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Category Archives: Books
McCullin the man is a real, live, photographic legend, best known for portraits of war. McCullin the film is a documentary that presents the man and his work and so doing attempts to throw some light on the shaping of a photographer whose images can credibly claim to have altered the thinking of a generation. Don McCullin brought the stories of the real victims of war onto the front pages in graphic and unflinching detail.
By its very nature, this is a disturbing film. McCullin has survived in more war zones than could possibly be considered healthy and the pictures he brought back graphically expose the madness, the savagery and the undiluted greed of the exponents. There are a number of very disturbing themes running through this film – not least the one that suggests we’re never that far away from a war, there’s always one just around the corner. We’d like to think that’s no longer true, but Iraq and Afghanistan suggest powerfully that nothing has changed.
McCullin the man comes across as articulate, erudite, modest and thoughtful. A man of profound integrity who his editor, Harold Evans memorably describes as “a conscience with a camera”. What separates him from other war photographers appears to be a combination of two things – a mastery of composition and anticipation verging on genius and a level of empathy that was never truly crushed by his experiences. That in itself is remarkable when you consider he shared those experiences with men whose psyches were damaged permanently by those same visions.
The film covers the early years and the viewer gets a real glimpse of a man for whom doors opened in a sequence that propelled him into some of the most horrific and hellish experiences the human race has to offer. Where others took their shots and fled, McCullin exploited the opportunities and became by his own admission something of a “War Junkie”. Extracts from the Parkinson show in the seventies, are fascinating, displaying a man grappling with his reality, with reconciling those things he has seen and done with celebrity and normal life.
It does not surprise me that in his later years, McCullin has devoted himself to landscape photography, documenting his Somerset home in his book “Open Skies”. That they are Monochromes possessed of a brooding sense of impermanence seems inevitable. He talks of fearing that England is dying every time he hears the buzz of a developer’s saw or the crack of a sportsman’s gun. It seems as though he has come full circle, seen the horror of man at war and made the connection with the havoc we wreak in our own backyard.
I left the cinema feeling very humble. Not just because my own photography seems so trivial in comparison, but because here is a man who perhaps more than anyone else on the planet is the living embodiment of the Rutger Hauer monologue from Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe…”
Paul Strand was an American photographer and film maker whose work I was only vaguely familiar with, as one of a number of modernist photographers who helped establish the form in the United States during the mid 20th Century. That was before I discovered this book and the fascinating story behind it.
Strand was a Marxist connected to, though apparently never a member of, the Communist Party and through his work with a company called Frontier Films fell foul of the McCarthy regime and found himself branded as “un-american” and “subversive”. Never a man to shirk a fight, his response was to insist on having his work printed in Eastern Germany on the pretext that the print process could only be found in the Eastern Bloc.
He arrived in Scotland, with the FBI in close attendance, at the same time as the American military began surveying the island of South Uist in the Hebrides to see if it were suitable to host a long range missile site. That the project should yield one of the definitive documents of the Hebridean way of life and perhaps the definitive work of Scottish photography is extraordinary under the circumstances.
Written in collaboration with Basil Davidson, the book contains a set of monochrome photographs that span portraiture, landscape and documentary in the main, supplemented with textures of stone and sky, thatched roofs and reeds. As an impression of that bleak landscape, I’ve never seen better, indeed never seen anything even approaching this standard.
Although the book is a political project it is not overtly political. It tells a story, the story of the islanders, of their values and relationship with the land and the sea, with work and the weather. In so doing, Strand asserts that the islanders are and continue to be a viable community, not to be ruthlessly ignored and exploited for political gain.
I love this book, both for the writing and the photography. It is an extraordinary achievement for an outsider to capture so accurately the soul of a community, but capture it he did. He tells the story of these islands in the hope that they might be left alone. In fact, the book was immediately banned in the USA and the rocket ranges are still there, under the management of corporations supplying the defence industry.
In somewhat prescient fashion, the book ends with the following quote: “A comic mythology sometimes found elsewhere has liked to paint the Hebrideans as pawky spongers on the governmental purse, preferring charity to fending for themselves…” Sound familiar?
The question of David Bailey’s relevance in 2012 is one that to my mind ranks alongside the improbability of one hand clapping or of fish needing bicycles. Yes, he was the man responsible for creating the iconic imagery of the “swinging sixties”, No, that doesn’t prevent him from having an opinion about India in 2012 nor should it be allowed to undermine the validity of his views. That the opinion is expressed over the course of two books of photographs shot in 2009 with virtually no commentary is a statement in itself. I thought I’d better take a look before I set off for Delhi next week.
If travel photography is supposed to offer insight into a destination, articulating the photographer’s feelings about the place he finds himself in then this collection, running to hundreds of photographs is of great interest. Much of the content is documentary style footage and concentrates on the India that is being squeezed out by the forces of globalisation. There are no shopping malls here, no attempt to compare and contrast. This is strongly reminiscent of another time, another India, where things are done differently. So strong is the pull that I was taken back to my own past, rain slicked cobbles in Northern towns guttered with rainbows of diesel. Posters of Billy Walker and Brylcreem….I digress.
The India found here is an India that may well disappear entirely. an India of rococo cinemas and back street barbershops. This is not a sentimental collection, this is no Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it is in places grittily realistic, as far away from Julie Christie and Terence Stamp on Waterloo Bridge as its possible to be. I’ve loved this book and could spend hours looking at these pictures. and if it’s a world away from Vogue then more power to Mr Bailey. Apparently there will be more books in this series, I look forward to them.
I picked this book up several months ago at Charleston, home of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell and refuge for many of the Bloomsbury Set of artists and intellectuals. Annie Leibovitz had given a talk there. I had been out of the country at the time, but Charleston is a favourite place of mine, to visit for some quiet contemplation. The garden in particular possesses a stillness that seems to tap directly into the spirit of the long absent residents.
Pilgrimage, published by Jonathan Cape in the UK, is a very personal work put together by photographer Annie Leibovitz after some fairly random visits connected only by their significance in her life had led her to shape a project around the pictures she recorded. It is an extraordinary document of lives and legacies. She tries to recreate one of Ansel Adams famous landscapes, visits the home of Emily Dickinson and the book almost falls together in a way that is completely original and very natural.
The photographs are many and varied, it’s a wonderful book to dip into and a fascinating insight into the creative mind of a truly fantastic photographer as well as a memento of lives long completed.
Street Photography is a style of photography that celebrates the small wonders of everyday life. In the last couple of years it has become something of a fashion statement and some very wonderful photography has resulted. Indeed it has become so popular that it supports several festivals worldwide, the most notable local example being the London Festival of Photography, running throughout June in Kings Cross, Bloomsbury, Euston & Fitzrovia
This book is a record of the photography of Vivian Maier, an extraordinary woman who left an archive of magnificent black and white observational photography shot between 1950 and 1990 in boxes, unseen by anyone and only discovered after her death when editor John Maloof discovered a box of her negatives in an auction house in Chicago. The story goes that having recognised the value of his find, he hunted down other examples of her work and pieced together this book, a record of her life and her photography.
The quality of the pictures is remarkable considering she worked alone, without peers and showed her work to nobody. As a record of post war western culture it is superb, as a volume of street photography it is practically peerless. Surely a one off, never to be repeated in today’s hyper sharing, socially mediated world of digital delights. A wonderful book, highly recommended, its published by powerHouse Books and can be found on amazon for a very reasonable £31.
Robert Mapplethorpe The Complete Flowers was published by teNeues in 2006 in hardcover and features 53 colour and 227 duotone photographs ranging from his earliest work right up until shortly before his death in 1989.
His portraits of flowers are possessed of many of the same qualities as his erotic work, managing to suggest and emphasise a sexuality that some would argue is inherent in flowers in any case. Whether you agree with that or not, this book is breathtakingly beautiful. Mapplethorpe brought a fine art sensibility to photography and it is very evident in these pictures.
Quite honestly, as a birthday present this book is fabulous. As a body of work, this sets the standard.