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Buy All Quiet on the Home Front here.

Buy All Quiet on the Home Front from ICVL STUDIO. It is also available now at the wonderful  Tipi Bookshop in Belgium, at Photobookst...

Friday, 16 February 2018

Stories from the Home Front: Benedetta Casagrande - At six I told my father what to do

image from Benedetta Casagrande

After Emilie de Lauwers, we continue the series of responses to All Quiet on the Home Front with this insightful contribution from Benedetta Casagrande (see more of her work at Ardesia Projects)

I always used to tell my father off. When I was a child, I had a loud mouth and a strong sense of justice. I was inquisitive. I would ask him whether he ever went with a prostitute, and after I would ask him why didn’t he marry her. We would drive together to school, and I would reprove him for how he spoke back to mom. I was sweet and forgiving but I would not let anything go unnoticed. The most amazing thing about these memories is my father’s effort to listen to me. At six years old. Telling him what is best to do. More often than not he would thank me, and apply my wise advice.

When I was nine years old my oldest brother died in a motorcycle accident. Me and my father always were close, but the loss of my brother brought us closer - unlike my older brother and sister, I still required a great deal of looking after. My presence in my father’s life became a fundamental asset for his recovery from the loss of his firstborn. That special core of intimacy strengthened over the years - me and my father were (and still are, though differently) partners in crime. I know I can see through him - he knows it too.

Teenage years were tough. My boyfriend died in a car crash and I became increasingly anxious and afraid of death. Back then I used to live with my father, and he was growing old (he is from the class of 1944). He was an aging man dealing with a teenager in crisis - it must have been really hard for him. A few months later he had a brain hemorrhage, and I was sent to live with my aunt. He survived it, but my teenage self was persecuted by the images of him in the hospital room with two tubes coming out of his shaved head. He always had long, black hair, I had never seen him bald before.

How do you deal with the overtaking fear of loss? Death is so definitive… I have no answer to this question. All I know is that, becoming an adult, I began standing more steadily on my own legs. I know I will not be lost anymore. Me and my father have the most loving relationship and I am proud of how he is aging; he has a new family, picks up the nephews from school once a week, plays tennis three times a week and never spends one weekend at home. Him and his girlfriend are always travelling. Our bond has survived my growing up; I am an adult, but the characteristics of our relationship are still rooted in my childhood, in the times in which we were inseparable partners in crime.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

After the Firebird by Ekaterina Vasilyeva

My latest short youtube review is of After the Firebird by Ekaterina Vasilyeva. This is a beautiful handmade book (with thread colours that match the innards of the signatures) which is still available.

It tells the story of Ekaterina's grandparents, and the land they live on, and the magic of that land. There are images and there is text (and I think the text could just be about the grandparents but then that's me and that's the place I'm in. We all have our prejudices and that's one of mine). The images are quite recognisable in some ways but altogether there's a strong sense of place and individuality in there which I really like.

The rather lovely thing about the Russian books I see is they still have a slightly different sensibility, they come from a different place and have a sense of identity about them. Sometimes it's to do with the land which is what After the Firebird is about (and that ties in with yesterday's post) but sometimes they are just to do with what seems to be a bit of oddness. There seems to be an urgency not to conform (at least in the small independently produced world) whereas in other places, everybody wants to be the same, while pretending not to want to be the same. There's always that question of what have other people done so I can copy it?

And when everybody is trying to make pictures or books or stories that fit within an easy genre, it is astonishingly refreshing to see something different, that sits in the hand and has some eccentricity to it. It also means a different language is being used, but I have a post on that, the myth of visual language, coming up soon. Here's a clue, photography is not a language. Obviously. Duh!

Ha, ha. I'll leave it there before I change my mind about that statement. And the Duh!


Buy After the Firebird here. It's lovely and there are 20 left.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Soft Fascination, Place Identity and All Quiet on the Home Front

I was reading about Soft Fascination, the idea that comes from The Experience of Nature by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan.

It's a very simple idea that leads on from the division of attention into directed and involuntary categories. Anything with a screen, with text, with images is directed. Anything where your brain is tuned into something organised and functional, that fits in some kind of grid, is directed. most 'relaxing' activities are directed. Relaxing activities drain us.

We live in a directed society and it's exhausting. We need relief from it. We live in a directed society and it's exhausting. We need relief from it. And that's where soft fascination comes in. It even sounds lovely. And that's because it is.

Soft Fascination provides relief from our exhausting lifestyles in the form of involuntary attention, the kind that you have when you walk in the woods wondering at the light flickering through the trees, when you lie down in a meadow and watch the clouds float by, when you doze on the beach listening to the sound of the waves. All of these involve attention but it doesn't fit within a grid, it has an inbuilt irregularity that stops it settling into the kind of regular pattern. The fractal patterns of light through trees, the movement of clouds, the sound of the waves all have an irregularity that is self-disruptive. In essence we can't concentrate on them. That is what makes them relaxing. It's the regularity that is exhausting.

So going out into nature, even the rough nature that you get around cities provides a restoration of energies, a rebuilding and firming up of the soul. That's what soft fascination does for you - it allows you to fall into yourself, to detach yourself from the gridded patterns of life. And the it takes place in environments that are restoring, so there is the idea of the Restorative Environment. 

I've written about forest-bathing before, which is something similar, but it's always rather lovely when you a new idea that corresponds to your own work, but you've never seen before.

All Quiet on the Home Front is all about that soft fascination, about finding some form of equilibrium in trees, water, flora, the elements. In a world where words, images, and the life-sapping parasitism of social media is competing for attention in a destruction manner, soft fascination is an antidote to the exhaustion. It is completely about the restorative environment both in the form Kaplan (and Burkeman) write about, but also in the sense of place attachment and place identity, the idea that a strong sense of place creates grounding points for memory and self that can act as external reset points throughout one's life; it's the idea of people being of this world rather than in control of this world in other words. The former potentially makes you happy, the latter most definitely does not. So

Anyway, this is what Burkeman says about it

Soft fascination has two crucial components. First, it’s effortless: you don’t need to “try to focus” on the wind in the trees, or a moor top blanketed in heather. Second, it’s partial: it absorbs some attention, but leaves some free for reflection, conversation or mind-wandering. The result is what the Kaplans called “cognitive quiet”, in which the muscle of effortful attention – the one you use to concentrate on work – gets to rest, but without the boredom you’d feel if you had nothing to focus on. This helps explain why nature’s benefits aren’t restricted to, say, trips to the Grand Canyon or Great Barrier Reef. Those places seize your whole attention, whereas your local park may seize just enough of it to let the rest of your mind relax.

Think about attention like this, and it becomes clear how irresponsibly we usually treat our own supply of it. “To concentrate on a task, you need to block out distractions,” as the design and technology expert Richard Coyne has written – and “once that blocking function gets worn down by fatigue, you are more likely to act on impulse, to shirk tasks that prove too challenging [or] to become irritable.” But all too often, we respond to concentration fatigue by trying to concentrate on something different: email, social media, TV – “things that are more engaging but less challenging”. No wonder that doesn’t work: it’s like taking a rest after lifting dumbbells by lifting different dumbbells. Nature, by contrast, lets us switch modes. To quote Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, it “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquillises it and yet enlivens it”.

There’s plenty of evidence for the soft fascination thesis. But for me, it’s personal experience that makes it ring so true. To listen to some proponents of mindfulness, you might think the best way to engage with nature is being totally immersed in the scenery. Yet anyone who loves hiking knows part of the pleasure is in pondering other matters as you walk, or in meandering conversations – rambling while rambling. Countless famous thinkers – Darwin, Thoreau, Wordsworth – swore by daily walks in nature. But they were still thinking as they walked.

And here are some formative thoughts from Kaplan on the idea of The Restorative Environment

The thrust of my argument can summarized in terms of three basic themes:

1. Increasing pressures lead to problems of mental fatigue.
2. Restorative experiences are an important means of reducing mental fatigue, and have a special connection to natural environments.
3. Natural environments, in providing these deeply needed restorative experiences,play an essential role in human functioning. 

These themes, in turn, lead to three groups of questions that 1 shall attempt to address:
1. The first set of questions concerns the pressures members of modem society face: Why are these pressures increasing? What impact do they have?

2. The second set concerns what Rachel Kaplan and I have come to call "restorative experiences," that is, experiences that help people recover from mental fatigue: What is the nature of these experiences? How do they achieve their substantial benefits? How does nature play a special role in providing such experiences?

3. Finally, what makes natural environments so important? What kinds of significant impacts can they have on the life of an individual? 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Julian Baron's Bristol Workshop

image above by Julian Baron from Cesura 

Here is a quick heads up for a workshop by Julian Baron on 23rd.24th and 25th February. 

Titled The Cage: Visualising the Housing Crisis, this is a 3-day collaborative workshop and intervention in the public space done in collaboration with People’s Republic of Stokes Croft in Bristol. The workshop will be coordinated by IC-Visual Lab in conjunction with internationally acclaimed Spanish artist Julián Barón. This project is a collaboration between Acción Cultural Española (AC/E), Arnolfini and University of West of England.


During this workshop, participants will be asked to respond collectively to the current housing crisis in the UK by producing visual material resulted from applying various techniques of image manipulation, collage… They will also design a public intervention where all the resulting work will be displayed in a Bristol location.

Workshop facilitators will provide an archive of images to work with composed of photographs, archive images, pictograms, documents, film stills, books and magazines. Participants will also be able to contribute to this pool of images by bringing their own ones. We recommend you bring between 20-30 A4 B&W images which should be printed on a photocopier or a domestic printer (printing quality is not important). You can also send these images to the organisers before the workshop for printing.

The final work will be displayed in the public space in a Bristol location. The location chosen will be relevant to the topic of the housing crisis providing the perfect canvas to showcase all participants’ responses. Location details will be given to participants once they have signed for the workshop.

Furthermore, participants will produce an experimental publication (printed and digital) with an extended version of the works produced. Every participant will have a free publication at the end of the workshop. The organizers will also provide full documentation (images & a promotional video) to participants after the workshop.

There is also a talk by Julian Baron  on Thursday February 22nd at the Arnolfini.

I.Julian Barón i one of the most active and committed figures of the new Spanish photographic scene. In this talk, Julian will share the ideas behind his most recent projects, produced in Spain since 2011: C.E.N.S.U.R.A, Tauromaquia, and Los últimos días vistos del rey and Memorial.

Deeply concerned by the political, economic, and social issues of a country in unprecedented crisis, he uses outrageously manipulated and twisted images in a dialectic of the representation of power, institutions, and the political class. He has an ongoing interest in experiemental publications as well as the possibilities between the physical and the digital.

Barón will also give an introduction to the workshop The Cage: Visualising the Housing Crisis that takes place in Bristol over three days with a final intervention in the public space and a experimental publication.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Stories From the Home Front: Emilie Lauwers: I did not know how to live without him

Following this post on All Quiet on the Home Front and emotional narratives, the blog is featuring submitted images and stories on their family life: Stories from the Home Front. This is from Emilie Lauwers who first told me her story when I was showing her the All Quiet dummy at the Gazebook Festival in Punta Secca.

Here's my story.

When I was twenty five, my brother died of health issues. He was twenty one. There is much to write about that moment that isn't relevant here. What matters, is that the days after, as the sun came up and went down and came up again, I was paralyzed. It took me some time to realize that sadness was not what paralyzed me. There was something else.

I did not know how to live without him.

It was not only the missing of a person I loved that scared me. What scared me, was that I didn't know who I was, apart from 'my brothers sister'.

I was 3 when he was born, so I had no memory of a life without him. We grew up together, and I built my identity upon his existence. His health issues were the clockwork of our family. I was a good girl, very responsible, very empathic, because that was the role I naturally took beside him. I was highly sensitive - I used to listen to his breathing all the time, and understood the unspoken sadness of my parents. I was his sidekick. I was funny when he lost courage. I defended him, lied for him, made his homework, carried him out of the sea when he was too tired to swim. Every single decision I took in my life until his death, whether it was the fact that I never traveled, a choice of study or an interest in certain men, was to be brought back to my brother in one or the other way. When I was 25, we said goodbye, and in that instant, everything I had come to be seemed to have lost purpose.

For a brief, very frightening moment, it occurred to me that I completely forgot to build a personality of my own.
An identity, independent of anyone else. 

It was a very brief moment, because one month later, I was pregnant.

Deus ex machina, my new function in life came from the skies.
I was no longer a sister. I was now a mom.
I was the kind of mother that completely ignores herself. Everything for the baby. It was the perfect alibi.

The situation made me connect even deeper with my parents. Becoming a parent always brings your own parents back to the stage. In my case, since my brother left, it was just the three of us anyway.

My parents are not random parents. My mom is the mom of everyone. The best way to describe her is that she owns a stock of postcards and she manages to send them to everyone on the planet, on the exact right moment. There will be a perfect postcard when someone is born or somebody dies, but also when someone graduates, moves house, gets married, gets divorced, gets chemo, swam without safety straps, saw a real squirrel, fears a big decision, loves chocolate, needs to pack for Italy. Anything. She does the same thing with books. I think if you'd take the books out of my parents place it would collapse. My mom offers books to people all the time: books with the perfect title, the perfect theme, or the perfect phrase in them. She's a big example to me, but as for perfectly timed postcards, for the time being I don't even manage to buy stamps in time.

You'll never guess, but my dad is the dad of everyone. I grew up with all his students nearby, the young artists and performers he was teaching. We'd have long dinners, with candle light and music and dozens of young people sitting around the table listening to my dad, eating the food my mom cooked for them. He was their master, and in many ways he still is mine. Many people knew him, and as I followed his footsteps into theatre, I was often introduced as 'the daughter of my dad'.

In my life, apart from 'my brothers sister' and 'the daughter of my dad', I occasionally was someone's employee, someone's colleague, someone's illustrator, someones designer or someone's scenographer. I was often someone's friend, someone's best friend, someone's neighbor. I also was someone's wife. I found the perfect man for a relationship in which elaborating one's own identity was not a topic.

Two years after my brother died and my daughter was born, my father had an accident. In a few hours time, he went from the charismatic director I was working with, to a body full of tubes in a hospital bed, so far gone in a coma he didn't even hear us speak. It took six months for him to recover, and in those six months my mother got breast cancer. All of a sudden, my immortal parents turned out to offer no certainty. Being 'just' their daughter wouldn't work forever. Being 'just' his brother never did the trick either.
Predictably, my husband had seen enough existential misery and our relationship didn't survive the worrisome times. We split up. I was no longer 'his wife'. The universe, just to make its point clear, also made sure that I got fired from my full time job. I was no longer someone's employee, someone's colleague, someone's designer. At that point in my life I was 29, and there were simply no more external factors to hold on to when it came to the simple question: 'who am I'?

There was one person left.

My child, then 3.

I realized I had to do things differently.

In order to be a parent, I had to be a person.

I had to identify myself.

It took me a few years to observe who I was and figure out what parts of my personality were essential to me, independent of others. You could say that I was 30 when I was born (again). I'm 33 now and I'm growing up, slow but steady. By the side of my daughter, who forces me to total integrity simply by calling me 'mom'. It's a beautiful journey, that I am enjoying with all my heart. If the story above seems heavy to you, don't worry, it has a happy ending and sharing it does no longer cause me any harm.

Monday, 5 February 2018

The emotional narratives. of All Quiet on the Home Front

When people talk or write about All Quiet on The Home Front, it is fascinating to see how the book touches different elements of people's experience of being a parent, being a child, of being outside.

All Quiet on the Home Front is about my experience of fatherhood and that loss of self I experienced when Isabel was born, and that recovery of self that happened as she grew up, as we got out of the house, as she established herself as a real person with real feelings, with a real life. And left me behind in the process. To me it's about the repeated cycle of birth and death as Isabel becomes who she is. My birth and my death. I'm the flip side to the images perhaps. It's about her, but it's about me. And the message is personal but it's also universal.

What is so unpredictable is the different parts the text and the images touch in people, and not just in predictable ways. I have talked about parental and maternal ambivalence before, the way in which you wish your child away, but I have found people approaching All Quiet from a different direction, from the inability to have children a kind of non-parental, non-ambivalence at the feeling of grief and loss this inability instils in a person - something that is not in the book at all, but somehow now is.

Or I have spoken to people who have beautifully talked about how motherhood was a coming into selfhood, not a loss of selfhood, a process compounded by earlier sacrifice and loss. And in terms of landscape, people have been both nostalgic about their childhoods, about the environments they found their life in, but there have also been stories of confinement and loss, of not being able to go outside, of a gradual locking away of the outside world, of watching while others are given free reign.

In Wired Japan, Kazuma Obara talks about the emotional tumult of fatherhood and the tears he shed on reading the book, in Photomonitor Jesse Alexander focusses on the escape from the domestic space, and the need to escape it, to get some relief from domestic claustrophobia.

What is also interesting about these responses and many more sent in by email, is how much they open up my interpretation of the book, how much I learn both about other people's experiences and my own.

In this extended piece in American Suburb X, Brad Feurhelm writes about how one's world view shifts when one has a child, and in particular how it shifts if you work in something creative. All Quiet on the Home Front is a kind of creative place holder then, something that consolidates a creative practice, that brings a parental ways of seeing and being into the work that I used to do. Which is not what I had in mind, but is completely the case. And now that I am working on other family material (my German Family Album - you can see some on Instagram) it seems to be a world in which I will be living for some while.

These are some snippets from Brad's piece, which is quite beautiful.

Nobody can tell you the effect of what having children does for or to you if you are in the creative arts....

When you are involved in making visual work, you have several different perimeters from which you construct images. Some people work in serial, some people work on one piece for a very long time, ruminating over its every detail and some people work completely automatically and simply produce. One thing that happens while becoming a parent in the first years is that within that strange world of fatigue and over-concern, you begin to appreciate the time that you can spend in your own head as it relates to creatively quite differently. Things open up and close down in equal measure... 

You grow to appreciate the time you have to yourself more often with all those strange hormones and anti-desires building up on your walk through the woods during the pram-pushing afternoon nap. At times, you find yourself trying desperately to imagine what life is like outside of the bountiful, but repetitive gestures of stacking those wooden blocks over and over or flipping through the same book 6,000 times to continue the ritual for stability that a child unknowingly forces on his or her parent. 

I think the great fear of becoming a parent when you are in the arts outside of the financial is the fear that you wont have time to create again or that when you return you might not be producing things at the same rate, speed or intensity of which you were before childbirth (the true B.C.)...

The most noticeable shift in becoming a parent in the arts is that the images or ideas that you thought was perhaps something of a grave nature or concern in your work, are found to be of less value than you thought...  The ideas that you had-a certain vigor or an urge or yes, very much a desire has slowed. What took me by surprise was that picking up a camera again had more to say about my newly developed circumstances than I had even considered and most of that lies within the intimate world around...

Colin Pantall’s “All Quiet on the Home Front” is a book I feel like I am living, but with a different protagonist in frame. I recognize his walks with Isabel, though I do not live in his country. I understand looking at his trees, the geological formations underneath their root structures and the places where fairly unthreatening water off the path collides with a child’s natural ability to notice it and demand inclusion within its swirling surface. I notice the last moments of summer and the oncoming spring when the energy that a child has to burn by process of growth is given ample green patch or dirt bike course to do so on as papa follows along with his broken camera never knowing if these images are his next book or simply “got some nice pics of Isabel today” totems... 

Colin’s work is about navigating this territory of new life alongside his daughter. It’s about creating fascination and also keeping the cogs of creativity oiled and running through watching his daughter grow up and himself grow older. Photography is many terrible things, but one thing it is great for is fascination. It harnesses the possibility for playing out in a different way giving the child a look into adult possibility, while also reminding the adult what it was like to look at the world with young and/or un-jaded eyes. 

Go here to read the whole article.

Because of the diverse nature of responses, and the stories that people want to tell, starting later this week I will be posting the stories and images people have been sending in as a response to All Quiet on the Front.

If you have a story and an image to show, do get in touch with me at colinpantall@yahoo.co.uk

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Modelling for Photography Packet Photos: "This is for Dresden"

One of the most attractive things about smoking was the branding and the packets. But even though the branding on the packets (and see here for some cigarette packet collection by country) has gone, I still have a strange fascination of the images of disease and death you get on packets now. It's a fascination that dates back to my childhood when I would skim through my mother's illustrated medical guide for pictures of the most gruesome diseases.

The current packets with their graphic visual warnings still fascinate me and I'm guessing there are morbid people who collect them. If you are remotely interested in this, here are the approved EU health warnings.

Nice. I have always wondered who the people on the cigarette packets were. The guy on the bottom left is called Tom Fraine and he talks about the whole process on modelling for graphic warnings here from the model's perspective. I love the photographer who zipped the model into a body bag and said,"This is for Dresden." Who says Germans don't have a sense of humour.

I saw an advert looking for models for tobacco warnings. It was paid, so I applied and made the shortlist. I asked what I needed to bring to wear and they sent me a one-line email saying: “This is what we need you to do,” and attached a picture of a naked guy curled up in a ball. They told me I would get €100.

The other people on the shoot were from the photographer’s agency. They were after all sorts of setups: “Woman looking sad in wheelchair”, “Man blowing smoke in a baby’s face”, “Dead man in a morgue”. I went into a weird studio and they told me to take all my clothes off. I lay down on a makeshift bed while two guys on ladders stood over me, photographing. They were directing me from up there, asking me to look more anguished, or more angry, or asking me to rearrange myself because my testicles were in shot. But they got the shot. It wasn’t until the cigarette packets came out that I discovered it would be a warning about impotence.

The next shoot was even weirder. This time, I was offered €200 and asked to come to a disused hospital on the outskirts of Berlin. They painted my face grey, put me in a body bag and took me to the morgue. Being in a body bag really freaked me out, especially when the photographer zipped the bag up fully and whispered: “This is for Dresden,” before unzipping me. He had a dark sense of humour. That’s the warning advert where I’m playing the dead guy.

And for more tobacco labelling joy, go to the Tobacco Labelling Resource Centre. There are some grim ones in there. But none quite so grim as this one from Belarus which comes via Ivars Gravlejs... 

Linking this to the previous post on photobooks, what we sometimes have to remember is there are multiple photography worlds beyond photobooks that are much bigger than the photobook world. And the world of Tobacco Health Warnings  is one of those worlds!

Monday, 29 January 2018

There is Money in Photobooks But!

Image from Whitewash by Harit Srikhao

Akina is one of my favourite publishers. They make beautifully produced books ant Valentina Abenavoli and Alex Bochetto have an aesthetic which ploughs its own course.

But it seems that's not enough to make a decent living as a publisher. In a much-commented on post on Facebook, Valentina considered the dilemmas of making a living as a publisher, wondering why it was so much more difficult than in years gone by (when Daisuke Yokota was a very main event), and pondering the concrete difficulties of cashflow, including the dilemma of booksellers that don't pay invoices. And from the other side, there was the dilemma of booksellers that do pay up front for books and then can't sell them.

The reasons given were numerous. Now you have so many new publishers, new designers and people selling through multiple markets including their own websites, online shops, and photobook specialised shops. And they are publishing more books than ever before. It's a very crowded market.

I don't think the number of books being bought is going down, but because the spread of books is so much wider, the opportunity to make a living as a publisher (or bookseller) is diminishing. You really have to be reinventing yourself and redefining yourself on a constant basis. And that's exhausting and it becomes a Darwinian survival of the fittest. How can you juggle book-making with promotion, with writing, with film, with workshops, with buzz-making, with other work, with keeping up with what's new, with home life, with everything. I'm exhausted just thinking about it.

There's also the idea that the market should be growing. As people, such as Akina, move up from the raw dynamics of the photocopied book to something with much higher production levels, the idea is that the economics should develop with that. But perhaps the photobook industry as it stands is a zero-growth industry. Why should it grow? What are we doing to make it grow?

Or if you do want to make it economically viable then you can go down the path of some photobook publishers and make books where the bottom line is everything. Sometimes that's a virtue because even though the books are cheap the bottom line is incorporated into the branding, design and production - as with Cafe Royal. They make cheap books that aren't cheap. Then you get people who cut corners on design, on printing, on paper, on everything. And it's just a bit shit. But they make money and sell their books. Like market traders. Pile them high and sell for a quick profit. It works and if you can do it good luck to you. You don't have a soul but so it goes.

Now there are different ways of making money to fund new books. So you get Mack reprinting Pictures From Home or Ravens or Mississippi. And these sell by the thousand and make a lot of money for online sellers like Photobookstore. But people will only buy so many books. And so the money goes here rather than elsewhere. Which is fair enough really because they are brilliant books.

On the flip side to that, there are the bijou small handmade editions as exemplified by Reminders Photography Stronghold, Independent Russian Photobooks, Ceiba Editions (on a larger scale) and many more. The importance of paper, of supporting materials, of the tactile qualities of paper and the book as object are also entering larger scale publishers. The result is, I feel, more people are willing to buy limited edition books that are almost artists' books. Again, you spend more on some books at the expense of others.

image from After the Firebird by Ekaterina Vasilyeva 

That connects in to another, very practical point. If the photobook thing has been going on for ten years, that means a lot of shelves are filling up very quickly. Where do you keep all these books? You are much, much more likely to buy a pretty good book if you have lots of spare shelf space than if you don't. For many people, photobooks are very literally, and very harshly, a waste of space.

The febrile excitement has died down. The illusion of making money from photobooks, of the big buzzing book has evaporated. That's probably a good thing because it was an illusion and really rather stupid, but it was also kind of fun as this old post from a few years ago demonstrates.There's also the energy of the photobook world. Basically it relies on an energy and an engagement that punches above its weight. That's still there but the more manic aspects of it have dissipated. That's probably a good thing. The question now is, if you are used to that energy and the attention it generated (articles in newspapers announcing the Golden Age of Photobooks and the like), it's a bit disappointing to have to shrink back into the shadows and get on with the serious business of making a living.

There's also idea that people learn from experience or the examples of others. I'm not sure they do. Cafe Royal have been doing their cheap editions for years and they continue to sell. And there's also the exceptional example of the brilliant Mc Hotel (which Alex Bochetto gave to me years ago at Paris Photo and which was the absolute favourite among participants at the recent workshop I ran in Catania, Sicily), the classic 2 euro book.

Or the example of Mack who are reprinting old editions, which helps fund the less lucrative new editions I'm guessing. It's a good thing and a rejigging of the market to take in all those old books that are no longer cheaply available. It's been going on for years, but that little trio really marked something different. The problem is what a trio that was! You can't just reprint anything. It has to be top drawer and the fact it was published by Mack adds another level of value.

And then ultimately, there's the idea that the stories that photobooks tell aren't that interesting. Not that all photobooks need to have a story. They don't. depending on the subject, the structure, the voice etc. But so many now fetishise the obscure and make a virtue out of sequencing without story, as though sequencing makes a story. Sequencing isn't narrative.  The over-emphasis on the importance of sequencing, above all, can lead to photobook confusion and disappointment for the potential buyer and a closing down of a potential market. There are too many people who are catering to the 10,000 (if you look at it from an optimistic global view, or 500 if you look at it from a more pessimistic national view) people that buy books and the imaginary and rather simulacral visual language that has developed within photobooks over the last five years.

The final thing is we really are limited in our corner of photobook world about what photobooks are. We are incredibly snotty about them.

Last year I made All Quiet on the Home Front. That was made in an edition of 500. The other book I have just finished co-writing and editing is Magnum China. The whole process is on a much grander scale, the editing process is completely different, and it involves Magnum so there are those complexities (and the number of medical hours taken up fixing the noses put out of joint must be in four figures). The biggest difference though is the print run, or the print runs because it will be published in multiple languages. They are huge. We're talking Frankfurt Bookfair, whole forests will be decimated for Magnum China. But the photobook world I have been talking about wouldn't even consider it a photobook. Because it's not so that's fair enough.

But it says something. There is money in photography, and there is in books containing photography. Perhaps we just have to rejig how we think about photobooks. Or if we don't do that, just accept that it's a small bijou world and be happy to be part of it.

Friday, 26 January 2018

This Land is Not Your Land: Black Men Walking, Peaky Blinders and Holocaust Day

I was reading this article by Afua Hirsch earlier this week, an article in which she writes about how she is repeatedly told that there is no racism in the UK.

“Life’s moved on from race,” one of my fellow panellists told me on The Pledge. “If it’s well intentioned, it’s not racism,” said another. All of this was, very ironically, good evidence of my point: that white fragility operates powerfully against progress; that there are those in our society, including high-profile and influential people, who prefer defensiveness to a cold, hard analysis of the patterns of prejudice.


The world is wrong,” wrote the American poet Claudia Rankine. “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.” To be black, in a society that invented race for the specific purpose of dehumanising people who are black, and then invented an equally formidable system of denial, is to carry the burden of history that others would rather forget.


“I don’t see colour,” they say. And so I find James Baldwin echoing round my head: “I don’t really believe in race. I don’t really believe in colour. But I do know what I see.”

In the same edition of the newspaper I was reading I also read about Black Men Walking, a play based on a Black Men Walking group based in the Pennines in Yorkshire.

There was a section when they were walking along an old Roman road and one of the men wondered that he was following the path of  the black Roman emperor Septimius Severus who had passed along the road on his way to try to conquer Caledonia.

He was writing a British history that didn't correspond to the generally accepted British history, one which extends to the visibility of black walkers and celebrates the idea that there were Black people in Britain 2,000 years before the Windrush landed. The walking group was founded simply because here were people who enjoyed walking, but a side effect of that is it makes apparent the lack of a historical visibility of black walkers in remote beauty spots such as the Pennines.

But history is not static and world view are not static. I remember going to the English seaside town of Weymouth with a class of migrant students. We landed up on the beach and it was a sea of black and brown skin, of hijabs and shalwar kameez amidst on a mostly white beach. And one of the girls, born in Pakistani, looked around and said "This place isn't like the rest of England. There are no black people here."

And she was right. It wasn't like Bristol, particularly Easton, where she came from. It was a place that was symptomatic of the urban-rural racial divide of Britain, the ways in which BME communities are concentrated in the cities. The irony of course, is that the most racist (and pro-Brexit) places in the UK are mostly those with the least diversity.

Perhaps one additional cause of this is the idea that the English countryside is not seen as black (the seaside is actually different in many regions) and it is not represented as black. You can look at advertisments by companies like Great Western Railway and you won't see a black face (you will actually - there's a guy in a hot air balloon you see for a second. He doesn't even get to tread on the land which makes it even worse) in there as their animated trains tootle through Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. This is not accidental. These are adverts that cater to an imagined, idealised white Britain and are based on the children's books of Enid Blyton. For one perspective of Enid Blyton, read this article by Hardeep Singh Kohli.

While I never regarded Blyton as high art, neither was I aware of her more questionable work, work that attracted criticisms of racism, xenophobia, elitism and sexism. In 1937 she published The Little Black Doll, a story about Sambo. Unsurprisngly, Sambo wasn’t like the other toys in the toy box; no. Sambo was black and so hated by all the other toys and his owner for having an “ugly black face”. He runs away, gets caught in the rain and finds that the downpour has washed his blackness away. He’s now pink of face and welcomed back to the body of the kirk. Seven years later Blyton released The Three Golliwogs featuring Golly, Woggie and Nigger.

The point of this article is that we mustn't rewrite our past, but we must remember it - with all its failures and disasters. And work to make the present better than the past.

I don't think we are quite there in the UK yet. As Afua Hirsch and the Black Men Walking Group show, we need to both address the denial of the present reality but also redefine the history of the country.

I am currently editing my German Family Album; it's an album of images of my German family from the 1920s to 1942. At the same time I am revisiting some histories of the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism. It is astonishing to see how fascism and nationalism inundate every aspect of life, and can be projected directly onto images.

There are images of people walking in my album, of trees and the forest. These are not neutral images. The forest was a fetishised symbol of the fetishised Volk of nationalist Germans, a place that was supposedly truly German in place and in spirit, a place at odds with the industrial expansion Germany was undergoing in the late 19th century and beyond. It was a place Jews did not go, or at least were not seen to go because anti-semitic lore regarded them as the antithesis to the four Fs - "Frisch, Fromm, Fröhlich, Frei" ("Hardy, Pious, Cheerful, Free"). These four fs were the symbol of the German Gymnastics League and formed an early form of the German version of the swastika.

One passage in Laurence Rees' book The Holocaust talks of how German Jews had to form their own hiking groups to get into the German countryside. One member, Eugene Levine, remembers:

'"I remember in my hiking days being in a railway compartment going home to Berlin, with my rucksack and my brown shirt." Sharing the compartment with Eugene and his friends  was a farmer, who started swearing about the Jews, and so we said. "Well look, we are all Jews." And he roared with laughter, and he said, "You must think we country people are daft. You are obviously nice clean-living German boys. You're not going to tell me you're Jews." And he meant it. Because we weren't dirty, we didnt' wear side locks, we didn't have a caftan, we didn't have a beard. We looked like any other German boys to his eye."'

Levine writes that this farmer was part of a rural community that had probably never seen a Jew, the irony being that these communities were amongst the most anti-semitic in Germany, conflating anti-semitism with the threat that industrialisation and mechanisation posed to ways of farming  that were fast becoming economically impossible in a newly industrialised Germany.

Though they were formed with a much more fundamental life-affirming intent, the Black Men Walking Group are also operating against a pre-conceived idea of what English land is, and also what English is.

It's a struggle that you can link to the Allotment Act, Hunting Laws the Enclosures, the Right to Roam and much much more besides. It's also linked to how the land is portrayed, how history is portrayed, how race is portrayed, how land is portrayed. In the article on walking, Dawn Walton, says:

“Every time a black artist is in a costume drama,” says Walton, “people kick off. I don’t know why. Like many of us, I’m very aware of the history – the erasure, actually – of black British people. Researching the last 500 years, it’s a pretty rich scene. And guess what – no one’s told those stories. So that’s my playing field.”

Telling these stories is what changes history, but there are so few people telling these stories. But there are a few exceptions. Perhaps the best example is Peaky Blinders, the beautifully filmed and massively stylised  story of Birmingham gangsters, with beautiful Cillian Murphy in the main role. This is one of the few (the only off the top of my head) historical dramas that place power in the hands of a working class (and gypsy) community, that centres events in the city, that focusses on regional rivalries complete with cockney wankers, bible-thumping Ulstermen, and a roguish North London Jew, that has upper-class characters who are just as venal, self-serving and corrupt as the gangsters, and that also has made an effort to put black characters in major roles.

It sets out to redefine the  period drama and with that comes a little redefining of British social history and what it  urban and a rural Britain look like.

History is not static in other words.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Books that haven't been published: Juliana Beasley's Polaroids

These are Juliana Beasley's Polaroids, a side project to her Lapdancer pictures which were published in book-form and are one of the few cases of dancers/strippers where the person actually making the work is the person who is immersed in the work rather than being there for the purpose of the project, Nikki S.Lee, Sophie Calle notwithstanding..

These polaroids are an example where the crossover between the photography and the people photographed takes place in territory that sits very uneasily between one world and another (and it should be noted that Juliana used to assist Annie Liebovitz before turning to Lapdancing to make a living. Or that after working as a lapdancer she made a great project on Rockaways which should also be a book. But so it goes).

The upshot of this approach is that they are happening within that world of dancing, in the before-times, the end hours and the off-moments, so there is a happenstance quality to them that allows the people photographed to come through with a degree of subtlety that the handwritten texts both adds to and takes away from in places. There is a touch of authenticity there which the photographic project and generic intentions haven't stripped away. There's sadness in there, hardness, dysfunction, sexiness, openness, concealment and theatricality. It's a portrayal of the masks with which people disguise themselves, or don't.

We've just had the end-of-year lists come out for the best books, but sometimes it's worth wondering at books or exhibitions that don't come about, that haven't happened yet for whatever reasons, most often to do with the simple economics of publishing and exhibiting. It is much, much easier to publish if you have a trust fund for example. This is one of those books or exhibitions that hasn't happened yet. But it should because these are quite fantastic. One day. 

Monday, 22 January 2018

The Bland Fundamentalists of Instagram

Instagram is a strange and alien tool that panders to our need to click and seek digital approval for our images. It is absurdly addictive and turns many of the people who use it (myself included - let's not pretend here) into like-seeking refresh junkies. You're on Instagram, that's what you do.

It's a conformist application with a form of censorship tht is infuriating and seemingly random, while at its heart is part of a corporate cultural imperialism with a spectral Anglo-American perspective on the world with weird and diverse religious undertones that pander to double standards and hypocrisy on a global scale. It's a weird kind of bland fundamentalism. Or something. I really don't know what it is.

The book Pics of it Didn't Happen  gives an overview of  one side of the argument, showing pictures that have been censored by Instagram, with an emphasis on  'how taboo very ordinary elements of female bodies, such as hair, fat and blood, have become.'

So there's that. And when little patches of blood are taboo, or bodies that are large, there is definitely something odd at work.

You get famous photographs that include nipples including these by Imogen Cunningham censored. But you can post works of art featuring nipples. So that's OK then.

If they are male nipples, then you are allowed to post them, hence the site Genderless Nipples.

So you can have pictures of men and boys showing nipples, but not of women or even children. This picture from All Quiet on the Home Front was censored by Instagram when I did Instagram takeovers on both the BJP and Photographic Museum of Humanity, possibly for that reason. However, it wasn't censored from my personal site, so the suggestion is that it's not an algorithm doing the job on this one. But I would venture that the image below is far more obscene than the image up top, not because of anything it shows but because of the view of childhood and family that it pressupposes. Not to mention the blatant sexism of covering up a girl's torso while allowing a boy's torso to be shown. This is a kind of Instagram hijab for 6-year-old girls, and with it comes a misogyny that is being spread globally at a speed and with a spread and depth that surpasses almost anything.

The image up top, which shows an image from my German Family Album (which I'm sharing on my Instagram account as I try to get to grips with it) was also censored after being online for a few days. I'm putting it back on with a big censored sign across it.

The image is from 1929, and is titled, in translation, The Judgement of Paris - which is a great title. It's funny but a bit odd. But because there is a penis showing, a 1929 penis, it is banned.

Ins its  'community standards', Instagram states that childhood nudity is questionable because 'even when this content is shared with good intentions, it could be used by others in unanticipated ways.' There are plenty of places in the world where this kind of childhood nudity is not questioned, yet here is Instagram questioning it on our behalf.

But it's the doublespeak of the language that Instagram uses that confounds me. I know we should all pretend social media is a community and that we're sharing, but every now and then let's call bullshit on the language of sharing. So first of all, posting a picture is not sharing and Instagram is not a community. Second of all the idea embedded in this text that predatory paedophiles are trawling through Instagram for pictures of semi-naked children is absurd.

Rather Instagram is imposing a particular view of women, of childhood, of sexuality on the world. It's a form of cultural imperialism that comes directly out of Anglo-American fear of the body, in particular the female body and the child's body. It's a worldview that is completely at odds with large parts of the world,  and is continuation of a war against the body, a shaming of the body (especially the female body), laced together with a commodification of the body and the family that has been going on in various forms for hundreds of years. Anne Higonnet's Pictures of Innocence and Philippe Aries' Centuries of Childhood are good starting points for this discussion, as are the religious right of all religions but I feel we are entering fresh territory now with the overlap of social media into these areas.

And it's massively important. How the body is represented affects how we see the world, how we behave, how our children behave. You can see in places how religious fanaticism (and it's not just one religion either) has entered the mainstream and transformed the way people dress, behave, and interact with each other.

You will get the same with Instagram and other social media. It communicates ideas of what is acceptable and what is not and people adhere to it very quickly. What appears on social media becomes part of a global way of thinking and seeing and doing. And it's not a community way of seeing, thinking and doing. It's a US corporate way of seeing, thinking and doing. It already affects what we post, for many it affects what they photograph, and that means it affects the way we behave, but on a huge, amplified scale.

And the best thing is I'm still on Instagram, because it's the ultimate tool of narcissism (or is that Facebook, or Blogger, or Snapchat...) and  that's how they get you.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Mère et Fils (Mother and Son) by Anne de Gelas is the follow up to her wonderful, but tragic L'Amoureuse. It tells the story of how Anne reconfigured her relationship with her son, and with herself, her lovers and her own body, after the death of her husband (the immediate aftermath of her grief is the subject of L'Amoureuse which you can read about here).

The advantage of video reviews is they will be reasonably quick and I will learn some basic editing by doing it again and again.

The disadvantage is you can't say as much as you can when you write. At some point in this review I  talk in brief about the authenticity of de Gelas's pictures, but also the flaws of her pictures. They are staged, they are a theatre, but somehow that makes them even the more real. The authenticity comes from the drive and intensity of the emotional narrative that she delivers through her pictures, her writing (half of which I don't understand - but it doesn't matter) and her drawings. The authenticity comes from the fact that she has a story to tell, a story she cares about, that is rooted in her mind, her soul, her body and her son. Too often, stories that are based upon staged images have no heart because they are coming from places where the story doesn't really matter, in narratives that don't really have a soul. They sometimes pretend to have a head, and move the focus to the cognitive but really they are empty vessels. . It's a complex story but she tells it beautifully. Mère et Fils isnt' like that. It's a story that matters!

Buy Mère et Fils here.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Jigsaws: the Google Street View of back-in-the-day

Every year we do a jigsaw in our house so we get to see lots of pieces of jigsaw on the table for a few weeks. This year the jigsaw is of Knavesborough, a picturesque town with rows of houses (easy), a bridge (easy), sky (horrible but not too big), river (very difficult) and trees (impossible).

Scattered in the jigsaw we also get to see people. And it got me to wondering who these people are. They are incredibly anonymous people. It also got me thinking that maybe jigsaws are the retro equivalent of Google Street View/Satellite imaging. On a far more limited scale and with jigsaw shaped pieces and frames instead of pixels and stitching software.

On Google Street View, you get a few odds and ends of people scattered in the cracks of its imagery and people make images of them, make books of them, or at least they used to when that was a bit more of a thing and was interesting for a time. You even get people who say hey look, there's me on Google Street View. There's a visibility to it.

But jigsaws, not really. I have never met anybody who has said they have been in a jigsaw, not that I've asked anybody. It would be a bit odd reallly going up to somebody and randomly asking them, "hey, have you ever been in a jigsaw?" Just as it would be a bit odd to go up to somebody and randomly say, "You know the Lyme Regis 1,000 piecer by Steefenback Jigsaws. Well, I'm in that. I'm the woman standing by the fishing nets."

In fact, it would take a huge amount of coincidence to even recognise yourself in a jigsaw. You'd have to be making it, and then recognise yourself. And how do you recognise yourself in a jigsaw when the figures are generic and lacking in distinguishing features due to scale and distance. If you wanted to brag about being in a jigsaw, then you'd really need to be at somebody's house when they were making the one you were in and then you could say, "hey look at this piece. That's me." Then I wonder if you would memorise all the pieces around you and be able to get a jump on the puzzling.

So now that the GSV theme has run its course (for the time being), perhaps there should be a return to jigsaws, which are the analogue equivalent of the GSV/Satellite crossover. Perhaps there's a project in that, perhaps somebody is already working on it. Pictures of people in jigsaws, the idealised world of jigsaws. The trouble is GSV provides relatively high rewards for the relatively minimal time invested. Jigsaws are a fucking nightmare. They take an age and the rewards are minimal - you get a couple walking under a bridge and that's about it. And they take up so much space.

Which is why you'll never get jigsaw cafes, or jigsaw photobook projects. The visual rewards are pitiful and the  time investment is simply too great. Because when I think about the length of time we have been working on our jigsaw of Knavesborough, I come to the shocking conclusion that this picture is the image that I have looked at most since the jigsaw we did last year. In fact the images I have studied most in my life are ones that appear on jigsaws. And I've looked at these pictures in fragmented but sophisticated ways that (as well as taking in things like edges and jigsaw shapes) includes content, tone, colour, pose, hue, shape, edges, feathering and much more besides.

Sometimes we talk about new kinds of seeing and the importance of getting people to look. Perhaps we should consider that there are all sorts of ways of seeing that are very mainstream and we use them all the time, or once a year for me in the case of jigsaws. I might not look at jigsaws in the same way as I look at a photobook for example, but I still look at it. And that goes for a hundred different ways of looking, seeing, spotting, observing and noticing, all of which have their own science and research base, a research base that in some ways is far more rigorous than what we have in our corner of photography. In other words this corner of photography is the way of seeing that is on the margins and we should learn from the real world.

But at the same time it's less rigorous in terms of poetry, or vision or heart and soul. And that ultimately is what matters. So even though I looked at that jigsaw puzzle for hours upon end, it was all a quite distant kind of looking and seeing. There was no soul in the picture the jigsaw was based upon, there was no soul in the jigsaw itself. There was no soul in the making of the jigsaw. And soul is the goal. It's what machines, data and algorithms don't have.