Category Archives: Travel

Three Minute Portraits

See more of my recent three minute street portraits from Burma here.

Chaung Tha Beach, Burma (with a new Fuji X100 camera)

What does one do when on an exotic beach in Burma, facing the Bay of Bengal, new Fuji X100 compact camera in the backpack? The answer is of course, very little – it’s far too hot and bright to move around, with the obvious exception of the first hour or so of the day. Stumbling around in my longyi, I came across these fellows each morning:

Subway

“It’s easy to prettify a nation at an airport, but trains show you a place with its pants down.”
Paul Theroux

Many years ago on a campsite in Byron Bay, Australia I had a life changing experience. Someone gave me a copy of Paul Theroux’s classic The Great Railway Bazaar, describing his non-stop journey from London, around the world and back again, all undertaken using the international train network. It was the book that established him as a serious writer and is widely credited with reinventing the travel genre. It also inspired me and countless other travellers to think of the journey as the end in itself with the final destination more the place you just hop on the plane back home again.

Since my time in Oz and my exposure to that particular book, I spent many years working for London Underground. I’ve also undertaken a few epic train journeys of my own. In the past year alone I spent two months travelling from London to Pakistan and six weeks travelling around the crumbling Burmese train network. It’s fair to say therefore that trains have been a big part of my life and that I like them, a lot.

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All images © Bruce Davidson.

I collect photography books and have a small but growing collection portraying life on some of the world’s metro systems. You can imagine my pleasure therefore when on a late-night visit to the Tate Modern a few weeks ago I walked into Room 8 of the State of Flux gallery and discovered the newly acquired Bruce Davidson Subway series hanging on the wall. The photos (taken from his book of the same name) are of the people who inhabited and travelled on the New York Metro system in 1980/81 when it was a dark and dangerous place – you know, back in the days of the Guardian Angels. This body of work is one my absolute favourites and 30 years after it was originally produced it seems to get better and better.

Shot on Canon T90s using Kodachrome 64 film with fill-in flash, the project was primarily a collaborative effort where he approached strangers asking if he could take their portrait, pulling from his bag a sample of previous images to help explain things more clearly. This of course led to numerous intriguing interactions and side-adventures some of which he describes in the book’s afterword.

He often worked using a magenta filter which when combined with flash bounced off the train carriage’s metallic ceilings, giving the images a strange underwater iridescence exacerbated by the high saturation film. The images portray unbelievable scenes of stop motion, flickering moments from the surging flow of life in the underworld of 80s New York that seems almost fictitious in its aesthetic. Moments of despair, tenderness, danger, pity, and beauty – they’re all here, along with a colour pallet and compositional style that went on to inspire a whole generation of photographers, including the likes of Alex Webb and David Alan Harvey.

Prior to commencing the project, Davidson undertook a military fitness regime and crash weight loss programme, conditioning himself as the hunter who “felt like he could become the mugger before he mugged me.” As it happens, he was mugged on a few occasions but he carried on regardless producing one of the finest bodies of social documentary work in the history of photography. I advise anyone who is able to take a trip to the Tate Modern to check out these truly great images.

It’s probably also interesting to post here a few photos by a couple of other photographers who’ve taken on the New York Metro system. Firstly, Walker Evans, who in 1938 produced a body of work called Many are Called. These photos were taken surreptitiously on a Contax camera concealed under his coat. A sad look at daily life in the city, they depict “NYC’s unknowing life soldiers wrapped in their own mind.” The images represent something unique to the individual subject but universal to the urban dweller: the intense loneliness of the quiet mind and the futile search for anonymity inside the citizenry of the mega-metropolis. They were not released until almost 30 years after they were taken and have subsequently been exhibited worldwide, residing in the collections of many of the world’s top modern art museums.

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All images © Walker Evans.

Secondly, Christophe Agou’s Life Below series taken between 1997-2000. These images were shot without flash on Agfa black and white slide film in a classic Leica style using extreme wide-angle lenses. Taken almost 20 years after Davidson’s work it’s amazing to see how much New York changed in such a short period of time. More stylised than Subway or Many Are Called these are nevertheless great images that often resemble film stills, such is Agou’s superb sense of timing, fine use of light and differential focus. A book I strongly recommend checking out.

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All images © Christophe Agou.

UPDATE 1: I’ve just remembered this from the New York Times last year about the NYC subway.
UPDATE 2: See a video of Bruce Davidson talking about his work here.
UPDATE 3: The Sunday Times of 250911 have just ran a 4 page article on Subway, announcing that it has been republished by Steidl. You can download a PDF of the article
here.

Out of his Depth in Otherness?

Anyone not living in London may be unaware that there is currently a major exhibition of Paul Gauguin’s work at the Tate Modern. It’s an excellent show that has been met with much critical acclaim.

Certain elements of Gauguin’s oeuvre are infamous, specifically the Tahitian portion covering the period 1890 until his death in 1903. Much of the controversy from this period is centred on the female models he used as the subject matter for his nudes, many of whom were teenagers (Gauguin’s Tahitian wife, Tehura, was 13 when he married her). Setting aside this issue, I’d like to briefly highlight another area of controversy, one which is particularly topical in light of post-colonial critiques and which has significance for any photographer working in unfamiliar locations and that is the thorny issue of representation.

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Uniformed viewers of much of Gauguin’s work from Tahiti would find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Tahiti of the time was some form of primitive paradise on earth, a place where the surplus repression that had created the discontents of European civilisation simply had no currency. The reality of course is that prior to Gauguin’s arrival, a century of Christian missionary activity had virtually eliminated traditional Polynesian customs, beliefs, and mythology. In fact by the time Gauguin had reached Tahiti probably only a few elders could recollect native traditions.

So on a fundamental level how do we interpret his work? Outside of any allegory to the body and its history within western art (of which there are probably many), perhaps we can say Gauguin was consciously engaged in a kind of facile filtering of western fantasy, pandering to the expectations of the day within France (and Europe) by knocking out paintings of a kind of dusky tropical fantasia, albeit in a style and colour pallet that was radically different to what had gone before.

Another view is that his work was simply naive, but this probably does him a disservice. We know he was an intellectual, profoundly literary who went the full distance in his travel experiences. By his early life history alone he was an internationalist, well versed in the world, who probably had a reasonable understanding of the period in history he found himself in.

The most likely interpretation I suggest is that Gauguin was simply appropriating from cultures he had only a superficial understanding of (but which he was no doubt fascinated by), never trying to convey an accurate portrayal of the places he visited and spent time in. Cultural specificity was probably not important to him – the location was probably just a vehicle around which he could construct his own historical reality – one which was variously grounded in the imaginary, the sensory, the experiential, the factual, and experimental. In doing so, he probably remained a hostage to primitivist myths but turned the discourse to good use, unaware of the extent to which his work would take on a life its own once it left its studio and headed out into the 20th century.

Which via a meandering route brings us to photography. Are the same kind of issues Gauguin probably grappled with and the same kind of critiques just as relevant to photographers today operating in foreign locations bringing back photos of different places and cultures? Or do we have a more objective view on cultural representation both in the taking and interpretation of images? I’m probably positing these questions from the perspective of travel photography, it being genre that is most often the vehicle for depicting other places; however, I could equally be talking about other photographic genres.

Most of the photography I take is overseas so it’s obviously something I’ve thought about a great deal. The question I often asked myself is to what extent is it realistic to expect any photographer passing through or maybe temporarily residing in a foreign location with probably only a rudimentary understanding of the cultural and geographical space they find themselves in to ever hope to produce material that could be said to be in any way representative or which embodies the essence of place? Is travel, documentary, and observational photography in foreign lands a task so inherently fraught with the potential risk of what Alec Soth refers to as ‘Eiffel tower moments’ that it is almost not worth attempting in any meaningful way?

Let me be clear in stating that I am not dismissing the relevance of my own or other people’s output or anyone’s right to produce whatever work they feel inclined to. However, my current thinking is that the majority of work geographically disconnected from one’s own place should come with an upfront qualification on a personal level about what it exactly is one is doing and how it might be interpreted. This is something that requires the utmost honesty on the part of the photographer and a recognition of the framework of understanding and codification that the material will ultimately find itself sitting within and being judged against.

It seems to me that most experiences of choice in foreign lands are fundamentally a projection of one’s own fantasies, desires, theories, and ideas and they should unashamedly and perhaps uncritically be recognised as such.