Friday, 30 September 2016

Joshua Rashaad McFadden: How Will I Be Judged Years From Now?

All pictures from Joshua Rashaad McFadden/Ceiba except one

I still remember the days when it was ok to boo the national anthem at British football matches. In many quarters, that kind of God Save The Queen nationalism was seen as questionable, as alien, as reactionary, as a little bit fascist (not everywhere of course, because a lot of football supporters were and are a little bit fascist as well).

That suspicion of knee-jerk nationalism would extend to its other manifestations, such as the presence of the army at football games. Sometimes you'd get military bands performing before games and they would be laughed at. They were not people who everybody would stand up and applaud for being at the sharp end of somebody's corrupt, brain-shrivelled decision to destroy a county because they imagined it would make them look tough.

Not any more. British sport as a whole is part of the militarisation of the UK, something has crept into schools, sport and popular culture. There are even recruitment advertisements that question the right of others to question the military.

No, the US is ahead of the UK in terms of questioning national values, as the actions of Colin Kaepernick show. He's the American football player who kneels during the Star Spangled Banner to protest police murders of black men on the streets of America.

I read this article on the Colin Kaepernick protest and found it really interesting that the protest was linked by some to the death of Muhammad Ali, and an awareness of the protests that he undertook against the US, the military, the war in Vietnam, and the hypocrisy of the language of nationalism.

'But he ( Denver Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall ) also thinks Muhammad Ali’s death this summer awakened an awareness in many athletes. Until he died a lot of them did not know he refused to fight in the Vietnam War and was squeezed out of boxing for more than three years in the prime of his career because of it. Hearing of how he stood up to racial oppression opened their eyes. “Many of them have started to ask, how will I be judged years from now?” Neal said.

Things were different in the years after Ali first spoke about race. Black athletes were emboldened to protest in those days and often did. The former NBA star Marques Johnson, who now Milwaukee Bucks games on television, remembers that his college coach at UCLA, John Wooden, had the team stay in the locker room for the national anthem because he knew most of the players would not stand for the song.'

It revealed how quickly genuine protesters like Ali can be sanitised for general consumption. It's easy to forget that Ali was absolutely hated both for his political protests, but also for his embracing of Islam, and for being a Grade A asshole on many occasions. Not everyone loved him in other words.

Ali's legacy looms large in other words, especially if you are a black American male and you suddenly become aware of the incredibly brave personal and professional sacrifices Ali made for his beliefs. And the fact that they are beliefs that turn how to be 'right' makes that legacy even larger.

A couple of days before reading this piece on Kaepernick, I went to Gazebook Sicily where I was given  Ceiba's latest book Come to Selfhood by Joshua Rashaad McFadden. This is a book which looks at black masculinity, at fatherhood, at how you can be a black male in America.

The idea for the work began with the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in 2012, and gathered pace with the slew of police murders of black Americans. The question then is what does it mean to be black in a country where people are allowed to kill you. If you can't look to the law, or the nation, or abstract ideas of justice to create a grounding for you, where do you look?

The parents of Trayvon Martin: Picture by Evan Vucci

And the answer in this book, is to your father (or your mother, or your family, or yourself). So the book consists of a series of portraits of young black men on the left, with family album/snapshot pictures of their fathers on the right. The contemporary portraits are studio shot, nicely lit and feature a very direct gaze to the camera.

They fill the whole page so your eyes go to them first and they are nice enough. But then you look to the right hand page and see the pictures of the father. These pictures are of a time. There are fathers in uniforms, in suits, at the disco, on the sea. There are pictures of grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

The pictures are dated (in a good way). They reach back to the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, and with that reaching a small history of America springs up, from Vietnam, to the rise of disco and the white suit, to the Reaganomics of the 1980s.

But where the book really kicks in is with the little pieces of text that are inserted between the pages (this, in true Ceiba tradition, is a handmade book). Here, the subjects of the pictures talk about what it is to be black, what is to have a father, about what kind of life a man should lead.

Read these and the pictures start coming to life. Jeremiah Thompson talks about the difficulties of being a gay black man and needing to ' fearless and fight for true unity amongst the black community. Not talking about something doesn't erase its existence.'

Kamal Browne talks about the assumptions people make of black people and the beauty of his father:

  • 'only speak ebonics (slang)
  • all grew up in poverty
  • all have baby mothers
  • all have violent backgrounds
I watch people's first assuption of me disappear the second I speak. Perceptions make people look at me like I'm dumb or illiterate...

My father is the ideal figure for black male masculitinity. He works his ass off just to provide for his family. He's been married for almost 25 years and never cheated on my mother. He's the most passionate person I know.'

Not that all fathers are great. One man has a '6-7' father with a weakness for women. Other men skip over their fathers completely. One man was adopted into a Christian family and was almost killed by his biological mother. 

Many struggle with the being black in America and feeling the weight of historical and contemporary injustice on their shoulders. Others are more equanaminous and look to lead as good a life as possible. There are superhero-loving nerds, men who look to their mother as a source of strength and masculinity, and men who place the flaws and imperfections of being human at the heart of their male identity. There's peace and quiet and tenderness in there, there's flamboyance, there's machismo, there's struggle, there's dignity, there's sorrow, there's poverty, there's everything.

The beauty of the text (which is handwritten on tracing paper, the name of the writer printed on the back) is that it invites you into the pictures. These are short, engaging pieces that link to both the pictures of the writers and the fathers who are pictured beside them. So you read and you start looking into their eyes, and into those of their fathers and you wonder who they are, what struggles they have been through, what lives they have led and what lives they will lead. 

The messages aren't all the same. There is that Family of Man sentiment; what is it like to be a black man? Well, what is it like to be anybody? Everybody's different but we're all the same. That's what it's like (except that you're more likely shot by the police among other things, and that does make a difference). 

Maybe  that sentiment is the message of hope of the book. These are people who feel, who love, who have passion and desire and belief and who want to do good. I don't know why that should be a surprise to anybody, but it is the kind of truism that it seems increasingly necessary to say and to show. And McFadden and Ceiba have done a beautiful job saying it.

Buy Come to Selfhood here. 

Thursday, 29 September 2016

Will by Reiner Riedler: You're not sad, you're Sick!

'Well, WILL came into existence because of my son, who was very weak when he was born. It was very critical and he had the stay in the neo intensive care station (neonatology). The moment when I first entered the clinic late night was crucial for me. I was confronted with medical machines watching the little bodies in the hospital. Thats why a few moths later I started to deal with this situation…to tell our story in a different way. At that time I didn´t have any idea, where the project would direct me… ultimately it´s about the power of men to go forward, about man and machine.'

That's the premise behind WILL by Reiner Riedler (published by La Fabrica in Madrid). It's a book of images of objects, machines, and models that demonstrate the will to diagnose illness, to treat disease, to extend life. It's a history of medicine in some ways, including elements of what it is to be human, what it is to have a disease, and how those diseases are treated.

So we start with both methods of treatment and diagnosis. The first image shows a trepanated skull. Trepanning involves cutting a hole in the skull and it's one of the earliest forms of surgical intervention; trepannated skulls  have been found that date back to prehistoric times.

Another image shows 'oracle' bones; bones that were cast on the ground to show the cause of illness. So already we are on a metaphysical journey of where illness comes from, and how it's caused. It is believed that trepanning was used to provide an escape route for demons trapped in the brain, while the reading of the 'oracle' bones was something determined by local beliefs and power structures.

Medicine was not always a rational thing in other words. But then perhaps it still isn't. Over the summer I read about the drug Wellbutrin and the way it is used to treat grief. The old idea was that if someone close to you dies (your partner, your child, your parents), you need to grieve. Grief is a natural process.

Not any more in the eyes of the American Psychiatric Association according to this article.

When, though, should the bereaved be medicated? For years, the official handbook of psychiatry, issued by the American Psychiatric Association, advised against diagnosing major depression when the distress is “better accounted for by bereavement.” Such grief, experts said, was better left to nature.
But that may be changing.
In what some prominent critics have called a bonanza for the drug companies, the American Psychiatric Association this month voted to drop the old warning against diagnosing depression in the bereaved, opening the way for more of them to be diagnosed with major depression — and thus, treated with antidepressants.

What this means is that all of a sudden, grief has become a treatable illness, and according to this review of the Happiness Industry, Wellbutrin.. supposed to work so effectively that the American Psychiatric Association has ruled that to be unhappy for more than two weeks after the death of another human being can be considered a mental illness.

Which is the kind of way of thinking which makes chucking a bunch of bones on the floor as a diagnosis tool  seem positively sensible.

So embedded into Will are all these different ways of thinking about the body and the soul, about what constitutes sickness, where it is sited, how it is treated.

There is the Enlightment separation of the disease from the body, the 20th century dismemberment of the medical self into a series of body parts, and hints at 21st century creations of new forms of being. So throughout the book we find ideas of personhood that move from the spiritual world, to a mechanistic view of the body, through to the virtual view of the body, and robotics.

It's a very philosophical book then. Tied into that philosophy is a kind of medical subconscious of how we create the body through photography and modelling.

Will is about who we are. It's a visual book. The models and machinery that Riedler photographs are shot isolated against black backgrounds. The information comes at the back of the book. I always find that annoying because it means you have to flick from one page to the other - and it's never easy. But that's just me. I like things obvious.

But that aside, Will is a fascinating study of the representations of diagnosis and treatment of the body over the years, a study that includes ideas of what it is to be human.

In that sense, it's part of the contemporary obsession with mortality and our existence on this planet that goes from the plethora of abstract black and white investigations of our place on this elemental earth to Murray Ballard's investigation into Cryogenics, The Prospect of Immortality.

Buy Will Here.

See more books published by Fabrica  here. 

Monday, 26 September 2016

Waiting for the Property Bubble to Burst. And Waiting. And Waiting. And Waiting....

Estate, by Robert Clayton tells the story of the Lion Farm Estate in the Black Country, a heavily populated, industrialised/de-industrialised region in the Midlands of England. It shows life in and around the nine residential tower blocks that made up the estate (six of them were demolished in 1992).

The book begins with texts by both Jonathan Meades and Laura Noble which set the scene of the Lion Farm Estate, how Clayton began photographing in 1991, shortly after the 'right-to-buy' had both extended the possibility of home ownership to millions at the cost of creating a two-tier housing system, and effectively putting an end to social housing in Britain. We can still feel the effects of these policies in Britain's overheated housing market, a mass psychosis in which the possibility of affordable, decent housing is ruled out for the majority of the British population.

Where once, affordable housing was more or less affordable to all, now the only way to get it is if you buy it. And if you don't live in an area where housing is affordable, then the only way to buy it is if you are wealthy already. And if you are wealthy already then you have property. So the only people who can buy houses are people who own houses. That is exactly how it works in large parts of the UK and the best thing is it's cheaper to buy a house than to rent a house. It's unfathomable and unsustainable but somehow we can't seem to accept that things can be any other way - even though they were a relatively short time ago.

The book starts with a wide shot of the estate, the towers rising above green fields and the rooves of terraced housing. It goes closer into the estate, the empty car parks, the boarded up windows, the general neglect of a recession hit England.

Then there are interiors which fall somewhere between Nick Waplington and David Moore, but with a more natural feel to them. They show people living normal lives in normal rooms in normal flats. Everything is a little bit crowded; the piles of clothes, the slide in the living room, but it is recognisable. I've lived with piles of clothers with slides in the living room and so have most people I've known. It's the way most people live.

There are high views of empty car parks; car parks with no cars in. Which is telling. And then we're into the exteriors. The bad sculpture, the kids playing, the people moving furniture, the advice being given in the estate office (there's a nod to Paul Graham here maybe), the shops, the graffiti and the food.

It's a very strong overview in other words, one that fits in with books like Peter Mitchell's Memento Mori, a strong documentary aesthetic that combines British colour with a strong social voice. The book itself is a basic hardcover picture-on-a-page-kind of affair. The printing isn't great, but never mind that. The book is a really strong study of British housing. It's not spectacular, it doesn't have the explosive effect of Richard Billingham, it isn't gritty or overly grim, and that's what makes it interesting. It's a snapshot in time, an overview of housing as it used to be and is no more, a book that finds a middle ground between affection, sentiment and the crushing reality of the property market in Britain today.

Buy Estate here.

Friday, 23 September 2016

The Epic of Everest

Leni Riefenstahl by Martin Munkacsi.

It's funny how everything somehow ties together. Earlier this week, I was looking through a book of images by Martin Munkacsi and came across this picture of Leni Riefenstahl which caught my eye. 

The picture was taken in 1930 or 1931, when Riefenstahl was making mountaineering movies. Munkacsi was a Hungarian photographer who might just be one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.

Munkacsi's picture of kids playing in the water in Lake Tanganyika capture Henri Cartier-Bresson's imagination. this is what HCB said about it:

"For me this photograph was the spark that ignited my enthusiasm. I suddenly realized that, by capturing the moment, photography was able to achieve eternity. It is the only photograph to have influenced me. This picture has such intensity, such joie de vivre, such a sense of wonder that it continues to fascinate me to this day." 

Munkacsi was also at the forefront of the modernisation of fashion photography. He worked for Alexey Brodovitch at Harper's Bazaar and used his beautifully relaxed style to create images like the one below. And that work inspired Avedon and so many others. 

Munkacsi died in poverty in 1963 and nobody wanted his archive. So it goes...

Riefenstahl worked for a time as the star of Alpine pictures (and here is a  link to Susan Sontag's Fascinating Fascism article on her - thanks Joerg), pictures that Sontag claimed were part of a Teutonic claim to mastery of the heights above this earth. 

Then yesterday on BBC4 they showed the history of climbing Mountain Everest. Mountaineering was never a neutral subject, it was always invested with politics (hence the Riefenstahl connection). 

The other film they showed was The Epic of Everest, which was shot in 1924 and details the expedition where the British Mountaineers Mallory and Irvine died. But it's a beautiful film and says something about the Himalaya that contemporary movies just fail to capture. 

Perhaps that's something to do with the primitive equipment and the simplicity of choices that make for a very still, considered take of the landscape and the mountaineers moving through it, with lots of long shots (the film makers are very proud of their long lenses).

And then there is the journey to the mountain and the images of the people they meet. And the baby donkey.

Here's the baby donkey. 

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Alla Mirovskaya: My Family's From Outer Space

Old Family Photographs and Deep Sky Objects by Alla Mirovskaya is a book that mixes pictures from Russian family albums with images of space. I might be putting words into Alla's mouth, but the basic premise might well be that your family is as extraterrestrial as the stars you see in the night sky.

The space pictures come via the Hubble telescope and the Chandra Observatory in the USA and they show star clusters, supernovas, spiral galaxies and the like.

The family pictures come from 3 family albums (the Vasilyevs, the Dyomins, and the Mirovskys), as well as the family photographs of a Japanese musician, Kuniyoshi Yamada).

 It turns out Yamada drums with butoh performers and makes this kind of music. Which provides a suitable soundtrack for trying to sort out what's happening.

It's not really clear what's happening. Pictures of supernovas are followed by a portrait of Elya Kiselyova, a red-screened image of a work group and a detail from a greeting card. Except the problem is the captions don't quite match. Sometimes they are on the preceding page, sometimes they are not on the opposite page, sometimes they are two pages forward or backwards, sometimes they don't exist.

Old family photos and deep sky objects from Alla Mirovskaya on Vimeo.

It's a very interesting thing to flip through these trying to work it out, in part satisfying, in part infuriating (and it might very well be that I've missed something blindingly obvious to everyone else). And you flick from understanding what is happening to not really having a clue about who or what you are looking at.

And I guess that's the point of the book and the point of family histories and the photographs that represent them. They are hard to pin down, they shift depending  on whose story is being told and who is telling it, and ultimately our families can be as distant and unknown to us as the stars.

Family mythologies are created and upheld and photographs play their part, Secrets and lies are covered, uncovered and then covered again depending on whose interests are at stake.

So we see these people photographed in photobooths, in studios, at work, at school, and we're left to unravel who they are and the stories behind the pictures; the people, the politics, the process, the parts that are not revealed.

The family pictures are not that different than the star pictures. While the star pictures have their scientific and objective referents, they are also quite abstract in their representation, pictorial manifestations of data and light that are served up as iconic rather than indexical ideas of what space, the universe and everything really is.

And that ultimately is what the family portraits are, iconic representations of family life that serve an idealised idea that connects to family, politics and the state. What really lies beneath the images, in both the space and the family pictures, we don't know. Something out of our control perhaps, something on the fringes of our consciousness, something unknowable but known in our subconscious?

Maybe that's what the Japanese pictures represent; with their link to drumming, butoh and the dark side of our lives. But then again, as I say so often on this blog, maybe not. It's difficult to tell because the book is enigmatic and mysterious. It's a book that's been made so you half understand it, and then you fill the gaps in with mad guesses. The interesting thing is the book is engaging enough to keep you with that process.

There are many books and projects that use space as a metaphor for life, for death, for the eternal void that awaits us all. This is another one of those books, but it carries the metaphor in the opposite direction, infusing the family with these notions of mystery and uncertainty.

And it's beautifull made. And a pleasure to handle. It's the right size. It's an interesting book.

Buy Old family photographs and Deep Sky Objects here.

Or Buy it here. 

This review was written before Gazebook Sicily. And then all of a sudden Alla turned up with Elena Kholkina and Natalia Baluta. Which was really nice.

They are all part of Russian Independent Self-published group (that's some of their books above - they make really interesting books with a different sensibility. Anastasia Bogomolova and Julia Borissova are also members) who you can meet and say hello to at Unseen in Amsterdam this weekend.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Ban the burkini, the bikini, jeans, anything...

Now then, an overspill from the summer and the harassment of muslim women on French beaches and towns banning the burkini because it's extremist - what was that all about? Because the burkini is a way for women to get out of the house and go to the beach - and actually engage more in the society and world in which they live in.

So it's not about liberating women from the evil strictures of men who are stopping them from being free.

So what is it all about? 

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

Art, Photography and The Dignity of Labor: A tribute to...

I met Alberto Castro at Gazebook Sicily in 2015 when he attended a workshop I was doing with Alex Bochetto of Akina.

He was working on the renovation and design of a hospital in Catania and had been photographing the debris that gathered around the place; not so much debris as accidental art, little scatterings of dust, little blotches of paint, little knots of wire that all came together.

2013 - External Area
'Cuts on Wood', 30cmx30cm. Author: Laborer
Tribute to Lucio FONTANA

It was all quite beautiful; austere, grey installations that resembled the history of twentieth century art. Picasso, Duchamp, Pollock, Kiefer, Burri, Hesse (not to mention a whole bunch of photographers).

2015 - Courtyard B Block- Ground Floor
'Cuts on Concrete', 30cmx30cm. Author: Laborer
Tribute to Lucio FONTANA

And then he made the book and that is how the book has been laid out, as a series of images from a building site that resemble modernist art. It's laid out like a catalogue; blank page - picture, blank page - picture, blank page - picture... with plenty of white space around the image so you know it's important.

2013 - D Block - Second Floor
'Black Hole', flexible air duct, 20cmx20cm. Author: Unknown
Tribute to Eva Hesse

It comes with both a map that looks like a blueprint (so you know the context in which the work was made) and a guide to the images. And that's valuable in itself. So you can look at an image and see that it references Fontana's Lacerations, or the multi-dimensional psychological expressionism of Eva Hesse, or Alberto Burri's 'Cretto' paintings (and if you don't know it, look at his Grande Cretto in Gibelina Sicily - that's something I need to visit some day soon).

If, like me, you have no idea what these references refer to me, then the book becomes a strange kind of research tool. It's photography linking itself into twentieth century art and I must say I enjoyed trawling through the internet to find who and what the tributes referred to.

The book ends with a couple of pictures of the actual space where Castro made the work. Actually, they almost look like  installation shots, gallery shots of an opening, though instead of showing the work in the space itself, he's showing the space itself after the fact; it was a gallery of found art but now it's a hospital. There's a beautiful symmetry to that, and a smartness on the relationship between art, space, body and mind. I just went back to it now, and I must say it gets better with each viewing. It's a little bit different and really smart.

See the book here. Well, actually you can't really see the book anywhere because Alberto is not quite sure what he wants to do it and he's an architect and not a photographer.

You can't even buy it very easily, though there are copies available, because I don't think he has a website. But you can friend him on Facebook and ask him there. And there's a special edition available...

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Thanks for the Memories, Gazebook Sicily!

Gazebook was fantastic! If you don't know it, it's a festival that takes place in the small town of Punta Secca on the south ...