Archive for the 'photography' Category

On Ernest Cole

28 December 2012


Over at The Futures Company’s blog I have a short end-of-year piece on the South African photographer Ernest Cole. It seemed a good idea to share a version of it here.

I thought I knew the political and cultural history of the anti-apartheid struggle well, having followed it closely during my teens and twenties. But I realised at the Barbican’s sprawling exhibition of ’60s and ’70s photography that I knew nothing of Ernest Cole, the black photographer who was the first to document the petty humiliations and the institutional cruelty of South Africa’s legalised racism. Cole changed his name and his history to qualify as “Coloured” rather than “Black” under South Africa’s Pass Laws, which gave him the freedom to travel. In the early ’60s he became the country’s first black freelance photographer, filming – often illicitly – life under apartheid; his work was published as a book, House of Bondage, in 1967.

The image at the top of this post, of Africans having to risk their lives crossing railway tracks to board their poorly signed and vastly overcrowded trains, is described by a commentator in the exhibition as being the single photograph which expresses the ugliness of apartheid.

Speaking truth to power comes with a price: the book was banned in South Africa and by the time it came out Cole had exiled himself in the United States, where he died in poverty in 1990, living just long enough to see Mandela released from jail. But thanks to his white South African contemporary, David Goldblatt, also represented at the Barbican exhbition, many of his originals have been rescued from the vaults.

On a related theme, I fulfilled a┬ásmall ambition this year to make a video of Robert Wyatt’s version of Peter Gabriel’s song ‘Biko’. It’s on YouTube.

The Ernest Cole picture at the top of this post, ‘Train Staton’, came via the blog (Notes on) Politics, Theory and Photography. It is used with thanks. There is more (and some great links) at Colin Penter’s excellent blog, and is used with thanks. The exhibition, ‘Everything was moving‘, is at the Barbican in London until January 13th.

This is London

24 June 2012


I was at a meeting in a building in central London with a view which seemed to capture what London is these days. The building in the foreground is, of course, Centre Point, the emblem of the 1970s property boom, while the brightly coloured building behind it is Renzo Piano’s Central St Giles building, a distinctive improvement on the rundown Ministry of Defence building that used to be on the site.

And down below: the hole in the ground is one of the many places in London where Crossrail is being built (and hence the cranes). It’s said that for the same amount that’s being spent to tunnel a new rail line across the middle of London, the entire country could have been rewired to provide highspeed broadband. Everywhere. I don’t know whether that says more about the lobbying power of the City, or the speed at which politicians catch up with technological change.

I took the picture at the top of the post. It is published here under a Creative Commons licence: some rights reserved.

Breaking the rules

1 May 2010

One of the rules of the Guggenheim in Bilbao is ‘no photography’, at least anywhere inside. I can understand rules about not photographing paintings – flash damages pigment colour – but the design of the Guggenheim, with its curves and spaces, creates interesting angles that people want to photograph.

The result is a kind of guerilla photography, in which visitors drift into spaces, look around them, click furtively, then move away before one of the officious women attendants sees you and reminds you about the rule. (They are all women, apparently engaged in some strange social experiment about the nature of public authority inspired, perhaps, by Prisoner Cell Block H.)

The picture at the top? An illicit photograph, taken by me, of a pattern on a wall thrown by a skylight. And published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Patience is a virtue

21 January 2009
Osprey scoop, by Paul Hobson

Osprey scoop, by Paul Hobson

I visited the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, where this stunning photograph by Paul Hobson of an osprey catching a fish was ‘specially commended’ in the Bird Behaviour category. Reading his description of what he’s done to take it, one could only admire his patience.

‘I lived in a hide overlooking a lake in Pohtiolampi, Finland, for five days, waiting for ospreys to stop off to feed. For four days, the wind blew in the wrong direction, and the birds dived from behind the hide. Only on the last day did the wind change, allowing just this single shot of the osprey I had hoped for.’

So if the wind hadn’t changed… There are some fine shots of animals and birds taken closer to home on his website. My son was especially taken by his hedgehogs.

Robert Capa’s ‘Falling Soldier’

19 October 2008

The photograph is one of the classics, and not just of war photography; the apparent death of an unknown and unnamed Republican soldier during the Spanish civil war. Geoff Dyer, probably Britain’s finest cultural essayist, returns to the picture in a longer essay prompted by several simultaneous exhibitions on war photography in London:

Robert Capa’s 1936 photograph The Falling Soldier shows the moment of a republican soldier’s death in the Spanish civil war. Or so it was claimed and widely believed. Then doubts began to circulate. Perhaps the picture was posed, fake. Capa’s biographer, Richard Whelan, has gnawed away at this issue for decades. The explanation put forward by him in the catalogue accompanying an exhibition at the Barbican is that, during an informal truce, a group of soldiers simulated a bit of a battle charge for the benefit of the camera. Fearing a genuine attack was being mounted, enemy troops opened fire. The trigger was pulled, the camera clicked simultaneously – and a man died. Make-believe became tragically real.

Whelan’s explanation is unlikely to be improved on, but it is worth considering something that David Simon, in his book Homicide, learned from ballistics experts: that “no bullet short of an artillery shell is capable of knocking a human being off his feet”. This is not to say that people don’t fall down when shot. They do, but only as “a learned response. People who have been shot believe they are supposed to fall immediately to the ground, so they do.”

This adds an unexpected twist to the moment of simulation, but there is a larger irony too: the more one learns about the circumstances in which Capa made his famous photograph, the less those circumstances matter. Even if it is now established that this is what happened, it is too late. Over the years, the photograph has come adrift from those circumstances, floated clear of what it depicts. One of the standard ideas about photography is that it is strong as evidence, weak in meaning. The Falling Soldier shows this formulation in reverse: it has become more and more questionable as evidence, but its meaning has continued to deepen. Somehow the image is able to accommodate all the different accounts of its making, accounts that have themselves assumed the quality of after-the-fact interpretation. Ultimately, the only proof it offers is of something that has long been accepted – that photographs can be as mysterious as works of art.

[Update: There’s a long post at Ethical Martini on the Falling Soldier photograph and its history and controversies.]

Elsewhere Dyer reminds us that the ‘shake’ on Capa’s famous D-Day pictures wasn’t camera shake but a mistake in the lab, but this only enhanced Capa’s reputation. [Update 2: More on this at PICTURAPixel]. But then, Capa said he preferred “a strong image that is technically bad than vice versa”.

The copy of the picture above is taken from the Dasein, Red Elephant blog, which has a post exploring the photo’s provenance.