It was with deep sorrow that I learned of the recent death of Wolfgang Suschitzky at the age of 104. Wolfgang was both a remarkable photographer and a highly accomplished and sought after “cameraman” (his own self-effacing words, but in fact a cinematographer) for both documentaries and narrative features.
It was my good fortune to know Wolf a little. We first met in 2000, when I asked specifically for him, Mike Hodges and Michael Caine to contribute an audio commentary to an upcoming Warner Bros. DVD release of the 1971 British crime movie Get Carter. The three had worked on the film as DP, director and star respectively. Wolf and Mike recorded their pieces at Pinewood and we celebrated after with Wolf’s partner Heather at Mirabelle on Curzon Street.
A week or two later Wolf kindly invited me to the opening of a show of his photography at a gallery in Ladbroke Grove. While there I bumped into my friend, Hannah Donat, who looked at me with bug-eyed surprise and asked “why are you at my grandad’s private view?” Small world; it turned out that Hannah was one of Wolf’s nine grandchildren!
When I am asked – as any photographer might – “who is your favourite photographer?” I always reply “Wolfgang Suschitzky.” The next two questions are usually “Who?” and “Why?” I then explain that, as much I passionately enjoy the work of countless other photographers it is – was – Wolf’s rare combination of compassion, versatility, creative skill, doggedness, wit and artistic longevity that won me over, both personally and in his brilliant work in the realms of still and moving image.
I have, since we first met, collected Wolf’s work. I once popped into the Photographers’ Gallery (the old address on Great Newport Street) with a recent bonus burning a hole in my pocket and asked to look at their current holding of Wolf’s prints. “You’re in luck,” said the print sales manager, “we have more than usual. Wolf has cleared out his drawers to help us put together a new book of his work.” She was right, there were loads of prints, three boxes. What caught my eye in particular was a set of prints that were, without doubt, shot in pre-WW2 Amsterdam. Wolf had moved from the UK to the Netherlands in 1934 with his Dutch wife, Helena Voûte, moving back to London alone in 1935 after the marriage foundered.
I was familiar with some of Wolf’s Dutch work, but these pictures were wholly new to me. They were a mix of images of everyday street life, evidently from Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter and, to my delight, street portraits of young children from the same area. The portraits were straightforward and appealing head shots of fresh faces: smiles and frowns, smudged cheeks and tousled hair. As I looked through them I began to realise that these children might not only be united by a shared neighbourhood and the experience of being photographed by Wolf, but also by the likelihood of their deportation by the Nazis, along with the majority of Amsterdam’s Jewish population of 80,000, to death camps in Poland a few years later in 1942. If, as the curator Duncan Forbes once commented, Wolf “often monumentalises those he photographs” then it seems to me, in this specific instance, he inadvertently created a small but significant monument, inscribed with light, to these children.
Rest in peace Wolfgang Suschitzky, 1912 – 2016.
Last year, when I replied "Not yet" to a passing jogger who enquired if, while I was up a ladder in the Hogsmill River tending to my tripod, I was "In trouble", I must have tapped into some prescient faculty. Why? Because 7 months later, while trying to get a BMX bike into the same river I slipped on the sodden clay riverbank and slid, with inexorable slowness, into the deepest pool in that stretch, over 2m deep. As the cold water filled my waders - not my favourite sensation - I discovered that nothing motivates a hasty exit from a watercourse like a) fear of drowning and b) having your iPhone in your trouser pocket. I clawed my way up the riverbank as If I had just evolved and was keen to get my towel onto this novel new dry land thing my fellow amphibians were raving about but ended up, flat on my back and panting, looking like Ophelia by way of the cover to the Slits' "Cut" and smelling very, very bad. Whoever called fresh water "fresh" should take a fully-clothed dip in the Hogsmill.
Worse was to come. As I emptied out the contents of my pockets to dry I realised I would have to retrieve my prop - the BMX - from the bottom of the river. I can't believe I did this but I stripped off to my underwear and socks and jumped back in to the river, wrestled the bloody bike back out and counted myself lucky that no dog walkers had stopped to stare at this bizarre aquatic ritual. The wounding of my dignity continued - of course! - with walking in soaking wet clothes and muddy waders back to the car and driving home to the coast in my underwear. I'm relieved I wasn't stopped for speeding - "Sir, can you explain why you are driving trouserless in wet and pungent undergarments?"
"Officer, it's a long story."
My photograph "Hogsmill Valley (26th November 1977)" has been accepted to show at this year's Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition. Here is, after a fashion, the story of how the picture was made. A recorded version can be found here if listening is your preference.
So there I was, standing on a stepladder in the middle of a river, just levelling the camera and tripod. There was this furtive rustling from the river bank, from the bushes, so I turned my head carefully because when you’re wearing gigantic waders, up a step ladder, in the middle of a river with someone’s else’s camera, that’s what you do. No sudden movements.
A man dressed in orange joggers is staring at me and he says “Are you in trouble?” “Not yet,” I said, “but thanks”. He ran off.
So what was I doing standing in a river on a winter’s morning when I should have been in bed? Here’s the story. It starts with the death of both of my parents and my realisation that the memories they had of me as a child had perished with them, and that my own memories from that time were imperfect, fragmented and disordered. And I was really perturbed by this sense of the fading away of self and so wanted to respond to that feeling by making work, to somehow use my photography to make new memories to add to what I saw as my own dwindled inventory.
To make that work I chose to return to the place of my childhood, at the edge of London. It’s the place with the strongest connection to my childhood so it felt like a natural place to work. I also returned in time, to 1977, it was a headline year for me, it’s when my horizons really expanded. I got my first summer job, Star Wars opened in the cinemas, there was the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, an uncle died, alone, our neighbour turned out to be a wife beater. And so on.
Yet, this isn’t about recreation, it’s about origination. I was working with a blank slate, which left me in need of that first idea from which I could get traction to start this creative process. That spark of inspiration came from something Jeff Wall said about his picture “Boy Falls From Tree.” When Wall talks about the picture, he says “we’ve all fallen”, which made me consider the universality of that event, that falling boy pin-wheeling through space. This was decisive. It freed me from worrying about what I would have done as a child, instead I would ask myself “what if?” and make work about a boy who is just like me, but is not me. I could set him loose in 1977 and make work of his adventures, even if he himself remains elusive and out of sight in the pictures.
Which brings us back to the river, doesn’t it? In the picture, we’re standing in the Hogsmill River. The Hogsmill Valley is right by where I grew up – a few hundred meters from our old house. The Valley is an archaic space, a finger of green poking into the frayed edge of suburban London. It’s never been built on and it’s still thick with old oaks, willows and hawthorns. I was stunned when I discovered that John Everett Millais painted his Ophelia really close to where this photo was staged. If you put on your waders and walk towards the bridge, duck and mind your head, then press on for a bit, you’ll be standing precisely where it all happened.
But why this spot? If you look to the left of the river you’ll see a water outflow like a little waterfall. That water pours out of a massive drain. My brother told me he used to crawl up there with his friend Paul, and they weren’t the only ones. Well, you have to do something to get your kicks and go to bed with a smile, so fair enough, I had my picture, and it was only the beginning of the project.
One thing that reading a Master's Degree does for your life is to choke off the time for some of life's gentler pleasures, such as blogging. On the one hand you feel as if you have little to report from day to day, or week to week: "This week: still writing the essay. Sixth week on the trot!" On the other, the rhythm of your activity, divided as it is into semester-long tranches, channels your work into a series of periodic culminations that follow months of labour, tutorials and fretting that leaves you feeling distinctly disinclined to share; you simply don't have any emotional or intellectual energy left. I have never worked so hard, and there's so much further to go.
Why, then, am I writing now? I am still immersed in shooting my Final Major Project and in overhauling my website and writing for Professional Practise. My class show isn't until September later this year. What is it that makes this moment different to the many other moments that have passed without comment since September 2014? Perhaps it's my perspective on myself. I began the process of reviewing my website a few months ago and concluded that, beyond doubt, I am a different photographer to the one who who started this degree. I'm a firm believer in lifelong personal change and evolution and the changes, intellectual and creative, that were set in motion two years ago have started to assume a greater degree of definition. Perhaps that's another reason why there was almost no blogging, the sense of personal flux I have experienced is a state in which it is difficult to state anything with certainty.
Many of the pictures I created in the period leading up to a couple of years ago no longer sit comfortably on this site now that my work has become more reflective. It is, however, the work that helped to make the case for my acceptance onto my degree and I still like much of it. On that basis I'll be zapping a lot of this work back out via Instagram and Twitter, picture by picture, where it can live forever in the digital social realm.
As for me, it's back to work!
Happy and humbled to have a print selected for the Royal Photographic Society's 158th International Print Exhibition. This year's entry comprised more than 5,000 photographs, from which just 100 were selected.
My print of Wonder Valley (2) (listed in the show as Wonder Valley, to keep things simple) is currently on show with 99 other fantastic photographs at The Truman Brewery in London's Brick Lane until October 13th. After that the show will tour:
15 Oct - 12 Nov Royal Albert Hall, London. The exhibition can be viewed when attending performances or on the following free open days: Sat 17, Sun 18, Sat 24, Sun 25 October (10am - 4pm)
30 June - 19 August University of Derby
I was really pleased when a portrait taken by me of my late father was selected for the Photocrowd & Alamy Exhibition 2015 at The Printspace in Shoreditch last month.
The photograph, taken when my father was dying from dementia in 2013, is not an easy picture to like. It depicts an old man in a fitful sleep, calling for his wife, my mother, who passed away the year before this picture was taken. Yet, while it challenges us to confront the possibility that old age, and all its attendant complications and frailties, will take us all, it is also a simple and open picture of a man I loved at a moment of vulnerability for us both.
The motivation to create the portrait was driven by the realisation that my father had been the subject in photographs for his entire life but, at the end, there was the possibility that this grand cycle of image-making would close with nothing to mark its terminal point. I would photograph him, with his permission, whenever I visited. It eased the pain of experiencing my father's rapid decline and gave us an extra point of interest to talk over while I worked.
An empty car park toward the edge of Barcelona by the Camp Nou. A highly organised space, gridded by paint, bounded by walls. Each parking space a void awaiting fulfilment, some showing evidence of earlier encounters; a little spilled fluid, cigarette butts, wind-blown tissue. Shadows gradually sweep across the silent expanse, intersecting the grids, a sun dial with nobody telling the time. Beyond the walls, informality and entropy, await. Tracks are scoured into the grass, freshly obliterated graffiti shows through paint, weeds erupt. The seedy aroma of human waste permeates. Toward dusk, prostitutes and johns inhabit this place, everywhere the evidence of earlier encounters; a little spilled fluid, cigarette butts, wind-blown tissue.
Most of the images I create, I see and take. In that regard, I rely on serendipity to deliver the right circumstances - place, object, light, camera in hand - to permit me to function as an artist. My process is not random; I take with me a sensibility, essentially a set of concerns and interests, and my research is my walking aided by my eye. I often shoot in series, interpreting and enquiring about a specific location with my camera in a way that, I hope, answers the questions I wanted to ask and then communicate to you. If I return home with nothing, or shots that frustrate me, then it's no different to a painter having a frustrating day in the studio.
As I develop as an artist and a photographer I understand that I will only ever fully realise my potential if I can also make images, as well as see/take. I will need to understand how to use research to direct my creative concerns and learn how to develop creative outcomes that aren't dependent on being in the right place at the right time. Learn to experiment. Be non-linear. Communicate ideas. I'll need to understand how my work and my concerns fit into the ongoing discourse on photography and be capable of communicating this clearly and convincingly. This need to drive forward my practise as a photographer compelled me to apply to study MA Photography at the University of Brighton. I'm delighted to have been accepted to study as a part-time student. Into the unknown.
One day, standing by an abandoned diner on Highway 62, sipping coffee (that I'd made myself), I looked at my feet and realised I'd missed something: the dirt here was a palimpsest, marked with the tracks of tired travellers in search of gas and coffee, U-turners and break-takers. Quartz fragments had blown into the troughs formed by tyre treads. Miniscule pieces of dried plant - leaves, thorns, twigs - completed the complexly-textured surface. My own footprints and tracks were there too, until the wind blew once more or another person pulled in, erasing my marks with their own.
The highway was newly-laid asphalt, closed-packed, unmarred by pots or scrapes and marked with fresh paint, a bold and seemingly permanent contrast to the ever-shifting dirt. It too, though, was marked with wind-blown dust and ingrained dirt from the tyres of passing vehicles, recording their passing-through.
Here were two very different, adjacent, surfaces, yet both capable of recording certain events despite this purpose, I feel sure, never being intended. This compelled me to think about how we could be in a constant state of mark-making, leaving traces of our movements and actions on our environment minute-by minute, day-by-day, an unintentional record of our lives.
At last, the second quartet of images exploring small urban spaces, taken in Orosei.
In a very real sense the spaces in these images only exist as photographs. They aren't sign-posted, they don't form part of a walking tour, they enjoy no fame or notoriety. They are walls, drainpipes, the exterior fixtures and fittings of everyday street life until their context is altered by being defined and presented within a frame. As much as I enjoy the variety of texture, colour and form I can't help thinking that that this is a small exercise in typology too.
"Obsession is a good quality in a photographer". Martin Parr.
It might be true of your life, as it is of mine, that sometimes you can't get enough of something. Sunshine, chocolate, a particular friend, a TV show, a great book. A photographer can be driven by the need to create photographs of a particular type of thing, or event, or place or person, over and again.
I was seized by this passion recently in Sardinia. Orosei is a typical village with new and old homes crammed into a web of narrow medieval streets and alleys. Walking in such a confined environment directs your attention to the constant, metre by metre, contrasts of age, tone, colour, form and texture presented by every wall and doorway. The depredations of time and nature sit alongside fresh renovations, waiting their turn - perhaps - for the paint brush and trowel. Simple surfaces - like a rendered wall - can become pages for the bold calligraphic downstroke of a drainpipe or the ephemeral presence of the shadow cast by a grating.
Exploring and understanding small urban spaces like these - as well as those closer to home - feels like it's becoming a new area of interest. How we choose to use, mark, arrange, refresh and sometimes neglect small spaces seems to have as significant an influence on our experience of the built environment as bigger projects and structures like roads or apartment buildings. We are surrounded by them and they make up, in increments, every footstep of our urban journeys.
Argentiera. Tucked away in a cove on Sardinia's remote North West corner, reached only by a crazy series of hair pin bends that killed a bus right in front of us, Argentiera is in every way Yesterday's Village. The village sat on a rich seam of silver ore that excited, more than two millennia ago, the Phonecians and the Romans, and wasn't mined out until 1963. In the intervening 50 or so years the village has declined into a tidy, but largely derelict, coma.
One or two neat houses and a sleepy cafe nestle amongst a muddle of gutted mine workings and derelict outbuildings with shattered windows. A vacant apartment building, seemingly prestigious by way of its prominent location on a low bluff overlooking the cove - perhaps it was home for management or important visitors - has had its balconies removed so that upper floor exterior doors open into thin air.
Argentiera's beach of slate grey grit curves smartly between two attractively craggy headlands that frame the cove and there's a whiff of renaissance in the air. The beach-side promenade is being renovated and a mining museum may yet be built. Until then, Argentiera sleeps on.
Three more images for you from the roadside container-offices and shacks at the Sardinian marble quarry. I love the little details of the day to day lives of the quarry workers, like the glamour calendar in the locker room. Can you find it?
Every item of clothing was stiff with marble dust, just used for warmth during the day and then slung onto a hook when work is over.
The lonely chair was just parked in the corner of an incomplete bath house where every surface was dusted grey, creating a softly muted ambience.
I have a constant and restless interest in how the things we create are transformed by the depredations of time and the environment. The things we leave behind and the things we work with are often the most dramatically - and beautifully - altered by these processes.
Last week, while travelling in Sardinia, we spotted a marble quarry. The vast workings practically came up to the roadside, a series of colossal and roughly hewn pale steps reaching down into the hillside. Huge and bulky machines parked about the ledges - diggers, dumpers, tractors - were totally dwarfed in scale and seemed more like the carelessly abandoned toys of some giant child.
Shipping containers and shacks dumped near the roadside proved to be basic washrooms and changing areas for the workers. Work clothes like boots and overalls were strewn about, and every surface was thickly coated in pale talc-fine marble dust that altered and muted normally vivid colours.
In the everyday rhythm of my life the closest I get to anything religious is a weekly visit to the local Methodist Hall where my camera club meets. Life, though, is usually more fun if you do different things and do things differently so, last week, I found myself in Orosei, Sardinia, with my lovely family and smack bang in the middle of Easter celebrations.
Palm Sunday: spectators begin gathering in the town square from mid-morning as locals look on and sip cappuccino behind their cool shades, and by 11 a.m. a noisy, boisterous crowd presses against the barriers on both sides of the Via Nazionale. A steel grandstand, built to give the best view of the big procession through the village, is full. Everyone is here. Everyone is having a great time. We all participate in this show as both spectators and players. Poses are struck. Cheeks are kissed.
Garlands are scattered onto the route of the procession before it leaves the village church and children in traditional costume gather outside to watch it set out. As it moves ponderously through town, white robed and dignified, the faces of the younger boys taking part as chalice and mace bearers betray their feelings. Bravado, pensiveness, pride and even what seems to be outright fear. This is a big deal - the entire town is looking on!
When it's finally over the crowd quickly disperses as families gather for lunch. All that's left to do is clear up and maybe text a friend.
This morning I noticed this shot from early April's day in Dungeness. It was a soaking wet day and our warm car had the humid ambience of a sauna; pretty soon a layer of condensation had formed over my clear filter. I loved the vague and enigmatic look this new "filter" gave my shots of the nuclear power station's perimeter. There seems to be a palpable sense of menace about the structures behind the barbed wire fence, more suggested by a few indistinct lines and shapes than clearly seen, this feels more like a place intended to keep something in rather than out. It's not certain if the facility is active or abandoned.
The Dungeness Headland is a windswept wedge projecting into the English Channel, a sharp shingle elbow in the water's ribs. If you believe what you see on the web then most of the photography action there seems to happen in the strip of land between the Pilot Inn at Lydd-on-Sea and the power stations, a narrow piece of real estate about 2km long and 200m deep. This tiny area is loaded with opportunities to see and take pictures but, in truth, it's neither the whole story nor the entire opportunity as the Headland is so much more expansive than that.
One place outside of the "Strip" that caught my eye is south of Lydd on the road to Camber where a line of gigantic pylons marches straight through a trailer park, iron Godzillas oblivious of what lays at their feet. I love the absurdity of picking that spot to stay; imagine the humming of the high tension wires lulling people to sleep and frying their brains into the bargain, an undead vacation with 24/7 police response.
Let me start by stating my admiration for Stephen Shore, the only person to make parking lots, and much else besides, look photogenic.
There I was, early one blissfully warm and sunny Mojave morning, standing in the Motel 6 parking lot in Twenty Nine Palms with my laundry tucked under my arm, staring out across the parked cars toward Highway 62. The scene got me contemplating Shore's road trips and the many gorgeous photographs he took whilst on them with his huge camera. Just as my mind started to wander to thoughts of breakfast at the Carousel Cafe I looked down at my feet and found this. I enjoy the sense of convergence, the polite corner of grass held back by the curb, the roughness of the tarmac that contrasts with the smooth concrete and how the drain opens out and shows the bands of residue. Before I sound too pretentious the point I really want to make is that it was just there.
I'll be looking down more often.
I love the Dungeness headland. There's a lot to love. Hectares of shingle, big sky, big weather, big waves, pylons and poles in abundance, a miniature railway, good fish and chips, 2 lighthouses, 2 nuclear power stations and an end-of-the-line independently-spirited vibe like few other places in the UK. Just don't talk to me about old fishing boats.
You could spend days exploring the headland and never leave the tiny strip of land between the power station and the Pilot Inn, it's so visually rich. What lies beyond is just as exciting and I intend to explore it this year.
Yesterday saw another visit to the headland. It rained heavily without stopping all day. Imagine the fun, shuffling around with the camera under my jacket while rain trickled down the back of my neck. The sky was a silvery grey and puddles lay everywhere.