complexities around them became his passion. But there’s more to him than that – Beard was a prominent socialite whose milieu in New York high society included Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Bianca Jagger, and Jackie Onassis. He also had a close friendship with Francis Bacon whom he photographed and was the subject in some of his paintings (see Bacon’s Beard portrait, left).
The focus of The End of the Game is the damage done by big-game hunting and the incursion of the railways to wildlife and indigenous cultures in 20th century Kenya. The book commences by looking at the life of the elite band of white Kenyans who’d travelled from Europe in the late-1800s with a desire to profit and “impose order on the interior.” This eventually led to the construction of the ‘Lunatic Line’ – a train system from Mombasa to Uganda, which served to open up these countries to further exploration and exploitation and which lit the touch paper for the bio-cultural extermination that would follow. Much of this happened before Beard’s time of course, but through his friendship with Blixen he was welcomed into Kenya by survivors of these elite, thereby accessing their records and anecdotes.
The construction of this ‘Lunatic’ railway is one of the most interesting and relatively unknown chapters in African colonial expansion. 562 miles long, it was built almost entirely by Indians brought in by the British who couldn’t compel the native Africans to be involved. Beard includes historical images of the line’s construction in the book including copies of diary entries by railway engineers, foreman, and colonial functionaries who record in remarkable detail the horrors of their endeavours, most notably tales of Indian workers being picked off almost at will by the man eating lions.
This ‘advance of civilisation’ inevitably called for the wild game – a central symbol of African culture – to be eliminated with all the concomitant effects on the local population who were dependent upon it for their own survival. One page of a hunter’s notebook records the remarkable killing of 996 rhinos during a single expedition. It is argued by Beard that, overall, the big game hunters in themselves had a marginal effect of wildlife but that they set the scene for its subsequent commercialisation that goes a long way to help understand the origins of some of Kenya’s present day problems.
First published in 1965 it has since been reissued three more times, most recently in 2008 with a new foreword by Paul Theroux. After the 1977 edition appeared it included 40 pages of aerial photos of elephant carcasses and bones documenting the tragic elephant die-off of the 1970s on the back of disastrous conservation policies. The emotional impact of these images is immense, concluding the overall apocalyptic feel to the book which starts somewhat romantically with tales of adventure, daring, and geographical exploration and concludes with scenes of absolute mayhem. The volume contains about 300 images, the majority of which are Beards own, including some real stunners which are even more remarkable when one considers the technical limitations of the day. The design still seems innovative despite nearing 50 years old and the page layouts include all kinds of sketches, delicate drawings and symbols of Africa, hand written texts on many of the images, and beautiful typography and prose. The book is a life-form in itself, with the prints still exhibited and sold in private galleries where Beard develops his ideas further through the application of paint, poetry, drawings, etc.
In short, nothing short of a classic that can be returned to time and time again (ultimately the measure of any good photobook). I hope one day to experience the pleasure of seeing his prints up close.
All images © Peter Beard.
UPDATE: I thought I’d add this video of Beard tracking elephants on foot in the Massai Mara, with interesting consequences!
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