June 24th, 2009 admin

“I love processions – as humans, it’s almost part of our DNA to be instinctively attracted to big public events that bring us together. A good procession is in itself a public artwork: part self-portrait and part alternative reality.”
Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller is in the news a lot lately promoting his new body of work, Procession, which will take place at the Manchester International Festival on July 5th. With participants drawn from across Greater Manchester, Procession represents what Deller describes as ‘northern social surrealism’, combining social clubs, special interest groups, popular music and invited individuals with traditional processional stalwarts such as Rose Queens and brass bands.


Given his current profile I thought it was about time I did post about this artist and his work.

Deller, was born in London in 1966 and studied art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Collaboration and participation are central to Deller’s work. As he explains, “A good collaboration is like going on a long journey without a map, never knowing quite where you will end up.” He acts as curator, producer or director of a broad range of projects, including orchestrated events, films and publications, which draw attention to forms of culture on the fringes of the mainstream or reveal hidden histories. He currently lives and works in London.

He is perhaps best-known for The Battle of Orgreave, ‘a piece of living history’ which was a commissioned by Artangel in 2001. This work brought together veteran miners and members of historical re-enactment societies who restaged the controversial clash between miners and the police during 1984-5. This collaboration resulted in a film, a book and an audio recording, which all ‘function to resurrect the raw emotions from the period and provide a fresh account of events that have been distorted by the media.’


Still from The Battle of Orgreave, Commissioned and produced by Artangel © Jeremy Deller, 2001

Deller won the prestigious Turner prize in 2004, shortlisted for his installation Memory Bucket at ArtPace, San Antonio. The film uses documentary techniques to explore the state of Texas, focusing on two politically charged locations: the site of the Branch Davidian siege in Waco and President Bush’s home town of Crawford. Archive news footage is collaged with interviews, juxtaposing official reports with personal narratives. (You can find details of Deller’s prize winning entry on Tate Britain’s website here).

The project was filmed months after the US and UK invasion of Iraq and documents Deller’s travels in Texas which he talks to a variety of individuals, from staff in George Bush’s local diner in Crawford, to Quaker anti-war protesters. Deller has said “making that film made me realise that it was actually possible to talk to peple almost at random, and ask questions and get responses from them, and that a journey is a very good way to present or make an artwork.”


Cop with Flowers, San Antonio, Texas © Jeremy Deller, 2003


Coffee Station, Crawford, Texas. Still from Memory Bucket  © Jeremy Deller, 2003


The Bats. Still from Memory Bucket  © 2003

Deller has recently completed a new body of work in America, called ‘It is what it is, USA, 2009’. The work stems from a failed application to place the shell of a burnt-out car on the 4th Plinth in Trafalgar Square. The vehicle had been hit by a bomb attack in central Baghdad in which 35 people died. Instead he took the remains of the vehicle on a three-week road trip from New York to Los Angeles in a project co-sponsored by the public art group Creative Time. He was joined by Jonathan Harvey, a US soldier who served in Iraq; an Iraqi artist, Esam Pasha, who worked as a translator for the US army and now lives in the US; a curator from New York; a writer and a road manager. You can read an article by Esam Pasha in this month’s issue of The Art Newspaper here.


Jeremy Deller on a farm in Summertown, Tennessee for ‘It is what it is, USA, 2009’

Back on home soil, Deller has often explored the cultural and political heritage of Britain and it’s his work ‘Folk Archive’ with fellow artist Alan Kane, that was of most interest to me in connection with We English.

Kane and Deller took seven years to create the Folk Archive, (1998-2005),amassing a huge collection of vernacular artefacts froma cross Britian, from drawings and paintings to costumes and decorations. Among the 250 works are the detritus of political protests, car rallies, crop circles, clowns and office life. There are photos and footage of strange festivals and competitions where life becomes performance art, including the World Gurning Championships, and a festival of insults and horse skulls in South Wales, called Mari Lwyd.


Tar Barrel Rolling, Ottery St. Mary, Devon © 2004

Interviewed by Iain Aitch in The Guardian in 2005, Deller said “We are not looking for the most bizarre stuff ever produced. It is what surprises us, what we are not expecting to see. When you see an item that is a variation on something, maybe taking it further forward or sideways, that is what we like.”

“We were very conscious that stuff only exists in museums by accident,” says Kane. “No one was looking around at the time that stuff was produced. I think there is a slight discrepancy between being interested in folk art and wanting to maintain or propose that anything we selected will be maintained. It is just about shifting your vision slightly.”


Tractor Painting on Van, Delabole, Cornwall © 2002

The show was conceived out of love for popular art and abhorrence for the meaninglessness of the Millennium Dome. The last retrospective of British folk art took place at the Whitechapel in 1951, so they thought it was about time somebody attacked the subject. Kane and Deller considering the exhibits so unique, priceless or charged by their owners and locations as to be impractical and undesirable to keep together when not on show. (It was first exhibited at The Barbican in 2005).


Clown Register, Clowns Gallery, Dalston, London © 2005

The Folk Archive raises absorbing questions about British-ness. How do the strange events and visual ephemera of modern life create an image of a country’s psyche? What are the stories floating behind the glimpses of protest, anger, chaos and fun? Most importantly, how do these objects and images explain the motivation behind creativity? In fact, what makes this collection of photographs, videos and weird stuff so interesting is wondering why they exist at all.


Young Girls dressed as Old Ladies, Blackpool, © 2000

You can see a gallery of more Folk Archive images here and there’s a review in Frieze here.


Tommy Mattinson, World Gurning Champion, Egremont, Cumbria © 2004

You can listen to Deller in conversation with Guardian columnist and broadcaster, Jeremy Hardy (2004) here.

And listen to Deller talking at the Royal Society of Arts (2008) here.

Deller’s public event Procession will make its way along Deansgate in central Manchester at 2pm on Sunday 5 July 2009. Commissioned and produced by Manchester International Festival and Cornerhouse.

Start time – 2pm prompt and will last approximately 60 minutes.
Route – Procession will start from the Castlefield end of Deansgate and will end at Manchester Cathedral. Click here to view a map of the route.

Find out more here.

Today is Whitsun so what better way to celebrate than Philip Larkin’s beautiful poem, ‘The Whitsun Weddings’.

In the poem Philip Larkin describes his stopping-train journey through East Yorkshire from Paragon Station, Kingston upon Hull to Kings Cross, London on a hot and humid Whitsun Saturday afternoon in 1955. Larkin through his simple, yet elegant style divulges the details of a commonplace journey into a wonderful poem.

The Whitsun Weddings by Philip Larkin, 1958

That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
  Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river's level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.

All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
  For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.

At first, I didn't notice what a noise
  The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what's happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,

As if out on the end of an event
  Waving goodbye
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewellery-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that

Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
  Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end. All down the line
Fresh couples climbed aboard: the rest stood round;
The last confetti and advice were thrown,
And, as we moved, each face seemed to define
Just what it saw departing: children frowned
At something dull; fathers had never known

Success so huge and wholly farcical;
 The women shared
The secret like a happy funeral;
While girls, gripping their handbags tighter, stared
At a religious wounding. Free at last,
And loaded with the sum of all they saw,
We hurried towards London, shuffling gouts of steam.
Now fields were building-plots, and poplars cast
Long shadows over major roads, and for
Some fifty minutes, that in time would seem

Just long enough to settle hats and say
  I nearly died,
A dozen marriages got under way.
They watched the landscape, sitting side by side
- An Odeon went past, a cooling tower, And
someone running up to bowl - and none
Thought of the others they would never meet
Or how their lives would all contain this hour.
I thought of London spread out in the sun,
Its postal districts packed like squares of wheat:

There we were aimed. And as we raced across
  Bright knots of rail
Past standing Pullmans, walls of blackened moss
Came close, and it was nearly done, this frail
Travelling coincidence; and what it held
stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

© from The Collected Poems (Faber, 1993), by permission of the publisher, Faber & Faber Ltd.

You can hear an audio clip of him reading the poem here.

In 1981, more than a quarter of a century after writing ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, Larkin recalls the genius of his poem-

“I caught a very slow train that stopped at every station and I hadn’t realised that, of course, this was the train that all the wedding couples would get on and go to London for their honeymoon: it was an eye-opener to me. Every part was different but the same somehow. They all looked different but they were all doing the same things and sort of feeling the same things. I suppose the train stopped at about four, five, six stations between Hull and London and there was a sense of gathering emotional momentum. Every time you stopped fresh emotion climbed aboard. And finally between Peterborough and London when you hurtle on, you felt the whole thing was being aimed like a bullet – at the heart of things, you know. All this fresh, open life. Incredible experience. I’ve never forgotten it.”

“These poor villages,
This meagre nature,
Long-suffering land,
Land of the Russian people!”

– Fedor Tiutchev

“The artist should not only paint what he sees before him, but also what he sees within him.
If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also omit to paint that which he sees before him.”

– Caspar David Friedrich, quoted in Romanticism and Art.

The theme of Romanticism has come up several times in the past couple of months; I was recently interviewed by photographer Wendy Pye who was researching her MA dissertation on the links between Romanticism and its influence on twenty first century photography, while a couple of blogs have commented on my work with reference to beauty (see American Suburb X and Ben Huff’s blog). Regular readers of the blog will also have spotted references in my post about Peter Bialobrzeski’s book Heimat – note the obvious reference to Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea and Bialobrzeski’s photograph Heimat 34.


Monk by the Sea, Caspar David Friedrich (1809-10)


Heimat 34 © Peter Bialobrzeski (2002)

Romanticism is an artistic, literary, and intellectual movement that originated in the second half of the 18th century in Western Europe. The movement stressed strong emotion as a course of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as trepidation, horror and awe, especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities. It was Romantic artists who first asserted the supreme importance of landscape – prior to that it had been subordinate to historical paintings (Titian or Poussin’s principal theme had been nature not man). While the great 17th Dutch painters had been engrossed in the simple depiction of a locality, known as naturalism, it was in Scandanavia (notably in Copenhagen) and Germany that attempts were first made to infuse landscape painting with a sense of the spiritual. Interestingly, the movement took root around the same time as the invention of photography.

While Romanticism can tip easily into parody and melodrama, at its finest, romantic art is overwhelming, beautiful and uplifting. Just think of paintings by JMW Turner, such as this one-


Snow Storm: Hannibal and his army crossing the Alps, JMW Turner (1812)

Writing in the catalogue which accompanied the exhibition Damaged Romanticism, A Mirror of Modern Emotion at The Art Museum of the University of Houston USA (September 2008), Terrie Sultan asserts that “photographers are taking up the Romantic spirit, querying their ability to portray an objective truth and wanting to create images that are open to the interpretation of the viewer.” And Pye notes how several landscape, pictorial and documentary photographers (for example, Nicholas Hughes, Ori Gersht and Elina Brotherus) have adopted romantic styles in some of their work.

In relation to my own work, I certainly wouldn’t deny that I’m an emotive photographer whose images include romantic (with a small r) overtones – elements of intuition, imagination and feeling. To be precise, I would say that I’m more interested in notions of beauty, and what constitutes beauty, rather than specifically applying motifs in my photographs that are linked to Romanticism. Of course, admitting such can be dangerous to your career! Producing romantic, or at least beautiful imagery, is often viewed as profoundly uncool and nostalgic rather than contemporary.

The trouble with beauty is that tastes and standards of what is beautiful vary so much. Take Russia, for instance. In the early 1800s, Russians commonly accepted the European judgement that their land lacked aesthetic value (as a result, Russian landscape painters tended to travel to Italy, where they learnt to capture the brilliant light, or study at the academies of Germany and France). This view of the Russian landscape changed with the outpouring of literary and artistic creativity that followed the century’s political upheavel and artists turned to their native land and revealed the power of gray skies, vast open fields, and simple birch forests.


Mast-Tree Grove, Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (1898)

In 19th century Russia there was move towards greater naturalism with artists enhancing the idea of Russian beauty and grandeur. The movement was led by artists like Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (1832-1898) who was famous for his scrupulously detailed canvases depicting the Russian countryside, its impenetrable forests and enormous skies; artists like Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi (pronounced Quind-gee, 1842-1910) whose paintings are characterised by their panoramic sweep, the simplification and stylisation of natural forms; and Isaak Ilich Levitan (1860-1900), who painted ‘mood landscapes’, in which he established an overall atmospheric unity.


Evening Chime, Isaac Ilyich Levitan (1892)

As Christopher Ely argues in his book This Meager Nature: Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia (Northern Illinois University Press, 2002)-

“The articulation of a specifically Russian landscape in art and literature contributed to the construction of Russian national identity. This process entailed learning both to view Russia without European aesthetic filters and to love the very features of Russian land and nature that seemed impoverished by comparison with European landscape conventions. ‘Proud foreign eyes’, so important in the late eighteenth-century approaches to Russian landscape imagery, would cease to hold authority by the end of the nineteenth. At the turn of the twentieth century, Russia’s ‘meager nature’ and ‘humble barrenness’ were no longer dull and tedious for Russian viewers, but highly valued, even a ‘blessing’. The meagre, humble, barren and suffering land gave birth to the special strengths, endurance, and soul of the ‘Russian people’. ‘This meager nature’ thus became a font of national celebration. Russian’s came to embrace their land’s modest beauty.”

(On this point, it’s worth noting that one of Romanticism’s key ideas and most enduring legacies is the assertion of nationalism, which became a central theme of Romantic art and political philosophy).

In my approach for Motherland, I was making a deliberate attempt not to produce clichéd representations of a Russia ground down by poverty and despair.  Russia was not exoticised, but my gaze certainly attempted to explore this notion of Russia’s “modest beauty”:


Alexandrovsk Port, Sakhalin Island © Simon Roberts (2004)


Golden Horn Bay, Vladivostok © Simon Roberts (2004)


Woodland, Zheleznogorsk © Simon Roberts (2005)


Apartment blocks reflected in water, Okha, Sakhalin © Simon Roberts, 2004

In relation to We English, which was partly inspired by both Turner and another Romantic British artist, Constable, the work is no doubt rooted in the consciousness of my own attachment to England and is at times an unashamedly lyrical rendering of every day landscapes.


March 3rd, 2009 admin

“The objective history of England doesn’t amount to much if you don’t believe in it, and I don’t, and I don’t believe that anyone in these photographs does either as they face the reality of de-industrialisation in a system which regards their lives as disposable. To the people in these photographs I am superfluous, my life does not depend on their struggle, only my hopes. This is a subjective book about my time in England. I take what isn’t mine and I covet other peoples lives. The photographs can tell you more about me than about what they describe. The book is a fiction about metaphor.” Chris Killip, Foreword to In Flagrante, 1988


In Flagrante jacket cover (First Edition)

I have to admit I’m slightly embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to write a post on what is often described as the most important photobook to come out of England in the 1980s. Better late than never!

In Flagrante by Chris Killip (Secker and Warburg, London 1988) has long been on my list of most wanted photo books, but has always eluded me, mainly thanks to it’s price tag. A first edition currently sells for around £380.00 (and there’s a copy available here if you’re interested). Instead, I’ve just bought a copy of the recently published edition In Flagrante: Books on Books #4 (Errata Editions, 2009), which arrived in the post this morning.


Jacket cover for In Flagrante, Books on Books

Errata Editions’ Books on Books series is an ongoing publishing project dedicated to making rare and out-of-print photography books accessible to photobook enthusiasts. These are not reprints or facsimiles but complete studies of the original books. Each volume in the series presents the entire content, page for page. This edition reproduces the original essay by John Berger and Sylvia Grant (‘Walking Home’) and also includes additional texts by Gerry Badger (‘Dispatches from a War Zone’) and Jeffrey Ladd (‘The Making of In Flagrante’).

Here are some of the sample page layouts from the Errata Edition (which unfortunately have none of the richness of the original):






The publisher notes at the time described In Flagrante as “a book of fifty photographs by one of Europe’s most outstanding and uncompromising photographers. The impact of these images is both immediate and enduring, creating one of the most authoritative and intense bodies of work produced this decade. This view of Britain in the eighties reflects the stark reality of industrial society in decline.”


Father and Son, West End, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Tyneside © Chris Killip, 1980

In Flagrante describes the communities in Northern England that were devastated by the deindustrialisation common to policies carried out by Thatcher and her predecessors starting in the mid-1970s. The book was accompanied by an exhibition at the V&A in London. It’s worth noting that the photographs intially came out of a joint exhibition in 1985 entitled ‘Another Country’, that Killip made with his close friend, the photographer Graham Smith.


Angelic Upstarts at a Miners’ Benefit Dance at the Barbary Coast Club, Sunderland, Wearside © Chris Killip, 1984

Photo-historian and critic Gerry Badger, describes it as “a fully realized photo-book by a British photographer; complex, subtle, allusive. It was in the documentary mode, that is to say, realist in tone, but realism shot through and through with a powerful and insistent personal inflection. For Killip, it achieved a long-term goal to make photography which might be perceived in a literary, cinematic way, with a narrative flow, however oblique, and the work of art was the book itself.” (Quoted in Chris Killip, Phaidon 55).

Christopher David Killip was born on 11 July 1946 in Douglas, Isle of Man. Killip moved to London in 1964 and worked as an assistant to the advertising photographer Adrian Flowers. He soon went freelance, but in 1969 stopped his commercial work to concentrate on the photography that he wanted to do. The inspiration of this is often cited as a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in New York where he discovered the work of Paul Strand and Walker Evans. Indeed Killip is quoted saying “In the sophistication of the MoMA’s permanent collection I discovered the context for their work. The fact that photography had a relevant, pertinent history” (Interview with Gerry Badger, Books on Books 4).


Helen and Hula-hoop, Seacoal Beach, Lynemouth, Northumberland © Chris Killip, 1984

In 1970 Killip moved back to the Isle of Man, photographing it extensively. Two years later he was commissioned to photograph Bury St Edmunds and Huddersfield, and in 1975 he won a two-year fellowship from Northern Arts to photograph the northeast of England; Creative Camera devoted its entire May issue to this work. During the early 1970s he became the founder, exhibition curator, and advisor at the Side Gallery, Newcastle, and worked as its director from 1977-79.

The photographs for In Flagrante were all made in black and white, on 4×5 film. They hold to the documentary rather than the formalist wing of modernist photography. The book was well received on its publication in 1988, but Killip’s kind of black and white documentation of the underclass was going out of fashion quickly in Britain, as photographers used color to show consumerism and for consciously and explicitly artistic purposes. (Somewhat ironically perhaps, Killip was approached by Pirelli U.K. which thought that he might photograph its tire factory in Burton. The resulting work was published in book form only in 2007 – Pirelli Work, Steidl).


Bever, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire, 1980 © Chris Killip

In Killip’s photographs the bleak landscape of the North East becomes an extension of its human subjects, underscoring the harshness of their lives. Some of his most memorable pictures in In Flagrante are taken in the North Yorkshire fishing village of Skinningrove (see above and below). Skinningrove is a fishing village between the Tees conurbation and the picturesque fishing port of Whitby. Badger describes the portrait of Bever as “demonstrating a perhaps muted, but palpable violence. And there is an undercurrent of conflict and threat throughout much of In Flagrante, which make the book’s rare moments of tenderness all the more effective.”

Killip photographed on the Skinningrove foreshore on several occassions over the course of three years, often spending long periods of time getting to know his subjects. Crabs and People (below) is for me, Killip’s most striking and enduring images. Beautiful, disturbing and compositionally brilliant. It’s an image that asks as many questions as it does provide answers.


Crabs and People, Skinningrove, North Yorkshire © Chris Killip, 1981

“Chris Killip is not a sociologist with a camera, nor a historian. He is an artist, a poet, with a compulsion to enter people’s lives and try and make something of them. To understand them perhaps. To share his compulsion with us – undoubtedly. To assume the role of advocate – possibly. Or maybe it is all an attempt to reveal something else, both known and unknown.” Gerry Badger (Quoted in Chris Killip, Phaidon 55).

I’ve been looking around the web for any interviews where Killip discusses his work, but without any success. I did come across this quote where he comments on a photograph by Boris Mikhailov which was included in the Tate Modern’s Street&Studio exhibition.

“I was shocked when I first saw this work, and shocked when I returned to ponder on these slyly referential, snapshot-like photographs, now blown up on the gallery wall. Boris, how apt. This compelling work cannot help but raise the question: what is a photograph and what is its purpose? The self-congratulatory smugness of most photographic offerings has lulled me into a very low level of expectation. The bulk of photographic work produced for galleries, produced for Hollywood, produced for the art scene is geared to an audience. It is self-censored, and its reception (such a strong American concern) is second guessed. No wonder that most of current photography is so devoid of content. I mean, perfectly seriously, who is going to buy Mikhailov’s work? Masterpiece it might be, but who wants to be reminded so forcefully by content that actions always have consequences?”

Killip currently works as Professor of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University in Massachusetts, USA.


February 25th, 2009 admin

And here’s a trailer for Zvyagintsev’s The Return-


February 25th, 2009 admin

In reference to yesterday’s post, here’s an interesting video interview with the Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky talking about art.


January 16th, 2009 admin

I notice that Jem Southam has an exhibition currently showing at The Lowry until the 22nd March 2009. Clouds Descending is the result of a two year commission where Southam made photographs along the Cumbrian coastline, recording the industrial landscape and harbour towns, which Lowry loved so much.

Southam will be giving an evening lecture at The Lowry on February 6th. There is also the opportunity to take part in an all-day Masterclass with him on Saturday 7th February – full application details are available from


Southam has been a key figure in British photography for over twenty-five years. Working exclusively in the landscape genre, his prevailing thematic concerns are the changes, large and small, occurring within the British countryside. His photographs are the result of patient observation and contemplation over long periods of time. Often producing series, Southam layers and juxtaposes images that not only reveal cycles of nature, but the interactions of humans with their environment. He has said that he proposes “histories,” both social and natural.


Brampford Speke, 1998 from the series Dew Ponds © Jem Southam

As David Evan’s writes in Source magazine, “For his epic theme, Southam adopts appropriate, time-consuming working methods. There is extensive preparatory research, including the study of weather forecasts. There is walking and waiting, frequently on difficult terrain. Bulky equipment is often being carried around, especially a Wista, a modern Japanese version of a Victorian plate camera. Southam only photographs on still grey days, sometimes producing just a few images in a year. The end results are crafted objects, recalling the work of 19th Century pioneers like Carleton Watkins who took along a wagon laboratory pulled by a dozen mules… Southam’s achievement is to create work informed by past and present that has conviction… [He is] the photographer of the slow rhythms of social time and the even slower rhythms of physical geography.”

To find out more about Southam’s work, read an interview in SeeSaw Magazine here and watch a slideshow of his photographs here.

Southam is represented by Robert Mann Gallery and Charles Isaacs.


December 17th, 2008 admin

It was Sarah’s birthday yesterday and we spent the day in London taking in a couple of exhibitions, the Byzantium 330-1453 at Royal Academy and Bruegel to Rubens – Masters of Flemish Painting at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace.

‘Bruegel to Rubens’ is the first exhibition mounted of Flemish paintings in the Royal Collection, bringing together 51 works from the 15th to 17th centuries, including masterpieces by Hans Memling, Jan Brueghel, Van Dyck and Rubens. For me, the most impressive painting in the exhibition was Massacre of the Innocents (1565-7) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, which was acquired by Charles II. On first sight the painting appears to be a scene of a Flemish village under snow, but recent infrared images reveal that it in fact depicts the biblical story of the Massacre of the Innocents, when according to the gospels, King Herod, after hearing of the birth of the King of the Jews, ordered that all children under the age of two should be murdered.

Massacre of the Innocents, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1565-7

You can listen to an audio commentary about the painting here.

The subjects of religion and classical antiquity were frequently represented in Bruegel’s paintings. However, they were often depicted completely integrated into the pastoral life, as in the example of his painting ‘The Census at Bethlehem’.

The Census at Bethlehem, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566

For this painting, Bruegel has selected an afternoon in winter, with the red sun already touching the horizon and the square full of people despite the cold. Living conditions in the 16th century were very cramped with all the members of a household often housed together in one room. For these reason, people spent more time on the streets and in the village square than in their houses. Children are enjoying themselves on the ice. A heavily pregnant Mary is on the donkey being led by Joseph past a tavern where crowds are gathered on the bottom left of the picture. The main area of the painting is filled with people enjoying themselves, dancing, drinking, paying marbles or practising archery. At the bottom edge of the picture, a man in fool’s costume is leading two children by the hand. It’s said that by including this figure, Bruegel is seeking to tell the observer that he is not only endeavouring to entertain with his portrayal of people enjoying themselves (in this instance at a religious festival) but also wishes to admonish him: Foolishness leads people astray.

Many Flemish and Dutch artists around this time incorporated everyday milieu into their pictures, painting not only rich and important men but also nameless people – the peasants, the agricultural workers, their dwellings and villages. In relationship to my own work, We English is not just a social or cultural commentary although there are elements of this in the work; more, it aims to constitute a sensitive, resolved response to scenes of ordinary people in their chosen environments. And my photographic approach to the project was certainly partly inspired by some of these 16th and 17th century landscape painters.

Enjoying the ice, Hendrick Avercamp, 1630-34

Painters like Hendrick Averamp who depicted winter scenes teeming with life: skaters, men working, children playing, women walking, an entire town engaged in various activities on the ice (above and see my previous post on his work).  These vibrant scenes capture people at leisure in a manner that reveals much about daily life but is executed with a transformative vivacity and narrative energy that makes it much more than an anthropological study.

Winter scene with mill, Jacob van Ruisdael, private collection

The work of artists such as Van Ruisdael were executed in a way that also informed my aesthetic gaze.  I admire the muted tones of colour, the deceptive flatness of a scene, the way in which individual figures are both dwarfed by and are vital to the landscape around them; even Ruisdael’s preoccupation with local landscape formations, such as dunescapes, must have created for his viewers a sense of recognition and shared regional history.  It seems that Ruisdael’s romantic sensibility is successfully assimilated into realistic, recognisable landscapes and this was my intended way of working too.

The beach at Scheveningen, Adriaen van de Velde, 1658

I’m also drawn to Van de Velde’s The Beach at Scheveningen, with its huge skies and opaque stretches of water; a scene full of detail that belies its initial simplicity. During the seventeenth century artists increasingly depicted the sea and beaches along the Dutch coast as places of contemporary life, embodying the national identity of the young Republic. They appear to capture daily life rather than record great events.

As the exhibition catalogue from a previous show (From Russia) at the Royal Academy, identified-

“Art feeds on art and this exhibition demonstrates that all artists draw on the work of their immediate and recent contemporaries or on the art of the past to fine new solutions to creative expression.”


December 8th, 2008 admin

Given the time consuming nature of scanning, I’m going to take this opportunity to return to the blog and look at the work of the second German photographer – after Joachim Brohm – in my Easy Rider series. The photography of Peter Bialobrzeski (born 1961).

I first met Bialobrzeski in 2003 when I was a student on the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass in Amsterdam. He was one of the Masters, along with François Hebel, MaryAnne Golon, Roberto Koch, Manoocher, Nicole Robbers and Tom Stoddart. Looking back over my career over the past ten years I’d say that the Masterclass rates as one of the most significant waypoints in my professional life. It was a hugely valuable experience and, slightly ironically, precipitated my move away from editorial photography. The advice I gleened from the Masters, particularly from Bialobrzeski, was one of the motivating factors for upping sticks and spending a year traveling across Russia working on Motherland. I found an affinity with Bialobrzeski’s work and his approach, which seemed considered, intelligent and contemplative. Not to mention, beautiful.

Bialobrzeski came to prominence with his 2004 book Neon Tigers (which was chosen as one of the Best-Designed German Books of that year and won several prizes including a World Press Photo). However, the work that I am most drawn to is his book on Germany. Heimat (published by Hatje Cantz) which is German for “homeland,” is the fascinating result of his journey over two years, covering nearly 9500 miles around the country.

As with Russians relationship with the concept of Rodina, for Germans Heimat is a rather difficult term which embodies conflicting tendencies. In Bialobrzeski’s own words, “Having a home means having roots, which is not the same as being rooted to the spot.” And since he is more interested in images than in places, Heimat is “not a book about Germany as homeland per se.” Rather, it creates a fixed image of “a personalized bit of visual and cultural history.” He talks about home not being a geographical marker, “it’s not about places, it’s about pictures” he says.

Heimat 08 © Peter Bialobrzeski

Bialobrzeski terms his photographs in Heimat as “projection surfaces for post-postmodernist man’s yearning for nature.” In his preface to the book he pays homage to German Romanticism, in particular the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (who he identifies as influencing his notions of the ‘German Landscape’) and at the same time makes a nod to the work of contemporary American colour photographers, particularly Joel Sternfeld and American Prospects.

Heimat 20 © Peter Bialobrzeski

The link with Romanticism is clearly evident in these photographs, which Bialobrzeski himself identifies as- “although superficially documentary, with a sort of critical look, the pictures are nonetheless ‘beautiful’ as aesthetic statements.” While they are photographs of ordinary landscapes, unspectacular rural places that have been altered by man and through Bialobrzeski’s lens, are always peopled, they are definitely beautiful, while not slipping into romantic clichés.

Heimat 25 © Peter Bialobrzeski

In an introduction to the book, Ariel Hauptmeier writes “Bialobrzeski wanted to circumnavigate the dogma that art has to be critical, detached, and unemotional. Wanted to set off in the confidence of finding things beautiful that you’re not allowed to find beautiful: ordinary, splendid, uneventful, magical, prosaic German landscapes. Such as everyone knows and loves, such as we have anchored in our collective unconscious. It would have been easy to have photographed these scenes in a cool, fragmented, or even ugly manner. But Peter Bialobrzeski made the effort to find them beautiful.”

Heimat 15 © Peter Bialobrzeski

The link with German Romanticism and Bialobrzeski’s photographs is extended by Ariel Hauptmeier, who makes sees Bialobrzeski’s last photograph in the book (Heimat 34), that of a young woman sitting alone by the sea, as a pastiche of Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea.

Heimat 34 © Peter Bialobrzeski

Caspar David Friederich, Monk by the Sea (1809), Oil on canvas

Heimat is my favourite photography book of the past couple of years. It’s well worth spending time with. And you can see more of Bialobrzeski’s photographs from the series on L.A.Galerie’s website here.

In a recent conversation where I brought up my We English project, Bialobrzeski told me that he’d actually spent a year in Britain documenting the country between 1991-1992 for a project called ‘Give My Regards to Elizabeth’. The work was shown at Side Gallery in 1993, however, it was never published as a book.  I’ve posted up a couple of pictures below, and you can see a larger selection of images here (it’s interesting to see how Bialobrzeski’s pictorial approach has shifted since these were taken).

© Peter Bialobrzeski

© Peter Bialobrzeski

© Peter Bialobrzeski

If you want to find out more about Bialobrzeski’s work, you can read a recent interview with him over on Conscientious here.

Continuing my Easy Rider series, I’m now going to turn to the work of two German photographers who have produced studies of their homeland and whose work I’ve found particularly inspiring. They are Joachim Brohm with his book Ruhr (Steidl, May 2007) and Peter Bialobrzeski with his book Heimat (Hatje Cantz, out of print).

In this post, I’m going to look at the book Ruhr.

I was introduced to the work of Joachim Brohm by Marcus Schaden in Arles last year. Marcus was very excited about Brohm’s recently published photographic series, which documented the German Ruhr area during its industrial decline from the late 1970s to the mid-80s. And I could see why, it’s a superb book. The photographs have a freshness to them, while retaining a clear and focused aesthetic. There are 50 pictures in total, the earliest going back to his photographic training at the Essen Folkwang School from 1977, and an insightful introductory essay (Topographies of Anonymity) by Heinz Liesbrock.

One of the most interesting aspects of this work is the fact that Brohm became one of the first to engage with the issues raised by American photography – the landscape photography of the nineteenth century and the topographical photography from 1970 onwards – and transport them into a European context. As a result, Ruhr is an integral link between USA and European photography (or as Liesbrock describes it “a cross fertilisation”) and its special significance is revealed with this first complete monograph.

Bochum, 1983 © Joachim Brohm

Liesbrock sees the work of Brohm, along with Michael Schmidt and Heinrich Riebesehl, as among the first European photographers to engage intensively with the aesthetics of American photographers like Robert Adams, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. He writes: “All of them understood the gaze of the American photographers as a framework in which they can deal with questions from their own German cultural context, and this is why it is not by chance that they all begin their engagement with the Americans in the familiar context of their immediate home environment.” For Schmidt this is Berlin, for Riebesehl the agrarian landscape of Lower Saxony, for Brohm it is the Ruhr. This engagement with American photography, which today is recognized as classical, was at that time a matter for a select few.

In describing Brohm’s aesthetic, Liesbrock writes: “At first sight there are two aspects in particular that catch our attention. First the directness of the photographic gaze with which he addresses the visible and the unpretentious way in which he translates it into a restrained compositional structure….The pictorial aesthetics developed by Brohm are intentionally kept close to amateur photography. A second important aspect of his conception of the image is his use of colour. For a photographer with artistic ambitions to use colour as a medium was still the exception in Europe around 1980….Brohm’s Ruhr, as we encounter it in his pictures, is also characterize by this wish to expose specific pictorial energies in the banal, the seemingly expressionless.” Later on in his essay Liesbrock describes Brohm’s use of colour as a “restrained colouration to reflect the uneventfulness of the scenery of the Ruhr as a place where nothing happens…He develops colour into a stylistic feature devoid of any strident notes….The colour seems flat, it has no radiance but rather remains self-contained.”

Bochum, 1982 © Joachim Brohm

To a large extent Brohm turns his gaze on urban life at the edges of the Ruhr, where existence tends to have a rural feel, where shopping centres and small business zones have established themselves. As Liesbrock puts it “a placid zone of seemingly uninterrupted leisure time.” Brohm observes people from a distance, avoiding intimate perspectives and arranges expressions of human activity in harmony with the architecture and the landscape. An elevated camera position is a common theme. “People seemed safely at home in it, in fact lulled into repose, inconsequential, they have no echo. This familiar, everyday ambience assumes a form of quiet monumentality” says Liesbrock.

Essen 1982 © Joachim Brohm

Liesbrock closes his essay by describing Brohm’s significant contribution to recent photographic history and explaining why his work has gone unacknowledged for so many years (overlooked by the large-format colour photography that had been developed in Bernd Becher’s class in Dusseldorf that became the centre of attention – works of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth…) and has only now been published, twenty years after the photographs were taken. He writes, Brohm’s work “constitutes a central link between photography in the USA and Germany since 1970. Anyone looking at the sequence of pictures in this book, will also discover in Ruhr a work of unmistakeable artistic vitality, which will be of lasting significance, independently of all historic coordinates.”

Joachim Brohm, born in Dülken, Germany in 1955, studied visual communication and photography at the University of Essen and at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He has had one-man shows at Fotoforum Bremen; Spectrum Photogalerie in the Sprengel Museum, Hannover; Museum Folkwang in Essen; and Fotomuseum in Munich. Brohm lives in Essen and Leipzig.

If you want to see more of Brohm’s work, he’s published two further books with Steidl, Areal and Ohio.

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