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Reflection on identity

Traditional sources/signifiers of identity are largely

– Imposed by society
– Based around place and/or roles in society
– Fixed/static

Traditional sources include

– Social class
– Family
– Education
– Work
– Marital status
– Parenthood
– Religious affiliation
– Club/organisation membership

Modern sources/signifiers of identity are largely

– Self-selected
– Based around personal issues
– Fluid

Modern sources include

– Interests and activities
– Lifestyle
– Sexuality
– Journeys of personal development
– Membership of social tribes organised around shared interests
– Patterns of consumption, eg products and brands

Tensions often arise between traditional and modern definitions and/or between group and individual identities. These tensions can lead to personal misunderstandings, personal alienation and the need to code-switch (NPR, 2013), or to conflict between groups, such as the present divisions over Brexit. In an essay on the role of identity politics in the rise of the new right across Europe, Professor Philipp Hübi of the University of Stuttgart cites research indicating that “individuals who fear a loss of social status can be drawn to extremism”, adding that “studies show that people with traditional values are more likely to harbour [such] fears than progressives” (Hübi, 2017, p.71).

The division between traditional and modern sources/signifiers of identity are described in Brilliant (1991, p.12) as representing respectively the outer and inner aspects of identity – on the one hand social roles, which he says are “like masks or disguises, carefully assumed by individuals in order to locate themselves in a society conditioned to recognise and identify these forms of representation in practice and in art”, and on the other hand the personal aspects or “inner reality”. While it is clearly the case that identity has both outer and inner aspects, the balance between the two in defining identity has shifted dramatically towards a much greater consideration of inner aspects since Brilliant wrote this description, due largely to the emergence of the internet and the rise of now-ubiquitous self-defined social media profiles.

Within this general shift, however, individual identities combine the two elements in varying proportions, with socially conservative people usually placing greater emphasis on traditional sources and social progressives on modern ones. Episode 1 of Grayson Perry’s 2014 Channel 4 series (Perry, 2014) included explorations of identities at the extremes of this polarity – ex MP Chris Huhne, who was unwilling or unable to reveal anything at all of his inner self, and X-Factor contestant Rylan Clark, who struggled to express any sense of himself beyond the self-constructed aspects.

As Grayson Perry’s series also demonstrated, the way identity is expressed in a portrait depends not just on the subject’s own sense of identity, but also on what the portraitist wishes to reveal. School and passport photos, for example, are uninterested in personal aspects of identity and are each only concerned with documenting one aspect of our status and identity – as school pupil in the one case and citizen in the other.

Research and references

Brilliant, R. (1991) Portraiture. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
Hübi, P. (2017) ‘The power of political emotions: on political camp formation and the new right-wing populism’, in Tillmans, W. (2018) Jahresring 64: What Is Different? Berlin: Sternberg Press.
NPR (2013) Five Reasons Why People Code-Switch. Available at https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/04/13/177126294/five-reasons-why-people-code-switch [accessed 17.01.19]
Perry, G. (2014) Who Are You? Available at https://www.channel4.com/programmes/grayson-perry-who-are-you [accessed 17.01.19]

IAP A1: battling dread and doubts

From the moment I first looked through the course pdf for Identity & Place at the beginning of November 2018 I was filled with dread about the prospect of having to engage with strangers for the first assignment – a dread so intense that it has even blocked me from starting work on the exercises as I battled with indecision about whether to drop out of the course. On many days I made a firm decision to continue and then an equally firm decision to drop out, seesawing between the two positions repeatedly as I ran through their respective pros and cons.

Hoping that it would make me feel better equipped to face the task, I watched an instructional youtube video on asking strangers to pose for portraits, took a LinkedIn Learning course on the same subject and another on photographing people in natural light – but if anything these made me feel even more apprehensive as I realised how little idea I had about what I was trying to achieve. Finally I reached a point where it became clear that just going out and asking some strangers whether I could take their photo was going to be less of an emotional rollercoaster than continuing to prevaricate, so I did exactly that. In a roughly two-hour walk around Brighton beach and marina I managed to find two suitable targets, both of whom were surprisingly willing to have their photo taken.

Although I felt relieved to have two subjects under my belt, I realised I was no closer to having a sense of what I was trying to achieve. I did, however, come to the conclusion that the photos in which the subject looked directly at the camera had most potential, so made a resolution to make sure I included similarly direct shots in subsequent sessions. It took another half a dozen outings over a couple of weeks before I finally had sufficient images to find a theme, and my doubts about continuing with the course persisted throughout this period. It was only when I started reading Art & Fear (Bayles & Orland, 1993), recommended by a peer to whom I confided my feelings, that I realised that my doubts and feelings of inadequacy didn’t necessarily mean I wasn’t suited to the course – or indeed, to being a photographer/artist.

Now that I have my images and a potential theme for the assignment I am very happy that I didn’t drop out. This probably won’t be the last time I feel such overwhelming doubts, but knowing that I found a way through this time will surely help when similar feelings arise in the future.

References and resources

Bayles, D. and Orland, T. (1993) Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. Santa Cruz, Oregon: Image Continuum Press.
Windsor, J. (2018) How to ask strangers for photos. Available at https://youtu.be/BWip3-T3ev4 [accessed 06.03.18]

Stopping and re-starting the course

Back in March I was really struggling with IAP, and felt stressed and overwhelmed by the challenges ahead. All the sense of enjoyment and of exploring and expressing my creativity that I’d had when I started the course just over a year earlier had disappeared, and I wondered why on earth I was doing it when it was making me so miserable. Eventually I decided to take a break and see how I felt further down the line.

At first it was a massive relief to sweep all the stress and anxiety away in one fell swoop, and I was not at all sure that I’d want to return. Rather than force a decision one way or the other, I decided just to leave my options open for as long as I needed to or until time ran out.

Nine months later at the beginning of December I felt ready to dip my toes back into the water. I decided to pick up where I’d left off and see how that felt before making a formal decision. I completed the part 1 exercises and found that I had a new way forward for the work I’d already done for the first assignment. And I enjoyed it. So I got in touch with the student office to let them know I was returning to the course, and here I am.

Book: Eijkelboom, H. People of the Twenty-First Century

This fascinating book demonstrates the ability of typologies to reveal things the individual images could never show. The seemingly endless stream of photographs of people going about their business in cities around the world, arranged in groupings of 12, 15 or 18 to a page on the basis of similarities in the subjects’ clothing, makes powerful statements on a range of subjects.

The images span a period of 21 years and provide a timeline of fashion styles which bears little resemblance to the fashions we see in magazines. These are the fashions worn by real people in the real world. Some trends, such as belts worn below the bust and ultra-shiny jackets, pop up momentarily and disappear, while others – t-shirts printed with slogans or logos, for example – persist throughout the survey.

The adoption of similar or identical garments by people of such diverse shapes and sizes emphasises both our homogeneity as humans and our desire to conform. It also flags up the contradiction that asserting our individuality by making a bold statement with clothing can actually have the opposite effect, as illustrated for example by the 12 people sporting large-scale images of Sylvester Stallone on their t-shirts that Eijkelboom captured over a 2.5-hour period in New York City on 20 April 2006.

Similarly, on a wider scale the survey gives the lie to the idea of consumer choice. Rather than the discerning purchasers we like to consider ourselves, we are shown to be willing to embrace whatever the fashion industry churns out.

The huge number of garments captured in the survey, meanwhile, and the unavoidable realisation that most of them are now very likely to be landfill, creates a sobering illustration of the issue of fast fashion. These are not the high-quality garments that our grandparents would wear for decades, nor are they made of the biodegradable textiles of those times. These garments were made to last a single season of wear, but their manmade fabrics will remain intact in the ground for many years to come.

The fact that the problems associated with fast fashion have only come to general attention fairly recently and are unlikely to have been in the mind of Eijkelboom when he made the images highlights another interesting aspect of typologies – the way they provide a dataset that can be interpreted in ways their creator never considered.

References and resources

Eijkelboom, H. (2014) People of the Twenty-First Century. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

Magazine: Foam #55. Talent

I recently received the latest issue of Foam Magazine, an edition dedicated to a survey of emerging talent. As always it is beautifully produced, using a selection of papers with different textures, weights and finishes. But what really stood out for me this time was the section entitled In Fieri, the pages of which literally look like copper. I have a spun copper lamp, made from real copper, and the colour and sheen of the two are virtually identical. At first I thought this was a copper-coated paper, but it didn’t take long to realise that the white text on some of these pages, as well as the matching copper text on white paper on the magazine’s title page, must mean that the copper colour has been printed onto the page.

Some googling turned up Pantone’s metallic printing inks, and specifically the copper Pantone 16-1325. But clearly there’s more to it than just the colour. The paper they’ve chosen and its finishing is absolutely perfect, with exactly the right amount of sheen and a silky texture that feels luxurious to the touch. It also has precisely the right weight and degree of flexibility to reflect the light in a way that mimics the sheen of metal. All in all, this is a startlingly effective page design which I’ve repeatedly returned to admire. Credit is presumably due to the magazine’s art director Hamid Sallali and designer Ayumi Higuchi, and also its paper supplier Igepa Netherlands BV.

As for the magazine’s content, well yes, that’s interesting too, but – as I always find with this magazine – far too much to digest immediately. It will probably take me some weeks or even months of dipping in and out to absorb it.

References and resources

Foam Magazine (2019) Issue #55, Talent. Amsterdam: Foam Gallery.

Book: Bull, S. Photography

I’ve had this book for about 18 months without getting round to reading it, and only chose it to take away over xmas because it was a good size and weight to stick in my handbag and read on the plane. I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be the great choice it turned out to be. I ended up devouring it from cover to cover and repeatedly found myself admiring Bull’s short and succinct summaries of subjects ranging from surrealism to modernism and postmodernism to the ideas put forward by Bazin, Barthes, Benjamin, Sontag, Solomon-Godeau and others. In less than 200 highly readable pages the book covers an astonishing amount of ground and provided me not just with an overview of more or less everything I’ve read and learned about photography in the past two years, but also a better understanding of some of the original materials.

In part this is due to Bull’s ability to distill complex ideas into a single sentence, and in another part it’s due to the way he provides such clear context for the work, ideas and movements he discusses. His tracing of ideas in photography (and art in general) to developments in the wider world has prompted me to consider the source of the current interest in identity and its politics, and I’ve come to realise that it’s a natural and inevitable consequence of the era-defining developments of our time – the rise of globalisation and all its social, economic, technological and political manifestations including the development of globalised communication via the internet, and the consequent erosion of the power and importance of the nation state, including its role as a source of identity. There are of course many, many other consequences that flow from these developments, as well as reactive backlashes in the shape of the current rise of nationalistic right-wing movements, but I have found that thinking about identity politics in this context makes a lot of sense. It also gives me a sense of potential directions to look for relevance in my own future work.

References and resources

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Video: Elina Brotherus student talk

This 48-minute video of Elina Brotherus speaking to a gathering of OCA students was worth watching for the insights it gave into the way she works and other useful snippets. The points that made a particular impression on me included the following:

– Brotherus places a high value on being able to take time over her work at all stages, from making the images (she prefers to work alone so that she doesn’t feel pressured by the possibility that a companion might become weary, hungry, cold or otherwise uncomfortable) to assessing them (she will wait for as long as six months before reviewing her work, in order to obtain emotional distance and objectivity) and exhibiting them (the work she was preparing for exhibition and publication in book form at the time of the recording had been made two to three years previously).

– Asked by one student whether she had any advice to offer about the process of developing themes and a style, Brotherus stated that she felt it was more productive to go out and work instead of sitting at home thinking about such things. There is in any case no need to think about style, she said, because your personal point of view will manifest itself in a recognisably consistent style over time, especially if the work you produce is sincere.

– She spoke about the fact that her autographical work is very consciously a documentation of experiences that are not unique to her but are shared by many others, and that she sees these works as a way of highlighting subjects that tend not to be discussed in public and/or that are more easily communicated in images than words.

– She also spoke about the way that being treated as a professional when she arrived direct from her MA course in Helsinki to take up the position of artist-in-residence at the Musée Nicéphore Niépce in Chalon-sur-Saône, France, allowed her to make the mental transition from student to working artist.

References and resources

OCA (2015) Elina Brotherus student talk. Available at https://www.oca.ac.uk/weareoca/photography/elina-brotherus-student-talk/ [accessed 04.02.20]

Reflection on inside/outside

Exercise 3.1 asks us to place archive images into two categories – mirrors and windows. For the purposes of the exercise, these categories are considered from the point of view of the photographer. Thus we are taking the viewpoint of John Szarkowski’s 1978 Mirrors and Windows exhibition and equating mirrors to autobiographical/inward-facing subject matter and windows to world-exploring/outward-looking subjects.

As Bull (2010) points out, Szarkowski’s approach is a modernist one and considers only the content of the image. In this respect it is actually quite different to the similarly-titled categories of inside and outside examined by Solomon-Godeau (1994). The difference arises because Solomon-Godeau takes a postmodernist approach, which considers the context in which an image has been made to reveal as much as, or even perhaps more than, its content. Like Rosler (1975) and Sontag (1979 p.55), who derides the photographer who gazes “on other people’s reality with curiosity, with detachment, […] as if that activity transcends class interests, as if its perspective is universal”, Solomon-Godeau argues that the photographer has to have to have directly lived the subject/s’ experience to be capable of documenting it in a credible and authentic manner.

These ideas have led directly or indirectly to the concept of cultural appropriation and its underlying presumption that only an insider is qualified to comment or build on the experience of any particular socially distinct group, ie one based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion or other culturally defined parameters. But where do we draw the insider/outsider line? Is anyone who has, for example, lived on the street on The Bowery qualified to comment on the experience of everyone else who has done the same? Or would a young white man’s experience in that environment be significantly different to that of a black man, a woman, an elderly person?

It is worth pointing out that at the time Solomon-Godeau and Sontag were writing it was generally believed that the framework through which people viewed the world was determined by their own social position and personal experience, and was essentially fixed and immutable. There was of course a long tradition of thought proposing an alternative argument – that that our perception of the world is, like reality itself, multidimensional and fluid – but this has only very recently become the prevailing paradigm. Today we argue not about facts but perspective, to the extent that arguments are now opposed not on factual grounds but on grounds of biased perspective: they are simply “fake news”.

The understanding that perspective is fluid and does not necessarily run along the same faultlines as class/gender/ethnic etc divisions has become increasingly evident in the past four years. In an era where it is common currency that all perception and analysis starts with a point of view and there is no longer any credence in the idea of absolute truth or a definitive version of events, perspective is the dividing line between insider and outsider viewpoints. Nothing has made this clearer than Brexit, which has revealed the underlying perspective faultline running through every subject from identity politics to global warming to welfare to immigration. This faultline emanates from the emotion-based principles described in Philipp Hübi’s essay in Tillmans (2018) – care, freedom, fairness, loyalty, authority and purity – which themselves boil down to a single axis: the ability/willingness to put oneself in the shoes of others, aka compassion.

Where the modernist perspective focused on content and the postmodernists focused on context, the post-postmodernist perspective focuses on perspective itself. Modernism says you point the camera one way or the other. Postmodernism says you have to have lived the experience of your subject. Post-postmodernism says compassion and conscious perspective enables you to place yourself in the shoes of your subject. For the photographer, the question becomes: are we recording the subject’s behaviour (outsider perspective) or sharing their experience (insider perspective)?

I would also argue that while the postmodernist analysis zoomed out from the close modernist focus on the image to include consideration of the photographer and even the context in which the image is viewed, it did not zoom out far enough to include the viewer of the image, and could not have done, because information about the viewer’s response was not available in those days. Images at that time were mostly consumed in magazines at home, and in public galleries viewers’ perspective would tend to be guided by the accompanying materials and there was generally no forum or other medium for hearing and recording viewers’ thoughts. So the viewer’s input is not something that Solomon-Godeau, Sontag et al could even have thought about considering or even encountering.

Today the situation could not be more different, and the perspective of the viewer is perhaps of even greater relevance to the insider/outsider divide than that of the photographer. Images are constantly commented on in social media and other public forums, and everyone can be a curator, interpreter and critic. It is now commonplace that identical images are interpreted in completely opposing ways in different forums with different agendas.

I experienced an enlightening example of this when I worked as an invigilator at the 2018 Brighton Photo Biennial and spoke at length to hundreds of festival visitors. One of the installations I invigilated most regularly through the month was Uta Kögelsberger’s Uncertain Subjects Part II, comprising naked head-and-shoulder portraits of dozens of people of various nationalities who felt their views on Brexit were not being heard. Most people saw the format as an effective way of stripping down the differences between people and emphasising their commonalities, and it was so successful in creating a sense of familiarity/insiderness that several visitors each day told me they thought they recognised one or more of the subjects but couldn’t quite place them.

A small minority of male viewers, however, told me that they found the format distracting and disturbing, because the women’s naked shoulders made them unable to think about anything other than what their breasts might be like. Thus I learned that even in a case where the photographer has consciously taken and presented an insider perspective, the determining viewpoint is ultimately the one adopted by the viewer. This was demonstrated even more strongly by the viewpoint of Kögelsberger’s installation taken by many Brexit supporters, who saw the subjects’ one-line statements on what Brexit meant to them from a totally outsider perspective. Several Brexit supporters were actually incandescent with rage that they felt excluded by the installation because it didn’t reflect their own point of view, and a few even registered formal complaints that the work was biased.

References and resources

Bull, S. (2010) Photography. Routledge Introductions to Media and Communications. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Solomon-Godeau, A. (1994) Inside/Out. Available at http://www.photopedagogy.com/uploads/5/0/0/9/50097419/week_5_abigail_solomon-godeau_inside_out.pdf [accessed 13.02.20]
Rosler, M. (1975) The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems, 1974–74. Available at https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/95.117.a-x/ [accessed 13.02.20]
Sontag, S. (1979) On Photography. London: Penguin Books.
Hübi, P. (2018) “The Power of Political Emotions: On Political Camp Formation and the New Right-Wing Populism” in Tillmans, W. (2018) Jahresring 64: What is Different? Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Exhibition: 100 First Women Portraits by Anita Corbin

Yesterday afternoon I braved the ravages of Storm Dennis to go and see 100 First Woman, an exhibition of photographs by Anita Corbin that had opened at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery the previous day. All 100 portraits were printed at the same large dimensions and were aligned for the most part in a single row, with occasional short breaks of two parallel rows and one or two breaks of three parallel rows.

As I examined these images of women who had been firsts in a wide variety of fields – from parliament, the military and the law through business and commerce to the arts and sports – I felt simultaneously inspired by their individual achievements and appalled to think how recently these invisible barriers have been broken down. In this respect I feel the project is very successful in highlighting the obstacles that women still face in reaching the top in many areas of human endeavour.

From a technical perspective, I noticed that all or nearly all of the portraits used differential focus but that a significant proportion had the sharpest focus not on the subject’s face but on their clothing or shoulders or hands. The images were made over a ten-year period, and I noticed that there was a higher prevalence of the sharpest focus being not on the face in those with a date of around 2010 or earlier, although it was also the case in a smaller proportion of the later images. It is possible of course that the non-face focal points were deliberately chosen, a point I did consider while examining the images, but for me the ones where the face, and in particular the eyes, were sharpest were the most compelling. A copy of the accompanying book was available for perusal and I did note that this issue was not as noticeable in the book images, so perhaps it is also the result of the portraits being printed at such a large size.

Whether or not the artist intended these off-face focal points, I found it very useful to have my attention drawn to the issue, because it reminded me that if I want my own images to be focused at a specific point I need to make certain that they are, and not just rely on autofocus to find the point for me.

References and resources

Corbin, A. (2020) 100 First Women Portraits. Exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. From 15 February 2020 to 7 June.

Exhibition: Deutsche Börse Prize 2020

Last Friday I took the train up to London and visited the Photographers’ Gallery to see the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020 exhibition. The four artists shortlisted this year are Anton Kusters, Mohamed Bourouissa, Mark Neville and Clare Strand.

Anton Kusters’ Blue Skies Project is a collation of 1,087 Polaroid images of the sky taken at former concentration and extermination camp locations, each stamped with the site’s GPS coordinates and the number of victims at that site. The concept is of course sobering and thought-provoking, but I found that the installation’s horizontal arrangement across a large table top made it difficult to view in any detail except at the edges, so I only spent a short time with it and noticed that nobody else seemed to linger long in the room either.

Mohamed Bourouissa’s Free Trade draws on various of the artist’s projects over the past 15 years and includes several virtual 3D images accessed via an app. These life-sized images of the invisible Army of the Unemployed are impressive when viewed in the app, especially when you can also see real people beside them in the gallery, but I couldn’t get my phone to do a screen grab, so I used the app’s option to send some images via email. Unfortunately the rendering in the mailed versions was very poor compared to the live app views.

Mark Neville’s Parade, shot in Brittany in the three years following the Brexit referendum, was my favourite amongst the four contenders. I first came across Neville’s work when his Deeds Not Words was published in 2012, and was struck by the way he was using intensely beautiful images to campaign on a social issue. As in that book and his Port Glasgow Book Project, the colour, light and composition of the images in Parade make them evocative of Renaissance paintings, and all his subjects are presented with great warmth and dignity.

Finally, Clare Strand’s Discrete Channel with Noise references early experiments in the transmission of images by dividing photographs into squares, giving each a greyscale rating and recreating the image from that information, in this case using paint. This seems to me more or less the same way we transmit digital images today, so I was somewhat underwhelmed by the concept.

I would like to see Mark Neville win the prize, but feel it’s more likely to go to Bourouissa, whose work feels more contemporary than any of the other finalists’ and deals directly with topical issues of inclusion and diversity, as well as being more experimental in terms of format.

References and resources

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2020. Exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, London. From 21 February to 7 June 2020.

Anton Kusters’ Blue Skies Project

Captures from Mohamed Bourouissa’s Army of the Unemployed app-generated 3D-images

Mark Neville’s Parade

Clare Strand’s Discrete Channel with Noise

Martin Parr on Zoom with Simon Bainbridge

Yesterday evening I watched a live transmission on Facebook of the BJP’s Simon Bainbridge talking via Zoom to Martin Parr. The interview covered a range of subjects including how Parr has adapted his work to the lockdown (he takes photos while out on his daily walks and has started a new project using a telephoto lens to photograph the birds in his garden, not least as a way of shifting himself out of repeating his hallmark style of images ad infinitum), future plans for the Martin Parr Foundation (a new photo festival is scheduled to take place across a series of major venues in Bristol late next spring, possibly in May) and the images he has on display in his own home, including the huge print of Chris Killip’s Father and Son on view behind him during the interview (he has none of his own images on display and “wouldn’t trust” anyone who does display their own images).

He paid tribute to Sue Davis, who founded the Photographers Gallery in 1971 and died just three days ago. He pointed out that until the Photographers Gallery was established there was no outlet at all for art photography and the only route for a photographer to make a living after leaving one of the half dozen or so courses that existed at the time was to become an assistant to a commercial photographer and eventually become a commercial photographer themselves. It wasn’t until Tate Modern’s Cruel and Tender exhibition in 2003, he reminded us, that photography was seen in a major art gallery; and some are even today resistant to the medium. I recall visiting Cruel and Tender myself and being astonished by some of the works, especially those by Boris Mikhailov, which I’d never seen the like of before. I’d seen some gritty images before, for example in a 1980s Magnum exhibition at the Photographers Gallery, but these were something quite different.

Perhaps the most interesting question came from one of the viewers, who asked what had surprised Parr most about photography in the past 15 years. He responded that he was amazed by the amount of innovative and exciting new work coming out of the younger generations of photographers; people finding new ways of using the language of photography – something he emphasised that only a small proportion will ever achieve. He is particularly impressed, he told us, when he sees someone doing something original that is brilliant and simple and makes you think, why didn’t I think of that? Pressed to name names, he cited Stephen Gill’s The Pillar. Suddenly I understood where photographing the birds in his garden came from! It is somehow reassuring to know that even Martin Parr takes inspiration from the work of others.

Book: Usborne, M. I’ve Lived in East London…

This work was recommended to me by my tutor, and after looking at what I could find of it online I was so taken with it I ordered a copy of the book, and am very pleased I did, as there are about seven or eight times more images in the book than I’d found online, and the profile Usborne presents of his subject Joseph Markovitch is consequently seven or eight times richer and deeper even than I’d thought. The project is also a fascinating commentary on this part of east London, which has undergone a huge transformation since 1983 when I arrived in London from university and took a job as a care assistant at the Richard Cloudesley School for children with special needs, a stone’s throw from Old Street. In those days the area was very run-down and exclusively working class, with a reputation for low-level crime. The one exception was a live music venue in Hoxton Square called the Bass Clef, which was always a big problem to get home from if you missed the last tube because cabs never went anywhere near the area at night.

By photographing Joseph Markovitch in this now thriving and youth-orientated part of London, Usborne brings these contrasting iterations of the area face to face, and it is uplifting to find that the narrative of this encounter is framed not in terms of gentrification but as an ongoing process of change that a long-term resident like Joseph finds interesting rather than threatening or alienating. His willingness to embrace the new and the different is what makes him an engaging and likeable subject, and Usborne portrays this with great sympathy and subtlety, never slipping into sentimentality or nostalgia.

I tried to analyse how Usborne achieves this in specific practical terms and made the following observations:
– He includes many different kinds/styles of image, which collectively present what feels like a fully rounded profile of his subject.
– Many images portray Joseph apparently incongruously in the setting of modern-day Hoxton/Clerkenwell/Shoreditch, which superficially highlights his alienation from the area he has inhabited for a long lifetime. However, his evident engagement with the modern-day people and environment of the area, illustrated both through his body language in the images and his words in the accompanying texts, turns the impression around and shows that he actually remains deeply embedded in the area and embraces the changes. These images also have a wider resonance beyond Joseph and East London, and speak to the special willingness that London has to embrace and absorb change and diversity.
– Intermittent images show Joseph engaging with objects that interest him: a plaque on a wall, a film show, a book about Africa and another about celebrities. These give us a feel for his preoccupations and character.
– Images scattered throughout the book show Joseph’s own home and personal possessions. A betting slip, a near-empty refrigerator, a teletext screen, a crumpled family photograph, a belt, bus ticket and keys. These bleak images show the frugality and indeed poverty of his personal existence and stand in stark contrast to the modern and vibrant environment of the area beyond his home. But Usborne avoids pity and political polemics by showing us that these objects have emotional significance to his subject.
– In many images Joseph carries a plastic supermarket shopping bag, including the series of eight in front of Rizla-style graffiti lettering, where he wears the same clothes but has a different bag in each image. Usborne tells us that the bags contain a small carton of orange juice. This recurring motif tells us a lot about Joseph’s quiet self-sufficiency.
– Several images show Joseph in encounters with objects from the modern world that we know he does not himself possess: a golden trainer, a micro car, a medium/large format camera, a laptop. He seems intrigued, if somewhat bemused, by these trappings of 21st century life; envy or resentment at being excluded from the benefit of enjoying these objects have no place in his mindset.

All in all, this book is a fascinating, moving and insightful study of a person and a part of London. I have learned a lot from it, and hope to apply some of the lessons to my own future work.

References and resources

Usborne, M. (2013) I’ve Lived in East London for 861/2 years. London: Hoxton Mini Press.

Exhibition: Jan Svoboda

Some weeks ago I went up to London to meet some friends for a meal, and took the opportunity to view the Deutsche Börse Prize exhibition at the Photographers Gallery. I also dropped in on the Jan Svoboda show which was running consecutively, but didn’t get round to writing that up as a post on my learning log. Revisiting the snaps and notes I made of Svoboda’s show now, the work suddenly seems to have a renewed relevance in the context of lockdown. His series The Tables, featuring the same oval wooden table in his apartment photographed over and over again from different angles, along with the other studies he made of the domestic space, demonstrate how even the most apparently limited environments can become sources of photographic study and interest.

I found that the cumulative effect of these images displayed together transformed the objects into semi-abstraction, evoking the work of St Ives painters such as William Scott, Terry Frost and Ben Nicholson. They consequently seemed to be more than just photographs of tables and instead became studies of shape, form and mood expressed through geometry, light and shade.

References and resources

Jan Svoboda – Against the Light. Exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, London. From 21 February to 7 June 2020.

Book: Shore, S. Uncommon Places: The Complete Works

The introductory text to exercise 5.3 on journeys referred at some length to Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places, and it occurred to me that although several images from this series had been included in the Cruel and Tender exhibition which I saw at Tate Modern back in 2003, I’d never seen the complete series, so I ordered a copy of the book. When it arrived a few days later I was struck by how deeply familiar all the images felt. Perhaps I have in fact seen them all many times over the years, but I think the sense of familiarity actually stems from the fact that the images seem to constitute an idiom that is both deeply embedded in and reflective of cultural representations of the US of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The sense of transience and endless open spaces, the juxtapositioning of the gaudy products and signage of mass consumer culture against untamed dusty landscapes and distant mountain ranges, the simultaneous sense of sparseness and abundance, the strong but muted colour palettes, the grid-like urban environments, reflected in Shore’s grid-like compositions. The cars are different today, but other than that this is what the US still looks like, in movies and in real life. More than Frank and Eggleston, in Uncommon Places Shore has captured the look and feel of the country – to the extent that it seems inevitable and unavoidable that it should be photographed this way.

Shore’s use of horizontal and vertical lines within the image to frame his subject and create interest in the picture plane put me in mind of Stephen Gill’s series Covered or Removed, which also uses these devices and has a distinctly Shore-like aesthetic despite being shot in Hackney rather than north America. I also noted that my own images from a two-week California road trip last July borrowed heavily from the same idiom (see selection below). Did Shore invent this idiom? Did he borrow it from Hollywood? Is it an inevitable outcome of the way such environments present themselves to be photographed? Perhaps all of these things are true.

References and resources

Shore, S. (2014) Uncommon Places: The Complete Works. London: Thames & Hudson.
Gill, S. (date unknown) Covered or Removed. Available at https://www.stephengill.co.uk/portfolio/portfolio/nggallery/album-1-2/covered-or-removed [accessed 02.06.2020]