I have managed to visit several exhibitions during the summer, and one which has had particular resonance is the exhibition curated from the Mass Observation Archive, at the Photographer's Gallery.
The Mass Observation was set up in 1937, to record daily life in Britain, and to create in the words of the founders, "an anthropology of ourselves". The Photographer's Gallery describes it as "a radical experiment in social science, art and documentary." In the 1950's and 60's it became less personal, was more under the auspices of government, and more geared towards post-war market research (political and social views, shopping habit etc.). In the 1980's, when it moved to it's current home at Sussex University, the MO became re-vitalised, with more of an emphasis on original, personal testimony around everyday aspects of peoples' own lives.
I have a small personal interest, in that when I worked for a number of years at an adult Literacy Scheme in South London, our students were official Observers. And I recently joined in one of the annual 'diary days', which are open to everyone in Britain (this has been going on for about 3 years). Though it is now only possible to become a regular Observer if you are male, 18-44, and not living in the S.E. (obviously they are short of that demographic, and over-subscribed by others!).
It's interesting how the pictoral content of the MO has changed over the years (writing is still the main part, the ephemera of daily life is also included). Originally taken on by a small number of professional photographers such as Humphrey Spender, film maker Humphrey Jennings and other artists, it is hard to see the film/photo documentary as significantly different from any other of the time. Most often, it was middle-class men, "visiting" working-class communities (e.g. Bolton, or 'Worktown' as Spender called it; he also said he liked to keep his mouth shut so that the inhabitants of Bolton would not be put off by his polished vowels). Men like George Orwell, (who published 'The Road to Wigan Pier the same year the MO was founded, and 'Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933) with good hearts and minds, but undeniably "outsiders" in relation to the communities they were documenting. It must be pointed out, the remit of the MO runs across class, age, and gender, although I do wonder about the ratio of 'Observer' and 'Observed' in terms of class particularly, at least in the earlier years, and post-war period.
As the century moved on, the role of photography, and inevitably the photographer, changed, along with other social and economic changes. It became more democratic, until photography becomes in recent years, as much a part of personal history as writing.
It's interesting to think of the MO alongside the current constant online 'diarying' of our daily lives now. I found myself thinking first, what a wonderful record of social history the MO Archive is, compared with centuries before the twentieth century, and then second, what indeed will be it's significance, considering huge the amount of information, or over-information that is now available online.
However, the MO is different from facebook, twitter, and the rest. It still uses directives, so it not possible simply to photograph what you had for breakfast (unless that happens to be the focus of the directive!). The information will be more nuanced, more organised, more selective, and there will be less of it (numbers of Observers are limited) and it will also be stored archivally for future generations. In contrast, over time, I wonder how many YouTube videos or facebook pages will survive.
The organisers of the exhibition, taking on the spirit of Mass Observation, are asking members of the public to become 'photographic observers' until October. The directives change regularly, but you can contribute to any of them at any time. The subjects are set by well-known figures (inevitably, Martin Parr gets a look-in, but I have to say his subject - funerals - I think has initiated some powerful and extremely moving responses). All photographs are published on an online gallery, either via Guardian Witness or Flickr, and will also become part of "The Wall" (changing digital display) at the Photographer's Gallery in October. I particularly like the way some themes (e.g. 'The Mantlepiece') are being repeated from earlier decades.
One thing about this sets me thinking though. All contributions to the Archive, historically and currently, are made by Observers on the understanding that there will be anonymity for 50 years. Only age and gender are given until that time. The current photographic contributions via the Photographer's Gallery, however, are not anonymous. Yes, I know that this isn't the MO proper, but is it just too much, in our photo mad, egocentric artist-as-self days, to give an image without a name? I guess that would have been just too revolutionary a concept, although it would have been in the spirit of Mass Observation, and would have been quite interesting if only age and gender were given for this too. Admittedly anonymity was not part of the deal where the earlier, mainly pro photographers were concerned, but we have now moved beyond that to a democratic photography-as-personal-testament (see the more recent contributions to the MO in the exhibition). But not, I guess, if you go a step beyond the original and current concept of MO itself, and move away, out towards "The Wall", and into the world of "Photography as Art". The MO and the Photographer's Gallery's interpretation and representation of it and it's legacy are not one and the same of course, and I found this an interesting dissonance between the two.
The exhibition itself is fascinating, and although this is primarily a photography exhibition, words - the primary focus of MO and the Archive - are by no means sidelined, and are an integral part of it.
Just recently, I took another course at Shepherds Falkiner, this time at their brand new space near Victoria, in order to learn how to make a cloth-bound solander (or clamshell) box.
The course was run by Benjamin Elbel, from whom I previously learnt the tricks of case-binding a handmade book (and who runs various courses throughout the UK and Europe).
It's hard to tell from the photos, but this box is suitable for postcard size, though it can be made to any size. My idea is to use such a box as a protective cover for a handmade book, although it can also be used to house loose prints. This version does look more like a book, when closed, than other widely-available boxes, which I like. A book within a book. Another slightly easier option would be the slipcase, though I like the idea and feel of opening something as you would a book (and then taking out the book inside).
I must say that I thought, in comparison to stitching and binding a book, this would be easy. Well it wasn't. Again, it's hard to tell from the photos, the fine detail of the corners and folds... Whether I can repeat this I'm not sure, though I know I have to do it soon to remember the surprisingly intricate sequences.
What the experience has done is given me an increased respect for the bookbinder's art in making a true bookbinder's solander box (this is not like the ones you buy on the high street - honestly!). And I now fully understand (and I have to say would be more willing to consider paying for) the price charged for a box made by hand by a practicing bookbinder or bindery. In fact, considering the hours it takes even for an experienced bookbinder, it begins to seem like a bargain.
The creative possibilities are of course as wide as in bookbinding itself. I have to weigh up how much time and energy I am going to give to bookbinding, balanced against creating the images that go inside the binding!... Though I love the concept of the two elements creating a whole, a finished piece. My little example here is understated, and none of us could have coped with more on our first attempt, but I think it is always important where the book itself is not the primary object (for me this is not about book art) that the work inside is not overshadowed. Of course there is no titling or printing on the binding, which I would like to incorporate (however minimally). And, I admit, I'm already getting the urge to experiment with the creative possibilities...
I was pleased to hear this week that my photo 'Two Paths' from my series 'A Garden' (previously posted as 'Where Two Paths Meet': the titles of my photos tend to meander!) gained a 'Commended' award in the Monochrome section of the International Garden Photographer of the Year.
At last I have finished my handmade Photo Book, A Garden, and it is printed and bound.
I have at times despaired at myself, for taking so long over this process, but in gentler moments I know that this is the way it had to be. The years (and it took years) making the photographs, the painstaking process of drafting and editing, combined with the unalterable fact that the location of my photos, my mother's garden, had to be sold, along of course with her house, following the death of my mother in 2010. Dealing with the process and the practicalities of this, as well as having to take a step back from my photographs for a while, meant that time passed.
Part of the editing process though, whether with photographs or writing, is to leave things be. To return, some time later, with fresher eyes and a clearer head, when dilemmas and decisions, and conflicting responses, somehow sort themselves out. It's a bit like dreaming. The subconscious has to be let alone to do it's work. Advice and feedback from friends is good and necessary, and I've had this from both photographers and non-photographer friends alike. But in the end we have to make our own decisions.
I don't know if my editing decisions are the "right" ones, but I would say instead that in the end there are no "right" ones. All decisions, inclusions or exclusions, tell a slightly different story, give a different emphasis. I would like to think this isn't the final story, either, and I reserve the right if not to decide that I was wrong, then to decide to re-tell it slightly in future! What is certain is that there is no absolute truth, or version, nor should there be. But this is my version, and my truth, at this moment.
So what I am left with is a book of a little over 50 photographs. The cutting down from the very many I had was hard, and I pruned, stage by stage, down to around 40. Then, after a breathing period (one of several) some crept back in. I note, looking back over this blog, that of the twenty I posted previously here (back to Christmas 2009) only 7 are included in the final cut. Some of the others of the twenty I posted didn't even make the longer shortlist. Rejections were sometimes due to the photographs themselves, sometimes to do with context and sequencing.
Another reason the process has taken so long is that I wanted to print and bind the book myself and I wanted to learn or discover the best way to do this. Eventually I decided on a fairly traditionally bound book, glued and sewn (partly due to the number of photographs finally included). The printing was fairly familiar territory, the binding was unknown. But I knew that I wanted a finished object, a book, that was unique and handmade at every stage by me. Books produced via companies online, and mass produced books generally, are great, but I wanted something a little different, and a little more special. The photographs are pigment printed onto archival 100% cotton rag matt Fine Art paper, using an Epson 3880 printer. As for the binding, I am grateful to Shepherds Falkiner, the superb bookbinders and suppliers, for advice, instruction and materials. A clamshell box is still underway.
So far, I have produced two copies of the book. Several more are in the pipeline. It is small, 6.25 x 8 inches in total, which does give a beautiful quality to the medium format negatives, and is intimate and easy to handle, which felt important.
This won't be a limited edition as such, but it will be limited by the fact that to produce each one takes a deal of time, and is, without being melodramatic, a labour of love. I am not envisaging producing this version in anything but small numbers. Any further copies will be made by request, and to order.
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In the third image, the text on the right hand page reads~
"These photographs were made in the garden of my mother's house, where she lived for over 40 years, during the last two years of her life and the year following, finishing at the end of 2011."
This Easter break, I have managed to see two exhibitions on the theme of landscape, both of which finish towards the end of this month. They are worth a quick mention, although both have been on for a while, in case like me you have a tendency to make a note of an exhibition you want to visit, only to find you nearly leave it too late. Or, worse, you miss the deadline and can only kick yourself for being so stupid. I am glad I did not miss "Landmark: the Fields of Photography" at Somerset House, until 28 April (free) and the big one, "Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea" at the National Maritime Musem, Greenwich, also until 28 April (full adult price £7).
The first is a wide-ranging, large, and eclectic group of landscapes, representing photographers from many countries. Which, considering the great venue, and the non-existent entry free, is a good place to start. From Lee Friedlander, to Simon Roberts, Amy Stein, to Toshio Shibata, to Susan Evans (to name but a very few). From the sublime to the ridiculous, from representative to dreamworld from narrative to stark warning about the damage suffered by our planet, by us. It sounds a cliché, but there is probably something for everyone, although, inevitably, not "everyone" is represented (Fay Godwin, sadly, is notable by absence). One of my own favourites is My Philadephia 1996, by Ray Metzkera (silver gelatin print), a sombre but brightly side-lit composition of tree branches in front of (I believe) an apartment block, so the tree filled the page and the evidence of human presence was duskily felt, more than seen, behind it, almost obscured. Another magical little gem is Self-Portrait with Swan, Foster's Pond 1999, by Arno Minkkinen (silver gelatin print). But there are many inspiring widely differing photographs. There are many humans in the landscapes of "Landmark", and many trails and traces of the human race, including in a negative way, but also in a more positive metaphysical sense. There are no such directly visible traces of humanity in Ansel Adams' works, only in the all- present eye and being of the photographer, whose unseen presence gives interpretation and mood to the scene, and his emotional response at that particular moment, which, Adams believed, we the viewer can either "get" or not. (Whether we "get" it or not is not his responsibility, or even his concern). Although a concern with environmental issues was also, of course, a prime motivating factor for Adams.
Ansel Adams: The Tetons and the Snake River,
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming 1942
A confession: I've always been a bit wary of the work of Ansel Adams, a bit on the fence. I'm not sure why. Possibly simply because so very much is made of his work, and in a technical sense, so very much emulated. I haven't been sure about all that. Or that I went along with the f/64 crowd, possibly not liking at all the idea that as much as possible of a scene should be in focus, or connecting with the seeming obsession with craft, the nitpicking over separation of tones. Not, may I add, that I do not respect the role of the craftsperson, quite the reverse, or that I am not particular in my own work, because I am, and that itself warms me to Adams. I also found a lot of his work was different from my narrow-minded view of it, and I loved his more abstract and especially, close work, which he himself termed 'extracts' rather than 'abstracts' (a differentiation I like a great deal). In any case, I liked pretty much all of it. I don't want to say much about Adams' work, so very much has been said already. Suffice it to say that no, I will not and would probably never be able to make pictures like AA, but that is irrelevant. I was completely blown away by his work. I found the experience of seeing his photographic prints, all sizes, and so very close, quite emotional, and certainly uplifting. Perhaps because I am right now looking over landscape photos of my own that I have made in recent years. Made, often in a casual way, as I have never really thought of myself as a landscape photographer. And that I am beginning to feel the loss of the family connection with East Anglia where most of these photos were made. I don't know why I have not considered myself a landscape photographer, as the land has always been of utmost importance to me, and I have always included a concern and preoccupation with it in whatever I've been doing, the writers and books I have chosen to study, the essays I have written at Uni, years ago, the writing I have toyed with in the past. And of course, I have included a preoccupation with landscape in my photography. In fact, the name of this blog itself refers amongst other things to landscape, and and how we define ourselves within it. Now I have to reflect where that preoccupation has already taken me, and where it will lead. So I am including one of my own offerings from 2008, which I was oddly put in mindof when I saw the above two photographs. This is not to put myself in the same category as some of the greats, it is more to do with the subject matter. A winding river,a concern for the environment in which it is placed.Concern and fear of further loss is a part of any landscape photography now, whether explicit or not, and Adams was a pioneer as far as that goes.
I add my photo simply as a footnote to myself to remember that, and also to remember a little pile of photos that, as yet, I have somewhat neglected. But Ansel Adams can have the last word: “When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence” Ansel Adams