Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Tea Horse Road : an illustrated talk with Michael Freeman at Asia House

The Tea Horse Road
An illustrated talk by Michael Freeman
@ Asia House

I wanted to see Michael Freeman, the photographer whose books I have been reading for the OCA course of which he is the author, and also visit Asia House, a place where I might have a book launch one day and possibly an exhibition. Had discussed it with Shobit Arya of Wisdom Tree Publishing.

AMANO photo by The Noble Savage
Before doing so, I met up with a fellow OCA student for a drink beforehand in Starbucks. It turned out we both had Canon G compacts with us; his was a later model and it was interesting to see how Canon have made functions previously available only in the software now available in the hardware. For instance, the exposure compensation dial has replaced what was previously accomplished by pushing a button and then using the in built software.

Asia House, a stately building just off Harley Street, maintains a dynamic link with Asia via a cultural program yet also hosts business and political functions about the region that consists of fourty countries from the Persian Gulf to Japan. Asia House holds photographic exhibitions and a lot of its’ visitors are people who have traveled to Asia.

Michael Freeman, whose well spoken voice has a distinctive yet subtle Northern twang, has been photographing in Asia for thirty years and The Tea Horse Road is his 112’th book; almost entirely composed of photographs there are however several 1,000 words of text that appear at the beginning of the books different sections namely The Tea Road, The Stone Road, High Passes Deep Gorges, The Grasslands, The Burma Road and The High Plateau. MF is not the author and says nothing about who the writer is.

Michael Freeman answers questions at his presentation
Michael Freeman apologises to those who had seen his talk at The Royal Geographic Society on The Tea Road since this is the same talk; this suggests a highly structured approach to his subject.

This is very much an illustrated talk in which photographs are used to illustrate the subject matter, that of the old tea trade routes where the Chinese sent tea to Tibet in return for horses. The emphasis is on tea rather than horses and many images are shown showing people both preparing tea and drinking it; of those drinking it, an image of The Marchioness of Tavistock drinking it in her stately home is one of the more memorable although most of the images are from China with just a few from India.

The talk is accompanied by maps that show where the photographs were made as well as the geography of the old trade route. There are a few videos too, one showing MF absailing across a river on one of the older kinds of rope crossing that can also take pack horses.

Michael also uses photographs of paintings that relate to the talk.

The photographs that Michael Freeman shows have clearly been chosen and made to convey a certain subject matter notably tea, with definite topics being covered by a series of images (the preparation of tea). One understands that the photographs are there to communicate certain information rather than in their own right. The photographs are however very skillfully made with careful attention to detail. I can not but help see a disparity between Michael Freeman’s approach to photography and the way it is being taught by tutors at the OCA where there seems to be much more emphasis on it as art. Frankly, I am not as interested as seeing my work hanging in a gallery which seems to be the emphasis of the course (part of Level 3 is about staging one’s own exhibition) but would rather see it in books. Michael Freeman’s photos are not only pleasing to look at, they also convey the essence of their intended meaning.

MF sometimes presents 2 images on one slide when he is using vertically constructed images which can be seen in quite a lot of his portrait shots. One image appears to the left and when he is ready, another image appears alongside to the right. As with the rest of the talk, the images are tightly orchestrated with the words.

Although most of the photographs are in colour, there are a substantial number in black and white with the use of a few black and white photographs from the 1920’s. Some of these black and white images are also infra-red; apart from being aesthetically pleasing, these images are also good at conveying scientific information as they can show the degree of chlorophyll in a plant.

Some images are of anthropological interest since they record tribal peoples such as the Akar who are disappearing. Yet this project also records a trade route that is disappearing as modern bridges are built and old roads disappear under concrete.

Michael gives a few anecdotes such as mentioning a pot of tea he saw selling for £280 in one restaurant (he went for a slightly more modest £25 pot) and advises no one to try and enter any country saying they are a photojournalist. Photojournalism is the genre of photography that Michael seems to have perfected.

When asked about China and the difficulties of obtaining permission to visit areas, MF replies that the Chinese are very straightforward; he sensibly does not want to be drawn out on the Tibetan question! The majority of tourists visiting Tibet are Chinese and tourism is now an important part of the Tibetan economy.

I leave soon after the talk although I would have liked to have said hello to Michael Freeman who is busy autographing books. A short taxi ride to Paddington gets me to my train on time but since it’s departure is delayed by 25 minutes, I could have lingered a bit longer. Perhaps MF who has probably seen some of my work such as the photograph A Slice of Ham in Gareth’s office might have responded to a student like me and yet quite likely he would have been distanced as the evening itself seemed rather formal.

At the end of the evening, I felt I had attended a good talk about the tea trade which might well be of interest to many yet this had rather consumed the photography that was there to explain the subject rather than in it’s own right. Maybe this is the role photography has to play in society rather than as art form.


  1. An interesting read Amano. What you have said echoes my sentiment about the course material over on Flickr - MF is an excellent communicator through his images, and he does this by being "traditional", rather than applying clever "tricks" like some do. You also seem in tune to my thoughts (expressed elsewhere) that his is not a photography style for gallery display.

    There's nothing wrong with this, and he's made an excellent career out of it, and I've bought a number of his books too. My reservations have been with the way the course material sometimes tries to channel you down a specific route, the MF route, rather than, say, the Martin Parr route... You've spotted that the some tutors sometimes try to push the art route, but not all do. To my experience others try and chivvy you along the route set out in the notes. I'd prefer it if it were more open so that you could choose your own route without battling the system. or feeling that you are, anyway. It will never be all things to all people, that would be unreasonable to expect.

  2. Thanks for your comment Rob and for reading my blog!

    Am not quite sure what you mean by "traditional" in reference to MF.

    Yes, I have read a few of his books too such as The Photographer's Eye (a kind of update for The Image published about 25 before) and also Perfect Exposure, an excellent compliment to The Photographer's Eye but less popular perhaps because it deals with the tools rather than the aesthetics. One needs both! The artist/painter needed to learn how to use brushes and mix paint. Am still reading The Photographer's Mind and hear that The Photographer's Vision is due out in the autumn!

    One book I liked was Photography by Steve Edwards of the Open University. He writes that the photograph is both art and document. One of course is likely to emphasise one or the other although as a student, I like to make it an even balance.

    The OCA is an arts college so an art interpretation of photography is perhaps inevitable. I don't mind this too much, I like the challenge, but it is sometimes a bit confusing.

    If one is to be an individual though, it seems one is never going to fit!!