World on a Wire

Photographs I took during a trip to Western Ross, Scotland in April 2011.

Additionally, see a HD Quicktime movie with music by Pantha du Prince here.

All images © Craig Ritchie.

Beat Presser and the Conquest of Dreams

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.

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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.

You can view Beat Presser’s website here, which is a combination of commercial and personal material. You can see his dedicated Klaus Kinski website here.

All images © Beat Presser.

Album Covers of Eastern European 70s Pop Stars

Whilst strictly speaking not vernacular photographs, these images definitely have the feel of amateur setups (and are probably all the better for it). I’m hoping to explore the fascinating world of ‘vernacular’ more over coming months. Photo-montage of Obren Pjevović sitting on a satellite anyone?

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The End of the Game

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

Flattended Intro

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.

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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.

 

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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!

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.

Matilda and London

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of being one of the invited artists for the 2010 London Elephant Parade, an ambitious attempt by the charity Elephant Family to raise money to help save the endangered Asian elephant. The parade was a great success, raising more than £4 million – significantly more than expected – which went directly to projects in India and Thailand.

The elephant I submitted, Matilda, was covered in a delicate patchwork of 2,000 historical photos of London carefully selected from the archives of the British Library, the Press Association, the Science and Society Picture Library, the Museum of London, and English Heritage. It turned out to be a successful work, selling for £15,000 at Sotheby’s to a collector in the Cayman Islands (where she now sits). A selection of studio images of the completed elephant can be seen here and the formal press release here.

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One of the most exciting parts of this project was the image selection process when about 10,000 photographs were reviewed and carefully filtered to ensure a good and balanced set of photos that were both historically representative and which also had a strong aesthetic coherence. The selection covered the period from about 1880 to 1970 and was a bewildering mixture of the absurd, the tragic, the informative, the disturbing, and the intriguing.

Matilda was eventually exhibited at the Museum of London for about two months though the majority of people reading this will not have had the opportunity to see it and take pleasure in any of the superb photos. So I have decided to post here a selection (80) of some of the 2,000 that sit on Matilda. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I have and oh, do spare a thought for those people who had to stick the damned things!

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.

Brighton Photo Biennial

I visited the Brighton Photo Biennial last weekend to take a look at the centrally located exhibitions (there were a few venues outside of Brighton). Regretfully missed the related workshops and symposiums spread over the past two months but in any case was just pleased to make it down before it closed on the 14th November. On the whole, very impressed with Martin Parr’s curatorial selection. He has his critics on a photogratic level, but it cannot be denied that when it comes to the photography of others he has impeccable taste – consistently identifying new and emerging talent, such as Rimaldas Vikstraitis who won the Arles Discovery Award in 2009, and getting the balance of work and artists right.

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The central part of this biennial were the three commissioned photographers – Stephen Gill (UK), Alec Soth (USA), and Rinko Kawauchi (JP) – each invited to produce a body of work specifically focused on Brighton. Most interesting of these for me was by Gill who made a special camera within which he could place things (alive and dead) he’d found in and around the city, including of course on the beach. His technique was to drop his objects inside, and then wander round taking photos with the contents superimposed upon the film emulsion. Sounds a bit gimmicky but anyone who knows Gill will be aware how considered he is in his operation and the results were intriguing and certainly felt the most ‘complete’ of the three commissions. Watching a video interview with Soth at the Brighton Museum he talked about how fearful he is of undertaking overseas commissions in case he photographs a whole series of ‘eiffel towers’. Pretty obvious thing to say of course, but his fear was obviously not headed by Kawauchi in her murmaration work based around the phenomenon of the starlings cartwheeling around the west pier each evening. In fact, I’ve just done a quick search on Google images which threw up a large selection of photos very similar to her own. Beware of the the dangers of the exotic I suppose, a symposium around which I’ll be attending this Friday at the Tate Modern. Note: See subsequent Gauguin blog posting.

Other work that particularly stood out Pintados Retratos, the hand-painted studio portraits from the North of Brazil, the Corinthians work of vernacular Kodachrome images taken between 1947-1974 in the US, Vivienne Sassan’s excellent Flamboya (I never got her work in book format but on the wall I certainly did), Suzanne Opton’s powerful Veterans series, and last but not least Ju Duoqi’s Fantasies of Chinese Cabbage! There were some great fringe exhibits as well, including Jason Evans curated Nothing is in the Place and Simon Roberts’ 2010 Election Project.

Overall an enjoyable festival and just a shame it couldn’t have been a bit bigger of the scale of say Photo España. We’re sadly lacking a truly great photo festival here in the UK but Brighton goes someway to filling that gap. Shame it’s only every two years though. And nice to have a festival where photographers are commissioned to produce work in situ. As a medium, photography lends itself well to bespoke work with the ease of which people can mobilise independently over short time frames. And in these tight times I’d personally rather see festival money used for the creation of work than one-off gallery framing or venue modification. Anyway, top marks Martin and the team!