I will be teaching a new course Appearances at Tate Modern on Monday evenings in June 2008. Further details of this are on my weblog Art and Allusion. This will coincide with Tate Modern's new photography exhibition Street and Studio. Booking will open on the Tate Modern website from early May.
It's always interesting to get a sense of what philosophers look like. Steve Pyke's photographic portraits of philosophers appeared in book form as Philosophers in 1993 (I reviewed it for a magazine called Cogito). Since then his photographs have been the staple of philosophy book covers and publisher's catalogues, almost to the point of cliché. The distortions produced by placing his lens close to his sitter's face are now in some cases more familiar than the philosophers' less stylised images. If you haven't yet seen them, Philosophers 1 (which selects 36 images) is the place to start, though some of these border on mild caricature... The short quotations from each philosopher - included on his website - are interesting too. A more recent gentler series, Philosophers 11 (another 25 images) also exists. There is still at least one obvious omission though...
The text of an article I wrote about Bill Brandt's wartime commissions for the National Buildings Record is now available on the Bill Brandt Archive website. This was originally published in History of Photography in 1993 as 'Bill Brandt's Cathedral Interiors' where it appears with the illustrations. Brandt's task was to document buildings and monuments within them that were likely to be targets for Nazi 'Baedeker' raids. Some of the images bear close similarities to his better known photographs of statues.
Stuart: I’d heard about the student protests in Tiananmen Square and my understanding of Chinese history was that any uprising against the government was an extremely serious matter. It is as close as you can get to sacrilege in Chinese culture. We expected something to happen. At Magnum in New York we had a charismatic editorial director Bob Dannin who wanted to send one of our photographers there. I told him I wanted to go, so he used Magnum’s editorial fund to send me to cover the story.
Nigel: And when you got there…
Stuart: The protest was in full flight. What had begun as student protests at the memorial service for the reforming General Secretary, Hu Yaobang, had already metamorphosed into a pro-democracy rally and the numbers present were growing. Students had occupied the whole square; some were on hunger strike. The Marseillaise was being broadcast from the Monument to the People’s Revolution.
Nigel: And were the soldiers there at that point?
Stuart: There were soldiers around the edges of the square. Truckloads of them. Martial law had been declared on 20th May. At the beginning the atmosphere wasn’t tense: it was more like a rock festival with the tents pitched on the square, music playing, young people milling around. I talked a lot with the students, went to the university to look at their printing presses. I tried to get involved with every aspect of the story. After I was there a few days Time Magazine put me on assignment and I had my own bicycle that I kept in the Time Magazine office. It’s probably still there.
Nigel: How long were you in Bejing before the troops moved in?
Stuart: I was there for about six days before the night of June 3rd when the army moved in and the shooting started. We knew something was coming. There was a build up of troops, an increasing atmosphere of tension. Loudspeakers were blaring out messages ordering everyone to disperse. Some did leave then, particularly after there was a bad storm. Many didn’t return after that.
Nigel: Then what happened?
Stuart: It didn’t get dark until about 9 p.m. I remember I was taking pictures in the square at around 10 pm, after dark. Some intermittent shooting began at the edge of the square – apparently at random. I saw someone go down. Then there was complete chaos. Everyone tried to run. It was difficult to tell where the shots were coming from or where to go in the pitch black darkness. The Chinese Army had been ordered to re-take the square at any cost. I managed to photograph students burning an armoured personel carrier…
Nigel: How did you get away?
Stuart: I found my way back to the Hotel Bejing were I was staying close to the square. We didn’t know at the time, but most of the killing was going on in the Western suburbs before the troops got to the square. As many as 2,600 people were killed in those few days.
Nigel: Were you scared?
Stuart: Yes, of course. This wasn’t the first time I’d been shot at in Beijing. A couple of days before I was just leaving a hotel restaurant with some journalists when bullets started ricocheting off the tarmac. We managed to duck down behind the cars and get back into the hotel. On the night of the 3rd June, the photojournalist, Charlie Cole, came to the hotel and shared my room because he couldn’t get back to his hotel. We snatched a few hours of sleep. In the morning the security services raided the hotel and tried to take away our equipment and film. We’d been tipped off about this, and I’d managed to hide most of my film in my luggage and around the room before they arrived. I gave them a few rolls and they left.
Nigel: Then what happened?
Stuart: The Beijing Hotel obliquely overlooks Tiananmen Square. There were several photojournalists there. We were fortunate that we’d stayed so close to the action: some of the other journalists had moved to a hotel two miles from the square a few days earlier because they could get better food there. That morning we got onto the balcony and could see a line of students facing up to the tanks in the distance. We were a long way away. We desperately wanted to go to the hospitals to find out about the killed and injured to get some sense of the scale of what was happening. But we were confined to the hotel. My memory is that the troops started firing at the line of students to break through, but we were so far away that it was hard to tell exactly what was going on. You can see the photographs I took of this in the book Magnum Stories. Eventually the troops broke the line and the students moved aside.
A line of tanks continued up Chang An Avenue nearer to us. I saw this student emerge and stand in front of a tank. The tank stopped. He climbed up on the tank and talked to the driver in the turret. Then he stood in front of the tank again until three civilians dragged him away, and the tanks carried on.
Nigel: Did you realise you'd taken such an important photograph?
Stuart: No, it seemed quite a weak picture compared to images of confrontations with tanks during the Prague Spring. It was television coverage of the event that gave significance to that particular photograph.
Nigel: How did you get the photograph out of China?
Stuart: I hid my films in a box of tea and managed to get a French student to carry them to Paris.
Nigel: Why is it more memorable than the news footage of the same event?
Stuart: Still images always are. There is time to reflect...
‘What I am trying to do is create a series of landscape images – powerful in their own right – that communicate our vulnerability to climate change, yet maintain a level of ambiguity.’ Stuart Franklin
This landscape series is more poetic, more abstract and more overtly linked to an artistic photographic tradition than any of Stuart Franklin’s work to date. Here he is documenting some of the ways in which climate and technological change are transforming Europe, with an eye for formal power, textures, and the occasional surreality of juxtaposition. [...] Traditional landscape artists have tended to record stable beauty. Change, where it occurred was seasonal and cyclical. Contemporary landscape photographers such as Misrach, Adams, and Franklin, in contrast, are documenting transitions, infiltrations, and transformations. No longer celebrating the spirit of place, such photographers recognise the menace that can lie behind beauty, and the transience and vulnerability of environments that we might otherwise have assumed to be unchanging. In a few decades we may interpret Franklin’s Changing Landscapes very differently.
Brandt wrote relatively little, but what he did write was eloquent and memorable. For instance, in 1948 he described his approach to photography: 'I found atmosphere to be the spell that charged the commonplace with beauty'...explaining this further:
'When I have seen or sensed - I do not know which it is - the atmosphere of my subject, I try to convey that atmosphere by intensifying the elements that compose it. I lay emphasis on one aspect of my subject and I find that I can thus most effectively arrest the spectator's attention and induce in him an emotional response to the atmosphere I have tried to convey.' [from 'A Photographer's London' introduction to Bill Brandt Camera in London, Focal Press, 1948].
A list of books by and about the photographer Bill Brandt is available here [rtf 24KB]: Download bks_by_and_about_bb.rtf More to follow. I'm planning to annotate this list in the future, supplement it with a list of key magazine and journal articles about the photographer, and also to provide lists of Picture Post and Lilliput stories by him. Let me know if there is a demand for this.
While making the radio programme 'Rembrandt Today' (to be broadcast on Radio 4 11.30 a.m. 26th October) I came across the idea that most painted self-portraits don't accurately reflect left-right sides of the face because made using mirrors. What we usually see in a self-portrait by Rembrandt relates to what he saw in the mirror rather than how others would have seen him in this respect. In at least one case, the Kenwood House self-portrait with two circles, he corrected the left/right hand switch that painting from a mirror gave him - i.e. he put the palette in his left hand to avoid him looking like a lefthanded artist (something revealed by x-rays of the underpainting which showed him holding a brush in his left hand originally).
Now, self-portrait photography doesnt usually involve this left/right switch unless the printer accidentally flips the negative...not so likely in this digital age. Why would this matter at all, since nothing is added or taken away by a left/right switch. You might think it could have something to do with reading images of faces from left to right. John Walters, who makes non-reversing mirrors he calls True Mirrors, has another theory: he thinks that laterality matters in facial interpretation because of the hemisphere specialism of the brain. If a feature appears on the left side of someone's face we interpret it slightly differently from if it occurs on the right. Certainly if you look at a few portraits in mirrors the character of the sitter seems to change. If Walters is right, this suggests a further difference between photographic and most painted self-portraits: the photographic ones are truer to laterality, and this might result in a specific kind of realism beyond the usual ones trotted out when describing photographic realism - this one particular to facial reading...Just a thought.