Mindfulness for photographers. Digital detox – part 1.

Digital is cheap, requires little space and makes no mess but, although I can happily spend hours in Lightroom, it doesn’t have the same therapeutic value as messing about in an old fashioned darkroom.

Unfortunately I have a crowded house full of children and pets and no room for chemical developing.

Fortunately, if we go back a little further in time, we find we have no need for one! 🙂

Cyanotypes were developed in 1842 by an English scientist with the rather distinguished name of John Frederick William Herschal. At the time, they weren’t terribly popular for images, because of the deep blue colour, but became very popular for reproducing technical drawings – or ‘blue prints’. Personally, I prefer the vibrant, rich blue to the dull brown other methods produced, but this didn’t fit with the Victorian aesthetic.

On the surface its a very simple method. Its requires only 2 chemicals, Ammonium iron (III) citrate and Potassium hexacyanoferrate (III),  that are separately mixed with water 24 hours before required and combined just before use.  The chosen paper is coated in low light and left to dry in the dark. A negative or object is then placed on top of a sheet of sensitised paper, the entire thing is placed into a contact frame, and exposed to sunlight for a predetermined time, then rinsed.

The finished images are a stunning deep, rich, Prussian blue.

However, like many things worth knowing, it takes a day to learn and a lifetime to master!

Firstly there is the question of which paper to use. It needs to be sturdy enough to withstand soaking and washing, unbleached so it doesn’t effect the colour and acid free. Texture also looks good – in my opinion. Personally i like ‘Fabriano F5’ but other suggestions are ‘Arches Watercolour watercolour cold press’, ‘Arches Platine’ and Fabriano F4. All have different qualities and show a different range of colours, so a period of experimentation is needed to find a paper that meets you expectations and artistic vision.

Once you have decided on the paper you will need a negative. The snag here is that contact printing produces a print the same size as the negative you use – no enlargers in this process!

Now, if you are fortunate to have worked on large format film cameras, you may have some negatives laying around that are just perfect to pop into a printing frame, but most of us have to improvise. The easiest way is to make a digital negative in Photoshop, resize it  and print onto acetate. I found this VERY frustrating and tried different printers and acetates before I got anything that was anywhere near acceptable. The alternative is to make paper negatives. I have a friend who is great at making these, but mine were a disaster and far too dense.

Finally you need to do a test strip, just like in the ol’ darkroom, marking off exposure times.

Vintage contact print frames are lovely (in my opinion) but smaller than we are now used to – remember the bit about being the same size as the negative?

Test strip and vintage contact frame.

Test strip and vintage contact frame.

 

There are a few makers of larger new contact frames – but these tend to be very expensive! However, a clip frame make an affordable modern alternative. Its not as good – but, if you have done a test strip, is a workable alternative.

Obviously, you don’t have to stick to negatives – you can follow in the footsteps of Anna Atkins and make botanical studies as I have below, or use any solid objects!

Watching digital negatives and a fern develop on sensitised paper in the sunshine.

Watching digital negatives and a fern develop on sensitised paper in the sunshine.

 

Its very therapeutic to sit in the sun sipping tea, beer, wine, Pimms or whatever you fancy…watching your negative develop. ‘Mindfulness’ is a current catchphrase – but totally sums up the process, as i quietly sat, totally absorbed with the paper changing colour in front of me.

Seriously, you have to try it as an alternative to sitting in front of a screen!

Removed from the frame, ready for rinsing.

Removed from the frame, ready for rinsing.

 

When it is cooked, just rinse it in running water for 15 minutes.

Newly rinsed cyanotypes.

Newly rinsed cyanotypes.

 

And thats it…or is it?

 

The Prussian blue finish is wonderfully rich….but if its not quite your thing you can bleach or tone them. Amongst the most common domestic toning ingredients are tea, coffee and wine – although the list is almost endless!

Unfortunately, instant coffee is recommended for this process (yuk), and I had drunk all the red wine – so this image is toned with tea 🙂

Tea toned Cyanotype and beautiful blue photogram.

Tea toned Cyanotype and beautiful blue photogram.

I’m now working with cyanotypes on wood and fabric …and fascinated by cyanotypes on glass.

More posts to follow!

A discussion of Utopian themes in Sally Mann’s work “Immediate family”.

In this essay I discuss Sally Mann’s work Immediate Family in relation to both utopian and dystopian themes. This body of work features 65 black and white images of her three pre-pubescent children, taken at their summer home in Virginia, USA. They were first exhibited in New York in 1990, before being published in 1992 as a book by Aperture.

The reception to this work was mixed and controversial. The book was met with both “great acclaim and discomfort” (Appleford, 2010). It was cited as “one of the great photography books of our time” (Sante 1995), whilst Mann herself was accused of “selling photographs of children in their nakedness for profit … an exploitation of the parental role” (Cantor, 1993).

Does her work show a utopian childhood, free from the restrictions of society, or is there a darker theme?

I am drawn to Sally Mann’s work, as a mother and photographer, who has also had the experience of spending long hot family summers in a rural environment. Photographing my own children playing; swimming in a river; bruised from falls or bitten by insects; laughing; crying; angry; dressing up and undressed.

Mann used an antique 8’x10’ bellows camera, and produced the images for Immediate Family as beautiful gelatine silver prints. Unusually, for a series of ‘portrait’ images, these were shot in landscape format – maybe because they were environmental rather than studio shots. The large format gives a romantic feel to children unselfconsciously playing, reading, acting and sleeping their way through endless hot summers days. So many facets of childhood, captured and frozen as a series of ‘moments’, isolated from context.

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Mann has often said she adores her children, and so the focus of her world became the focus for her camera.

I guess every parent thinks their child is the most amazing, marvellous thing ever on earth. I use my photographs to reflect that astonishment and gratitude” (Vile Bodies,1997)

Mann spent about 9 months a year printing images of her family; meaning she devoted as much time to carefully producing the images of her children as she did to produce each actual child. She used her hands and arms to dodge and burn; using them to craft and shape each image, much as she crafted and shaped their childhood.

Hirsch states that Mann’s images “…enhanced by the archaic quality of her prints and the old fashioned large-format camera she uses, evoke profound cultural fantasies of an innocent, ‘natural’ childhood.’ (Hirsch 1997); and I tend to agree.

Indeed, many of her images hark back to 19th century photographs and reference the established photographic canon. Undoubtedly, Mann’s ‘Goodnight Kiss’ has similarities with Julia Margaret Donaldson’s ‘Double Star’;Popsicle drips’ is frequently linked to Westons ‘Neil’. The overall feeling of dirt and poverty captured on large format B&W film, slots into out cultural knowledge of Lange’s work, and the FSA photographic project.

The very first image in the series, ‘Damaged child’, shows Jessie with a swollen eye. The resemblance to Lange’s FSA work of the same name cannot be missed – indeed, Mann was obviously aware of it when she titled her image. Both girls have an angry, challenging glare and one squinting eye, unisex cropped hair, and both were carefully captured against a flat background on large format cameras. Yet Lange’s work was highly acclaimed, and Mann’s heavily criticised. Lange’s work was journalistic, so her ‘role’ was to create a ‘record’ of events; but Mann was a mother, and society said her role was to protect.

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If Mann had not been the child’s mother would the image have been viewed differently? Undoubtedly so! As it was, the image was viewed out of context, and Jessie was portrayed by the media as a battered child at worse, or a neglected child at best. “What kind of mother would photograph an injured child?” they cried as they attempted to place the children in the middle of a dystopian, dysfunctional childhood of their own construction.

Yet the swollen eye was a result of a gnat bite, a minor, everyday occurrence that would be of no concern to most mothers across Europe and America. Mann states her images are of “…[her] children living their lives…of ordinary things every mother has seen”.

 Parsons attempts to explain the public reaction to a photograph of such a minor ailment.

 “When art photography is publicly exhibited it will be understood in relation to public codes already at play, such as those around motherhood and the protection of children.” (Parsons 2008).

Many of the images are collaborations between Mann and her children; combining imagination and real life, working together in an idyllic way that is unknown and unthinkable to many families. This shared endeavour and mutual respect adds weight to my view of an idyllic upbringing. The children were empowered to become both models and art directors and not the passive voiceless puppets some would have us believe.

Jessie states “I know what my mom likes sometimes, so I point it out to her.” (Woodward, 1992).

However, not all images were planned – some really did capture spontaneous play. One of my favourite images is ‘The perfect Tomato’ which forever freezes Jessie tiptoeing across a table. Mann was setting up her camera for another shot when she noticed Jessie tiptoeing across the table, so “I just put the film in and shot.” (Sally Mann in Aletti, 1992, 106). Jessie recalls that the only thing in focus was the tomato which gave the image its title “That was, like, sheer luck!” (Vile Bodies,1997)

The area of the image featuring Jessie is overexposed. The brightness of her form, her blond hair merging with the background, gives her an almost ethereal wood nymph feel. Virginia, sitting in the shade appears transfixed by this mythical being, whilst the adult, whose knee she sits on, seems oblivious to the magic around her.

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If we apply Bates theories to this image it denotes a young naked girl, poised on a table scattered with tomatoes, watched by a younger girl and ignored by the only adult present. It’s a simple, imperfectly exposed image. However I feel this image connotes the innocence and grace of childhood. She is over exposed, and shines brightly, radiating purity. Her arms are drawn back, as if she has just landed from flight, indicating flights of fantasy and freedom from the chains of responsibility that bind adults to their own realm. The punctum is her foot, so elegantly poised, as she looks down at it. This draws you to the perfectly formed fruit on the table, undisturbed by her grace, hinting at the forbidden; and onto Virginia’s face, as she looks in wonder at her older sister, at what she could become. Finally you notice the adult in the deepest shade, disconnected from the image in front of her: the wonder of childhood veiled from her by the heavy cloak of responsibility.

Only 13 of the 65 images in the series show a degree of nudity, yet instead of seeing children at one with nature, free from the rules, restrictions and codes of adult society, critics have accused her of sexualizing her children. A ’Save the Children’ group staged a book burning, and the Immediate Family was considered in a pornography trial. At the time, Mann stated, “I think childhood sexuality is an oxymoron” (Woodward, 1992).

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‘Jessie at 5’ caused controversy for a different reason. As in the previous example, Jessie is brighter than the other people in the frame. She is playing dress up, is partially clothed, and wears a little makeup and a string of beads. She confidently stares at her mother behind the camera. This image is often criticised for her ‘knowing look’, implying Jessie has lost the innocence of childhood, thus inferring that something sinister was happening.

 What adults understand as the sexuality of children is always defined by the adult world; in this view, childhood is not fixed but culturally produced” (Edge, Baylis, 2004)

I believe this ‘look’ is a positive characteristic of Jessie, and shows a confident child playing a role, not afraid of scorn or criticism from the adults around her. This image of Jessie at 5 very much reminds me of one of my daughter taken on her 4th birthday.

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Although they may initially appear very different, this is mainly due to climate!
Like Jessie, Rhowan was dressing up. She is wearing make up, pearls and evening gloves and, although her hand is coyly across her mouth, she engages with the camera, confident in her new ‘style’; her version of the world she sees around her.

“These girls still exist in an innocent world in which is pose is only a pose – what adults make of the pose may be the issue” (Osborne, 2006).

Its interesting to note that in the few photographs published of Emmett looking at the camera he has the same ‘look’ as Jessie – yet I can’t find a single example of condemnation for these images. Despite years of legislation on equality does American society still encourage boys to be confident, yet expect girls to remain submissive? If so, I would argue that Jessie and Virginia did indeed live in a mini utopia, in that they were allowed to express themselves freely.

The next image was viewed as extremely controversial when it was first published, and has continued to be so, although all the children were fully, clothed! I feel the connotations within this image are very different to the others in the series.

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This, now iconic image, is of all three of the Mann children on a rural road or path. Jessie is most prominent in the frame, blond hair slightly unkempt, wearing a white sundress and holding, what appears to be, a cigarette. She gazes directly at the camera, with a slightly bored or disinterested expression. Next to her is the youngest, Virginia. She is slightly out of focus, facing away from the camera, with her hands on her hips, wearing a darker summer dress. In the background is Emmett. He is wearing white clothing, and is on stilts. He too is facing away from the camera, and is reduced to an unfocused blur.

The connotations in this image are complex, multi-layered and have changed over time. The main focus and message is clearly Jessie. Her white sundress is symbolic of childhood and innocence, her un-styled loose hair hints at summers days free from restrictions, yet her arm nearest the camera is drawn protectively across her body, and her shoulder is angled towards to the camera as if a physical block. Steward states that this is “Jessie clearly vamping for the camera” (Steward, 2000, 373), but I disagree. I feel that’s Jessie’s protective stance and pensive look show the tiring effect of the constant maternal gaze on her childhood games.

The Punctum is the white cigarette in her hand, standing out against the darker background, its bright tone matching it to her dress, making it ‘part of Jessie’. The linguistic sign, the title of the image, “Candy Cigarette” is at conflict with the prominent visual sign “cigarette”, but cultural knowledge is needed to read this and re-categorise the visual sign. Candy, or sweet, cigarettes were sold in corner shops for decades before the dangers of smoking were publicly realised and smoking became demonised. At the time this photograph was taken, the anti tobacco lobby was fast gaining support in the USA, and anti smoking posters were appearing around the country. The young girl in purest white, holding society’s newest ‘silent killer’ breaks another contemporary social taboo.

From a psychoanalytical viewpoint the cigarette can also be considered a phallic symbol. But, rather than the direct visual sign of the girl holding this symbol, it can be linked to the psychodynamic nature of the daughter–mother relationship in the Electra complex. This image, and this entire series, is a sequence of shared moments between mother and daughters (rarely does Emmett feature as a significant part of any image). Jung states that young girls repress the hostile female competition, for fear of losing the love of their mother. Its the internalization of “Mother” which leads to the development of the super ego as girls begin to establish a separate sexual identity. Hence this image could be viewed as Jessie (aged 10) on the threshold of moving from the state of androgynous child to a conscious sexual young woman. Is this the reason for her closed stance, in contrast to younger images of herself?

In contrast, Virginia stands in the shadows with her back to Jessie and her mother. Her hair is neatly tied back, her hands are on her hips as if judging her brothers antics. Other than her strong and maybe judgmental posture, we are given nothing more to read of Virginia. Maybe she is the balance in the image, the sensible side to Jessie’s rebelliousness? Emmett is nothing more than an enigmatic blur. Unfocused and disengaged, yet his bright clothes lift him from the shadows, and his stilts elevate him above his sisters, foretelling his future position in patriarchal American society.

Steward (2010) acknowledges the juxtaposition between the children mimicking adult’s behavior in role-play – and the adult’s interpretation of their play.  “Her portrait of the 10-year old blonde daughter mimicking an adult smoking a (sweet) Candy cigarette has Lolita connotations but is also universal and typical of how girls play and pose.” 

I think much of the controversy is because Mann’s photographs are very different to the socially constructed ideal of children’s portraits (both painted and photographed). Chambers (2003) examined family photo albums and stated that the ‘ideal’ family images they contained were the re-enactment of the socially constructed nuclear family, and not ‘authentic’ portraits. An image of a child in distress or unclothed is only socially acceptable in journalistic photography.

Dumbleton, a children’s portrait photographer describes the sort of photographs parents’ want of their children:

“They want a smile…the child looking out of the picture at them…with big, open, grinning eyes”…

“They want the baby to be saying to them, out of the picture, I love you. In the future, when they look back, they want to remember a happy childhood.”…

“It satisfies a need later on to realise that that child has been happy.” (Vile Bodies,1997)

Mann goes further to explain the ‘insipidness’ of mainstream children portraiture.

“I think most people are afraid to plumb the depths of children…they don’t know what’s in there and they are afraid to find out.” (ibid).

Therefore, it could be argued that accepted mainstream children’s portraiture aims to fulfil the emotional needs of the parent and not reveal the nature of the children, whereas Mann’s photographs were about exploring new ideas and concepts with and about her children.

In interviews at the time and more recently, both Mann and her children insist they collaborated in producing the images.

Sally (with Jessie and Virginia) explained:

“We’d take the picture, they would look at it…realise it wasn’t any good…we would talk abut what would make it better…and we would take it over again.” (ibid,1997).

I have worked on a few projects with my own children and can strongly identify with this. They are exciting projects to do, and the entire family looks forward to seeing and discussing the images, and working out what to do next. I believe, from personal experience, working and playing together builds strong family bonds and mutual respect in a way that authoritarian parenting cannot.

Higonnet (1998) states that Mann recognised an important cultural shift from the romanticised childhood, popular since Victorian times, to the era of the modern “knowing child”. This timing fits with the new era of the American child consumer. I argue that it was this visual shift that jarred with contemporary ideals of both childhood and of private/public that greatly fuelled the controversy around Mann’s family images.

However, Mann was not the first mother to recognise changing cultural values, and use her children to represent this shift on film. In 1861, Lady Clementina Hawarden, a contemporary of Julia Margaret Cameron, began to photograph her daughters. Unlike Cameron who printed and sold commercial images, Hawarden exhibited her images as ‘studies’. Like Mann, Hawarden’s images were of her daughters, and taken in their home in Kensington, London. Like the Mann family, the girls and their mother worked together and used a combination of their own clothes and items from dressing up boxes to create scenes that entwined the everyday with fantasy.

Just as Mann’s work with her children emerged to coincide with the era of the ‘knowing child’, Hawarden’s work confronted the Victorian construction of female and adolescent sexuality, with her daughters in (for the time) provocative poses. Mayer (1999) argues that the provocativeness of the poses was significant. In 1861, the year Hawarden began her work, the age of consent was raised from ten to twelve years. Maybe it was fear of accusations of ‘sexualisation’ that lead Hawarden to present her work as serious ‘studies’ and not in the commercial manner of Cameron?

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Clementina Maude, photography by Lady Clementina Hawarden, about 1862-3. Museum no. PH.457:230-1968, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Mann children’s, and in particular Jessie’s, ‘knowing look’ has provided much fodder for critics. It IS a ‘knowing’ gaze, but not in the sexualised way the media present. They are ‘knowing’ because they are part of the process, and have confidence in what they doing. They have input at the creative stage, and they censor the results.

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This can be seen in many portraits of children who are close to the photographer and engaged in the process. Yet, at some point in time, these have all been found ‘suspect’ and publicly criticised.

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This image of my daughter Rhowan (aged 7) playing in the rain was the centre of controversy…due to the connotations people associated with it, and my husband and I faced many of the same criticisms as Mann had nearly two decades previously.

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After the rain #1 (Nightingale 2009)

 

Unfortunately, in our current society the media is trained to look at the sexualisation of women, and more recently children – there is no education about empowered children, so without a cultural reference, this ‘look’ is misunderstood. In an attempt to ‘protect’ children by keeping them fully clothed, and condoning only a limited and safe range of ‘poses’ and expressions, society necessarily deems anything that contravenes this narrow view of acceptable children’s behaviour as sexualised. The Mann children were unaware of this proscriptive and dystopian view of family and community, where every person is a potential paedophile or abuser, until this ‘caring’ faction informed the children by its actions and censorship.

So does Mann’s work show utopian ‘free range’ childhood …or does it reflect a childhood sexualised, distorted and exploited by an authoritarian mother?

Mann describes trying to recreate her own happy, rural childhood for her family:

“There was a quality that went through my childhood living in the country; the wild naked freedom that I had as a child – that I think they had” (Vile Bodies,1997).

I think her images often demonstrate the freedom of their childhood; the freedom not to wear clothes if they chose, during the long, hot humid summers of VA; the freedom and to get dirty or go swimming without being reprimanded, the freedom to role play without censorship.

But what do the children now think about their childhood and images Mann took? Jessie recently said…

“Her [Sally] taking the images did nothing to us…What people put on them and what people wanted them to be or thought they were…that’s what hurt us”

“…The people who were trying to save us were the ones who were hurting us.”

“…I wanted to yell ‘No, I’m fine – YOU’RE hurting me!’” (ibid)

As the children got older they “outgrew their skins” and Mann said she ran out of ideas, and so returned to landscape photography. Were the children relived not to be in focus of a camera? Apparently not; Virginia said

“I felt kind of dejected….I was very upset. I didn’t like it at all.” (ibid).

In conclusion, I believe there can be no such thing as a truly utopian childhood, as ideals change with time, and utopia is something we will always strive towards. If Mann had made these images at the end of the 1960’s or early 1970’s I suspect the reaction would have been far less judgemental. But Mann’s work broke away from the traditional portraits of children and the 1980/90’s construction of childhood. While mainstream photographers were removing children from their environment and objectifying them for parental gratification (as had painters for 100’s of years), Mann’s photographs were an attempt to illustrate the nature and depth of children; and for this she became vilified by large sections of society. It was these attacks that caused the children distress, not the taking or showing of the photographs.

Although a utopian childhood may not actually exist, I think Mann’s children had a good childhood, and she shows this in her lovingly created portraits and tableaus. Mann stated that she wanted to recreate her own happy childhood, and there has never been any question that her children spent summers playing and swimming, surrounded by family and friends, at their summer home. I think the ‘knowing looks’ Mann captured show confidence, sadly lacking in so many children that adult’s can’t recognise it, and misinterpret (sexualise) the expression. The role-play was part of a family collaboration that gave the children a voice and a safe, caring environment to play and experiment.

The fact that the children expressed regret when the project was over confirms that they enjoyed being part of it. Jessie, the most enthusiastic model, continued modelling for other artists as she grew older. She later studied art and became a painter, but has also participated in a 5-year photographic project with Prince. ‘Sensible’ Virginia became a lawyer, like her father; and quiet, enigmatic Emmett joined the Peace Corps.

I think that the Mann children are lucky to have an authentic record of a normal, happy childhood, and of shared memories creating these images; and that the parents have something much more honest that the ‘Venture’ style ‘hi-key, white backdrop, smile at the camera’ portraits. Mann’s photographs have captured a real childhood – not recorded society’s current idea of it.

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“Each of those photographs was her way of capturing, somehow – if not in a hug or a kiss or a comment – how much she cared about us. Each one of those photographs is an affirmation of love.”

Jessie (2009)

My family

 

From left to right:
Back: Rhowan (14); Milly (20); Daniel (27); Finley (10); Amirah (22); Harmony (13).
Front: Tabby (9); Tiggi (6); Me; Dave.

As time passes, its increasingly rare to get all my children together. Its even rarer to manage to get a good family photo.
This summer was a little bit special – I celebrated my 50th birthday AND graduated, with first class hons, in Photography.  So, as everyone was together and dressed up, my good friend Sheila at Dove Photography took a set of family photos for me.
Most people will recognise these guys, after watching them grow up on chromasia.com. 🙂

 

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Nan Goldin

In this wonderful haunting and brutally honest autobiographical documentary, Nan Golding talks about her life from her school years in 1960’s Boston, through to the 1990’s.

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Now, a very influential photographer, it took a long time for Nan to be recognised as an artist. This was partially due to the snapshot style of her images, and partially to the taboo subject matter. Nan says she  knew life on TV wasn’t real ife, and she sought to record every detail of her daily life through her camera.

The still images, gradually changing from Black and white Kodak prints through to glossy colour prints, move across the screen, adding to the feeling of time passing.

In 1971 Nan was living amongst the gay community in Boston, USA. The focus of her camera were the drag queens she lived with, who Nan said were “the most beautiful people I’ve ever met in my life”. She describes her work as a homage, and candidly describes getting her films developed at the local drug store, and the queens putting the photos into piles to see who has been photographed most. As she shows us these beautiful, laughing people, she tells the hidden stories of how they couldn’t go out in the day time and their isolation from the homophobic American mainstream society.

Nan’s photographers of her best friend and sometimes partner, Cookie, portrays a bright, vibrant party girl.  Nan talks of Thanksgiving dinner at Cookie’s house – with Heroin and Turkey dinner, and parties where everyone took coke – but no-one was an addict. The early images are nostalgic, and have a recognisably 1970’s warm colour cast.

The images move on and Nan shares photos of Cookie’s wedding. The bride looked radiant,  the groom was a dashing Italian, and the photos look like happy family snapshots. However, as always in Nan’s life, nothing is what it first seems, and the very next set of photos are of the young groom lying in his coffin, with his still beautiful, but dying widow grieving beside him. And the story of Cookie fades away.

Suddenly we are in the mid 1980’s. Gone is the warm seventies orange tint, gone are the laughing people, and the talk of ‘family’ dinners and parties. The images are bluer, colder; the subjects are squalid rooms and self portraits and the theme is drug abuse. With stark honesty Nan talks about her time in rehab and how she used self portraits to find out who she was. Talking in a near monotone, she drop in facts that would be inconceivable to many people, but are easily missed – like she hadn’t gone out in the daytime for 15 years!

After leaving rehab the style of her images again changes. They are brighter and become about light and people. Portraits dramatically lit by natural light, a couple kissing in the park. Nan moves back to people again, and revisits her journey exploring sexual identity and external behaviours. She shows intimate portraits of her girlfriend, with the girl gazing straight at the camera, at Nan. These move on to warmly lit series of her and her boyfriend of 2 years at various point of having sex, and she uses the photographs to examine at the distance between them afterwards. The mention of her leaving him when he battered her is almost a throw away comment.

Towards the end of this documentary, Nan returns to beautiful drag queens in differing stages of dress. She talks about the transformation of self, and the courage to manifest that, and continues to explore this theme.

The final set of images are of the stunningly beautiful Kim Harlow, a performer in Paris, and a post-op transexual, taken in the theatre dressing room. Nan shares her shock and sadness when she found out,  just 2 months after the photos were taken, that Kim had died of AIDS.

Nan says that her work is often misunderstood as being about sex and drugs; but its not. As she says

“Its about the condition of being human; the pain; the ability to survive; and how difficult it is.”

Two Old Birds With Cameras: “Inside Out”.

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Above a small coffee shop is one of Blackpool’s newest, and most informal, exhibition spaces. The relaxed, welcoming environment is perfect for this exhibition featuring portraits from Blackpool’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community. “Inside Out” by Dawn Mander and Jill Reidy, explores attitudes effecting the community, and forms part of the celebrations of LGBT month.untitled-2

The exhibition comprises of thirteen, 16”x20” colour prints, framed with cream mattes and narrow, plain dark wood frames. All the prints are in landscape format and are complimented by a lower ‘border’ comprising of fifty-eight 6”x4” colour prints.

All the photographs were taken on Blackpool Seafront on bright sunny days. The styles vary – but all come within the ‘Street photography” genre. It’s interesting to note that the images can’t be visually assigned to each photographer and, as they are unsigned, the photographers have symbolically handed authorship to the subjects and their own words.

These informal portraits have a ‘feel good’ air to them. They feature single people, couples and a family. They are sitting, talking, laughing, cuddling, and dancing. Nine of the images show faces whilst the remaining five images are close crops.

The punctum is not merely within the actual photographs, but is in each hung frame, as each also contains a quote by the subject, written on the mat in marker pen. Some quotes are about how they feel – and others about how they think mainstream society views them; some are bold uplifting statements, others are desperately sad.untitled-4untitled-3 (1)

One features a leaping person, head cropped out of the image, wearing bright pink jeans, red socks and sandals with the caption
“I can flawlessly recreate Beyoncé choreography…Can they? Exactly…”
The crop is intentional; the gender is ambiguous – because it doesn’t matter! “Its not what defines us. Labels are for clothes, not people.” is boldly scrawled under a sunlit portrait of two women. “We are a rainbow family” is under an image of three stacked hands – two adult and one baby. On one of the wrists a rainbow friendship bracelet links the written sign to the visual sign.

Mirroring linguistic (written) and visual signs continues in the smaller prints. This “No Access” sign can be interpreted as how the LGBT community can feel excluded or unwanted from mainstream events or venues.

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The exhibition also addresses the issues of isolation and rejection. One image is of two young girls, laughing as one applies make up in a mirror held by her friend. It’s a casual, happy image …until you read the quote. “Mum kicked me out. When I went back, on my bed was a towel, plate and cutlery. She thought it was catching.” Then the image takes on another level of meaning – the make up painting over her pain, the reflected smile is her ‘public face’, and the friend holding the mirror is her support, taking the place of her estranged mother.

Some are recognizably Blackpool reminding us it’s a community project. A close up of two hands holding a red rose, with Blackpool Tower, out of focus, in the background has a traditional romantic air. It symbolises the love of two people; gender undefined, the composition again reminding us what is important. A portrait of a lone girl on the cold and empty beachside promenade steps emphasizes the isolation the community sometimes feels. “Its hard. When I’m being chatted up by a guy at what point do I tell him about myself?”

The casual and, sometimes playful, selection of images combined with the bright weather and the homely and friendly exhibition environment strive to give the feeling of a happy, relaxed community. The curation of images to include single people, couples and families of all ages acts to dispel the “otherness” inflicted on these people by sections of mainstream society and media.

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This is an exhibition about contemporary Blackpool life that’s not to be missed.

Joan Fontcuberta: Stranger than Fiction.

The National Media Museum, Bradford.

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After the stark modernity of the National Media  Museum, entering the exhibition is rather like entering an early 20th century natural history Museum.

joan-f-1The staid green and cream walls display a collection of traditionally framed and mounted 19 century photographs, field notes, x-rays and sketches. The traditional glass display cases present the German handwritten and stained diaries of the intrepid Victorian explorer and anthropologist, Professor Ameisenhaufen, along with various dated scientific apparatus. Around the room are details of his education, work and mysterious death.museum. The staid green and cream walls display a collection of traditionally framed and mounted 19th century photographs, field notes, x-rays and sketches. The traditional glass display cases present the German handwritten and stained diaries of the intrepid Victorian explorer and anthropologist, Professor Ameisenhaufen, along with various dated scientific apparatus. Around the room are details of his education, work and mysterious death.

joan-3More visually arresting is the typical Victorian collection of stuffed animals…until you look again, and realise these are the creatures of myths…or nightmares. A heraldic winged deer; a mythic Centaur.

Trying to make sense of the nonsensical, you find yourself returning to the notes on the wall, re-reading translations of the original notes, pondering the Latin classifications, and noticing more oddities, such as the rare humming bird’s teeth.

The juxtaposition of the traditional museum environment and presentation and the fantastical creatures, which have been photographed, cataloged, caught and displayed, lead us to challenge our knowledge of the world around us. In our cultural framework museums are purveyors of science and truth, and Centaurs are myths. What do we believe? What is real?

Televisions placed around the room play looped tapes of interviews with authority figures; the director of Barcelona Zoo, a scientist from a university in Mexico, all of whom add to the omnipotent scientific evidence for the existence of these liminal beings.

The next pale green room has a collection of still life studies of plants, traditionally framed and mounted, and neatly labeled by classification. Again, these are ‘new’ species.

joan-7Through the next door we are confronted with bright white walls and huge, ‘C’ type prints. In both back and white and vibrant colour, Fontcuberta shows us landscapes never seen before – because, despite being ‘photographed’, these places have never existed.

After a brief walk though the dark ‘constellations’ collection, displaying previously unknown solar systems, we arrive at the ‘Sirens’. A plaster case of a Mermaids skeleton is displayed in a case in the center of the room, and the walls are covered with A2 colour photos printed on aluminum and acetate, depicting the scientific discovery of these creatures in France. Notes and quotes from paleontologists add further authority. Do we WANT to believe in mermaids? You bet! And that is what helps Fontcuberta in his treachery of the truth of science.

joan-5In the final section ‘Karelia, Miracles & Co’, the penny drops and our doubts are reluctantly realized. The walls, painted a rich, religious purple, portray the miracles preformed by monks at the Valhalmonde Monastery in Karelia. Black and white photographs are traditionally framed, mounted and hung in groups, with titles and explanatory texts along side. The photographs of monks surfing on dolphins, teaching meerkats to read a holy book, and channeling lightening are amusing, but it’s in the accompanying texts that Fontcuberta shows his wit and humor.

In this multi media exhibition jointly curated by the artist, Fontcuberta uses photography, text, film, photograms and life size models to challenge what we think we know of our world. Born under Franco’s regime, Fontcuberta is skeptical of truths told by authorities.

He uses his art to make important points about validity of authority and uses museums, our Temples to Scientific Endeavors, to further challenge our conceptual framework.

The complicated stories he expertly weaves draw us in and, maybe, for a minute, we can believe in a world beyond the one we see around us.

McCoy Wynn: Exhibition Review

Coordinates’

New Topographics: New Dimensions in Landscape

Upon first glance this exhibition appears to be two unrelated exhibitions. One side of the hall features mainly panoramic rural landscapes, not all are framed; whilst the opposite side displays vibrant night cityscapes, hung using traditional mounts and frames. However, the two sides of the exhibition represent the two sides of the successful “McCoy Wynn partnership”, and link the projects “triangulation” and Gulls” into the theme “Coordinates”.

McCoy and Wynn state that they are heavily influence by the American New Topographic movement, started in 1970’s America by Bernd and Hilla Becher, Stephen Shore and Robert Adams and others. This influence continues too be seen in the work of many contemporary photographers, particularly Becher’s students like Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Candida Höfer, who, collectively, became known as the “Dusseldorf School of Photography”.

MW2The panoramic rural landscapes are part of an on-going project to photograph all of the 314 British triangulation points. The 360 degree panoramas are produced by placing the digital camera and tripod on top of the trig point. Due largely to the British weather, the overall appearance is drab and flat. In the true style of the New Topographic photographers, there is no attempt to romanticise the scene; there are no shafts of dramatic light, or awe-inspiring skies, as in traditional landscape photography. The style is purely documentary – recording a 360 degree view of the vista from each triangulation point, and accompanied by an image of the point itself. The legend on each image is simply its OS reference.

The final two panoramas, unframed and pinned to the wall, underline the documentary ‘working’ style, and give a nod to the original surveyors who, with instruments and rolls of paper, charted and measured these sites over a century ago.

MW3On the opposite side of the gallery the “Gulls” project is displayed. These are traditionally sized and framed, digitally enhanced nightscapes of Liverpool. Using no additional lighting, a slow shutter speed was used to record the flight paths of gulls as they fly above manmade landmarks. The light from buildings and streetlights enhances the architecture and provides a dramatic foreground to the dark skies above, and the colourful, digitally enhanced flight paths.

Both “Triangulation” and “Gulls” are linked by navigation. The triangulation points were part of the great Victorian endeavour to measure and accurately record the world around them – producing scientific maps of our land. The gulls have adapted to a world of manmade ‘cliffs’, and navigate by the stars above. In the centre of one image, is the North Star – the most important navigation point to man. In another image is the Liver Building, with its birds welcoming travellers safely home.

As navigation moves to the sky, and satellite mapping surpasses paper records and plans, the stone triangulation points are no more than totemic. They have become monuments to the heroic navigators, and surveyors of the past. One of my favourite images from the exhibition was of one of these vital points now being part of a garden wall, and the 360 degree image capturing a little slice of suburban life., and being visible from no further away than a garden shed.

McCoy and Wynn have captured the changes in human navigation, and their work will form an important archive of on-going technological change and man’s impact on his environment.