A Break

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Every Sunday for the last twelve weeks I’ve posted a short piece of writing here about photography, but it’s time to take a break – I’ll continue with the writing, but more occasionally, now it’s time for something new.

Finding ways to make new work is the question everyone engaged in creative endeavours has to grapple with. I’m a sucker for coming up with an idea and then repeating it over and over, every hour – One Day in Flat Iron Squareeveryday – 365 Self Portraitsor every week – Writing about Photography. Working within time constraints definitely helps with motivation and focus. Recently I came across The Photographer’s Playbook by Aperture, a collection of 307 ideas and assignments from as many photographers. The ideas are both tough and easy, serious and funny – they encourage letting go of assumptions about how photographs ‘should’ look and suggest ways to get out and make new work. There’s a full review of the book here at the BJP http://www.bjp-online.com/2014/08/make-your-photography-more-fun-say-aperture-authors/ As the blurb on the cover says, ‘the best way to learn is by doing’.

Shure

Shure – Moyra Davey

Shure – Moyra Davey

Photographer Moyra Davey takes analogue photographs of her domestic world; shelves of VHS videos, stacks of vinyl records, light bulbs, fridges, clocks and dust. She describes these images as being “about the life of objects”.

Shure shows the arm of a record player midway through playing a 12” vinyl album, the stylus of its Shure cartridge thick with dust. Dust clings to the grooves of the record, showing the world as it is, full of imperfection.

Sound is constantly referenced or implied throughout this image, from the highlights and smudges on the vinyl to the mass of dust in the middle ground and on the stylus itself. Her camera’s field of focus is tight on its dusty needle, the foreground and backgrounds dropping off into an out of focus blur, a visual metaphor for the muffled sound we can only imagine. We cannot hear what we see, but the vinyl’s visuality is dense with sound, scratches and clicks.

Stalker

Stalker – Andrei Tarkovsky

Stalker – Andrei Tarkovsky

Some images are laden with memories and associations. I’m not sure if it’s possible to talk about this image without also talking about the film it comes from. If you’ve seen the film then you will remember the moment – a man, The Stalker, is lying on a clump of earth surrounded by water when a black dog runs up and lies down beside him. That’s it. It’s a short scene from a long film – Stalker (1979), by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. The film is slow moving, dense and strangely beautiful, every one of its 142 shots replete with ungraspable possibility. Recent works inspired by the film include artist, teacher and writer David Bate’s photo book Zone (2008), photographed in Tallinn, Estonia where the film was shot, and writer Geoff Dyer’s book Zona (2012), an unlikely comedic commentary on the film.

But maybe on a photography blog we should be talking about Tarkovsky’s photographs. His book Instant Light: Tarkovsky Polaroids shows sixty Polaroids taken in Russia and Italy from 1979 to 1984 – but when I think about Tarkovsky, this is the image that comes to mind. And it’s not just me, type ‘Tarkovsky’ into a Google image search and it’s right there, along with B&W variations with the dog running left to right and right to left. There’s also a colour version that was used for the cover of a DVD release. Here’s a short clip from the film leading up to the image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXyKlqS07tc&feature=player_embedded

I first watched Stalker at London’s Scala cinema at Kings Cross in the 1980’s, along with the cinema’s resident cat, in a lengthy Tarkovsky double bill. It’s always better watching films immersed in the dark of the cinema, but failing that, Russian film studio Mosfilm have made six of Tarkovsky’s films available to stream for free: http://www.openculture.com/2010/07/tarkovksy.html.

All of this is to avoid talking about the image itself: the man, the water and the dog. The trouble is that once the film has been seen the image refuses to remain as a photograph. Its raft of dense associations cannot be un-known, and trying to unpick it becomes an exercise in knowing that whatever I might imagine it means – it’s not that.

Maybe it’s time to watch Stalker again.

Hackney Flowers

Stephen Gill – Hackney Flowers

Stephen Gill – Hackney Flowers

Photographer Stephen Gill has a long-term obsession with the London Borough of Hackney. He is also preoccupied with drawing our attention to the photograph as a material object with a surface.

For his self-published book Hackney Flowers (2007) Gill collected flowers, seeds, berries and objects from Hackney’s streets. Back in his studio he re-arranged them on top of his own photographs of the streets of Hackney, re-photographing them to build up warm, evocative, multi-layered images. As with his work Buried (2006), some of the photographs were also then buried in the ground at Hackney Wick, letting the subsequent decay imprint its own collaboration with the place. They are striking images, even if they are somehow strikingly obvious. Maybe it’s seeing the hand of the photographer so clearly in the image that startles us, but Gill has a light, often playful touch.

We think of photographs, particularly analogue film photographs, as being indexical. Gill’s camera was there when the light bounced off this Hackney scene and was recorded in the silver salts of the film’s emulsion. But Gill’s camera was also there a second time when he re-photographed a print of his first photograph with berries arranged on its surface – now it has become doubly indexical. Gill plays with this doubling within the image itself; arranging berries in the foreground in such a way as to look as if they have actually fallen from the branches above. This playful re-appropriation of nature recurs as a central artistic idea throughout the book, gently shifting our attention from one surface to another, reminding us that the photographs we are looking at are material objects, images with both surface and depth.

A family portrait

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Unknown – A family portrait

Photographs of families are never straightforward, particularly when it’s your own family. When I tried to recall this photograph I got it all wrong – I remembered it in an oval frame with my father standing at the back and my little brother in the middle. I guess that’s how I remember my father – a strict man, the head of the household. But this was different from our usual holiday snapshots; this was a formal portrait of the five of us, professionally shot in a studio with lights against a grey backdrop.

My mum remembers the photograph as being her idea, gathering everyone after school and bringing us to the photographer’s studio in the seaside town where we grew up. She sits in the middle, smiling clear and direct, unlike the rest of us – glassy eyed behind our lenses. It must have been sometime in the mid 1970’s, my sister’s school badge might pin it down, but I do remember that I didn’t want to be there, a teenage resentment at the formality of the occasion, at being portrayed as part of the family unit. My sister and brother both have an arm around a parent, while I remain distant, on the edge of the group, keen to leave home.

35 years later, shortly before my father died, we set up the same shot again. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mdx/5399807192/

The original photograph has been on display in its 9x9cm wooden frame in my parents’ front room since it was taken – until now. Visiting my mum this weekend I found it had gone, relegated to a shelf in the sideboard alongside albums and envelopes of family snapshots.