Wednesday, March 23, 2011

From Back Home (exhibition at the National Media Museum in Bradford, Yorkshire)


An exhibition of photographs by Anders Petersen and JH Engstrom at the National Media Museum in Bradford, Yorkshire.

I attach this rather shoddy looking photograph of the Cadbury's factory taken from the train as it exemplifies the kind of loosely constructed image that appears in the Back From Home exhibition; the colour castes over the image come from reflections in the train window.

I came to this exhibition misinformed, thinking it was about landscape and hence was surprised perhaps disappointed to find it was more about place and people, nevertheless a fitting subject for someone presently engaged in the OCA People and Place module. The photograph used to advertise the exhibition was of a fleeting horse with a house in the background; this image suggested romanticism yet the subject matter was generally much more down to earth than that. At first, the banality of the photography struck me since much of the imagery was concerned with hedonistic activity that might well be considered life but not necessarily what everyone would consider life. I felt I was being challenged by these images, being made aware of my comfort zone; this made it worthwhile making the long journey up from the south since I came as a student, ready to learn.

This body of work has been described as being concerned with “experience, memory and the human condition.” It is the result of a seven year collaboration between the two photographers about an area in Central West Sweden called Varmland where they had both spent their formative years. The work is described as “an intense voyage of discovery into both the place and the people that shaped them.”

The first series of photographs I looked at were by JH Engstrom in which he uses a camera with flash to photograph people, resulting in dark studio like backgrounds. Some of these images are in colour, those of the more elderly people in black and white; the young are often photographed full body length while the elderly are more likely to be pictured with head and shoulders. Many of these images are of couples embracing.

There are other images that are more general views that include house interiors, chickens by their hutch, and landscapes often from an aerial perspective. Some large frames contain a collection of photographs collaged together. Engstrom writes of this work …

These images pay homage
To the people and landscapes that are my origins.
I return to something my body and emotions recognise.

The other part of this exhibition shows Anders Peterson’s work. His images are also mostly of people with backgrounds that say something but not much about the area under consideration. There is not much sense of composition in these images, they are beyond formalism; the subject matter is much more important. Anders Petersen writes of this work that it contains “little hard memories of sad and lonely times” yet there is more to these words that appear on the exhibition wall for he continues by saying “there is also a streak of warm confidence”. He also writes that “my memories can never be destroyed, because they no longer end in themselves.”

This exhibition suffers perhaps because it was not arranged by the photographers themselves; a more formal rather than de-constructivist hand has been at work. This exhibition comes “from a well-established tradition of stream-of-consciousness, diaristic photography. Born out of existential thinking … less objective photography.”

The free brochure accompanying the exhibition also states that this collection of photographs “elegantly demonstrates the power of photography to be intimate and personal, while accessible to the viewer” while “images are affectionate, sometimes brutal and sometimes funny” evoking “contradictory, yet complementary emotions” that make this exhibition noteworthy.

The next part of the day was a CONVERSATION BETWEEN JH ENGSTROM AND GREG HOBSON: in other words, one of the contributing photographers and the exhibition curator. The other photographer Anders Petersen had been advised not to travel to Bradford on the advice of his doctor; this was a little disappointing since he was the older of the two photographers and the mentor of the younger Engstrom.

JH Engstrom photographer at the National Media Museum

Engstrom sat in pensive pose as he listened to Hobson talking; the session began with Hobson asking Engstrom questions.

How did Engstrom find his way into photography? He does not find this an easy question to answer and yet his reply is interesting. As a young boy of ten, he was taken to Paris where he lived with his family for a couple of years or so. Everyday he had to make his way across town to attend the Swedish School and during this somewhat complicated journey, he witnessed many scenes of life some of which included violence; this had a tremendous impact on him. Later, the camera helped him to formulate such experiences and he has received a formal photographic education. He moved back to Paris and met someone who made him aware that photography is an interesting medium through which a living can be made. He begged the well-known fashion photographer Mario Testino for a job, telling him that he admired his work when in fact he had never seen it! However, he found he was not really attracted to fashion photography and preferred taking film to the lab for processing since it allowed him time to read on the metro. There is a need to be serious about one’s work (connected with it rather than half-hearted). He came into contact with Anders Petersen who eventually accepted him as a student when Engstrom became desperate; they became close, not just teacher and student but also like father and son. He then did a photo-book called Shelter about a place for homeless people; this was made in a the classic documentary tradition and the book proved to be a success, winning a photographic book of the year award in Sweden.

Engstrom is exploring the subject through the subject. Photography is a language and ultimately the photograph, although it contains imagery is just a piece of paper.

Hobson remarked that when people come and show him their portfolios, he often advises them not to mix colour with black and white photography yet he notices that Engstrom has done this during his exhibition. Engstrom answers directly by saying, “You gave them bad advice!”

Engstrom is still largely an analogue, black and white photographer, who also uses large format cameras as well as throwaway cameras in some cases!

Peoples response to the camera has changed hence some of the old approaches do not work.

Engstrom uses darkroom techique such as that of overexposing prints.

Photography is about everything except reality; there is a dreamy, imaginary feel to Engstrom’s work and also a graphic quality.

We see a slide show of Engstrom’s work that is centred around his wife, her pregnancy, their son … only at the end are we shown that this was a Ceasarean birth which suddenly brings together what at first seemed like a disconnected group of images. The images might seem shallow, poorly constructed but they are about life and one cannot argue with that.

There then follows a film about Anders Petersen, the absent photographer, and we enter into his hedonistic world in which he seems to be smoking and drinking himself slowly to death. Petersen talks of his love of connecting with others and that this is the premise for photography. In the film, Engstrom advises him to take care of himself and it ends on a positive note by saying that Petersen has given up his 2 boxes of cigarettes a day habit and is now producing some of his best work.

Engstrom now accepted questions from the audience. Gareth Dent of the Open College of the Arts asked why there were so many young people in his photographs of the Varmland; Engstrom replied that this was probably because he grew up there and was young there.

The concept of place can be very personal as well as empirical, ethnographic, when the emphasis is on the place being documented.

OCA tutor, Alan Whetton, who remarked after I took this photograph, that it was "uncalled for"! Possibly it was but its' a nice photo to attach to my blog and helps 
put a human face to the OCA.
The next and final part of the day was the meeting with other students from the OCA including Gareth Dent, OCA CEO, and Alan Whetton, a photographic tutor with whom I had had a short chat before the session with Engstrom. Alan mentioned that there were a lot of difficult images in the exhibition and the slide show that were not easy to resonate with.

One saw the hard life of the artist being portrayed. Possibly the melancholy of Swedish life, a country that is said to have the highest suicide rate in the world.

I said that I felt that both these photographers were more artists than photographers, a statement that Gareth asked me to justify. At the time I could not and I also felt that it might steer the discussion away from the general topic of the photographers and the exhibition. In hindsight, I can write that both the photographers seemed to be shooting with a disregard for the basics of photography (composition, depth of field etc) and by so-doing were making works of art rather than documents; generally speaking, photography is concerned with both document and art and when one deviates from either by going to an extreme, for instance photographing bacteria through a microscope would be another extreme, one starts to loose the essence of photography although images of bacteria might be both colourful and contain designs. As a student, I do not want to be drawn too far in either direction except on a temporary basis as my work might cease to become relevant and suffer from self indulgence.

Gareth thinks that I have found a certain area of photography and am happy with that. He is right and yet I attend such days with the OCA because I do want to see the wider implications of photography which I see as sharing ground with art but in danger of being swallowed up by art and hence loosing its’ uniquesness as an expressive medium. This is not as eccentric a view as might be presumed as Roland Barthes, many of course question his view of photography, mentions at the end of his book that photography is wild and art threatens to tame it.

Alan Whetton praises the work of Engstrom and Petersen as being honest and intimate.

Gareth notes that Engstrom looked very uncomfortable during the discussion and asks me for a photograph to show that!

His photography is mostly about himself, his search.

As Alan Whetton talks, the OCA group listens

Alan comments that when he goes out to photograph, he has a plan, an objective. With Fay Godwin, everything was calculated since apart from taking great care with her compositions, often waiting around till the light was right, while she also used Ordanance Survey maps!

The approach of Petersen and Engstrom is much more spontaneous and yet there is a plan with Petersen who deliberately draws his subjects out exuding a public persona with bravado to match in order to make his images.

What did I gain from seeing this exhibition? Probably a much better understanding of an approach to photography that often strikes me as banal yet worthwhile since it does show something of life and may prove to be an interesting document of our time.

There is however, as others comment, nothing here to uplift one. One senses darkness and negativity not only in the images but also in the photographers.

Could work like this be made in the UK!?

The photographers know their subject very well and have produced it well. I can not help but wonder how accurate a document it is though of the Varmland and what the reactions of people who live there might be to such an exhibition. Is it really about the Varmland or something else!?

Alan mentions that he is re-photographing some of the places that Fay Godwin photographed while in Bradford and it is interesting to see how much some places have changed and how little other places have.

At the end of the visit, I revisit the exhibition with Gareth and another student. Gareth wonders whether these photographs differ much from the kind of images millions of people put on their Facebook pages. I reckon they differ quite a lot because when one examines them one sees they are well constructed for the most part in spite of their initial amateurish appearance; they are of course also framed prints and not merely images.

A lot of the people portrayed in Petersen’s seminal book CafĂ© Lehmitz are pictured as being close but are not intimate; there is a kind of friction here.

Monday, March 21, 2011


I first met Raghu Rai over 15 years ago when I went to his office at a newspaper he was working for at the time. He looked through some of my photos I had brought him, made some comments and we talked. He wanted to know what number an ordinary skylight filter was as he was planning on changing to one of these, after using a warm-up filter for his work. I knew the answer was a 1A and told him, reflecting upon the fact that I knew more than an accomplished photographer although it mattered little; it was a stark reminder that photography was not about facts or knowledge but seeing. At that moment, I could not see very well and wondered what made Raghu Rai such a renowned photographer other than the fact that he was an established one.

With the launch of an exhibition of Ragu Rai’s in England, I find myself with a gifted copy of the exhibition catalogue that I am going to give to the Open College of the Arts. Before I do so, it seems sensible to reflect upon it. The cover is of a sadhu (holy man) looking straight into the camera with a hypnotic stare. It is not one of Raghu’s most sensitive photographs but it is attention grabbing and hence makes a good book cover; the subject of the photograph also contains a collection of people yet most are not connected with the photographer.

The catalogue contains an introduction by Niru Ratnam entitled Public Space in Raghu Rai’s Photography. A closer examination of this seems pertinent to my OCA course as well as helping me to understand what Raghu Rai’s work is about. The following text is from Niru Ratnam …

“..outdoor space in India, revealing something particular and complex about the relationship between the public sphere and the private sphere in India.”

“…public sphere of India significantly different  … dissolves the easy distinction between public and private.”

“… striking ways in which Rai portrays public space – and to tease out how this is significantly different to Western modernist photographers and other Magnum photographers.”

“ … Rai captures the ordered chaos of public space in India. A profusion of activities takes place but on closer inspection this plenitude is almost choreographed by an unseen hand.” (These comments are made about an older photograph from 1964 called Traffic at Chawri Bazaar, Delhi).

“If we fast-forward forty years to Rai’s recent work, “A Bazaar, Old Delhi” (2006) it becomes clear that the street is still a shared space.”

“In this “three-speed” image (there are three different layers to this photograph visible in a sleeping man, traffic passing and shops in the background), Rai seems to convey the heterogeneity of activity going on.”

“… we can’t simply use terms such as “public space” and “private space” from a Eurocentric perspective.”

“The public spaces that Rai investigates seems to be more layered and more multi-valent …”

“… the large-scale communal religious ritual is a common feature that takes place that takes place within the Indian landscape and that Rai has returned to photographing over the years.”

“… a distinction between the individual and the crowd; a suggestion that in these public  displays of group identity, the individual can break away for time apart if they should so wish.”

“The men sit and wait but somehow by doing this they seem communally joined. They do not seem like the atomized individual that is such a popular trope in Western Modernism.”

“Whilst in the West the religious ritual is almost wholly imagined inside public buildings such as the church or the cathedral, Rai’s work shows that Indian religious ritual is rooted in the landscape.”

“… the idea of public space acting as a stage is present in all of these works .. “

“The idea of stage is heightened by the way Rai captures individuals going about activities that co-opt outdoor public space for some sort of individual or communal function.”

“In a series of recent works made in 2010 Rai has taken this idea of the stage one step further by asking subjects to stand in front of painted backdrops.”

“What is Rai suggesting here? I think that this series suggests that it is impossible to demarcate the boundary between the “real” and the “staged” in documentary photography; the click of a camera produces the stage whether the subjects of the photograph know it or not.”

“… makes us question what exactly is public and what exactly is private; and what is the nature of these everyday acts that we stage in public spaces fr the benefit of ourselves and for the benefit of others.”

Having faithfully recorded some of Niru Ratnam’s comments in an attempt to better understand Raghu Rai’s work, I feel I can also note the way I understand Rai’s work after having looked at it over the years. Firstly, I see it as very informative of a country, India, which is often liked by the outside world but not very well understood. Its’ not just that Raghu Rai’s photographs are extremely well constructed and composed in a way that may delight the eye, their subject matter is also fascinating and meanings at first not apparent might be discovered later. For me then, the appeal of his work is more than just the excellent photography for his images are as much documents as works of art.