Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Identify yourself

At the beginning of July I had the chance to help out Simon Upton, one of the UK's most prominent interior photographers, during his trip to Moscow. As I have come to learn technical excellence for a photographer of Simon's profile is a given, but there is always something else that makes a good photographer. Among several topics we talked about as we went about our business was that of identity. Simon's congeniality and humour definitely stand out as part of his identity.

As well as being great company Simon knows his interiors. We came across a print by Piranesi, and he outlined how his etchings of Roman antiquity came to define an image of the city. He helped to create its identity. Piranesi produced other more overtly fictional work (later incorporated in Surrealist theory), that was mostly figments of his imagination, and this is where the world started to become smaller for me.

Simon and I had also discussed how interior photography provided a documentary aspect of how people live now, their likes and dislikes, and it is the job of the photographer to make decision regarding this. A fair amount of gardening goes on during an interior shoot, little bits of this and that are moved around as much as to provide a better composition as to trim down unwanted bits of design that may not fit into the editorial desires of the client. In some ways the photographer becomes an arbiter of taste of the times, which he is in a position to do since he is not attached to that which he photographs. Contrast a property owner who may include very personal artifacts as part of their surroundings, things which may compromise design. So in reality we are documenting the style of the times albeit by exclusion as much as inclusion. Very much like Piranesi and his romantic roman ruins, which probably looked like nothing of the sort, but became the de facto representation for Rome around that time.

That photographers rearrange reality has always been a contentious issue at the heart of photography. Errol Morris has conducted research into whether the cannon balls were moved in Roger Fenton's "valley of the shadow of death", one of photojournalism earliest masterpieces. Here is an article by the same author on what Walker Evans was up to during his work for the FSA, a politically charged project back in the 1930's.

The effects are far reaching. This particular shoot with Simon was in an apartment block known as "the Ruins", see above. I wondered if the architect would have built the faux columns in the courtyard without the Piranesi body of work. And so we come back to identity.

Moscow at the moment is a wonderland of fixed ideas poorly corresponding to reality. A forced exile from foreign influence in any form ended after the fall of communism, and now much kudos is brought by an object appearing foreign, and so somehow better. This manifests itself in a kaleidoscope of misfitting appropriations of ideas of other realities. By refusing traditional Russian values, there has emerged a new tradition of brash regurgitation, a hyper reality. The replications of other cultures form an identity of itself, and again communicates much through what is not there. All very postmodern.

The pictures posted here are the start of something I've been thinking about based on the idea of simulacrum. That Russia has been always very receptive to foreign influence goes way back, Peter the great building a European city as his capital, Italians building St. Basils. Its a special time now in the Russian capital, there is some cash around and information is cheap, and hence any and everybody can put up, or dress up in representations of what they think something looks like. It needs to be documented, if only as material for future reproduction.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

the dying of the light



Back around the summer solstice I had another trip to Petersburg for a number of projects for Russian AD. Initially elated at a chance to see the white nights I was to be disappointed. A spectacular sunset at 23.40 as we entered the station heralded only rain until the evening we left.
On that evening I had arranged to meet a long term Russian fellow traveler, Jon. We shared a flat in 1998, the one which sometimes had a horse sheltering in its entrance. Jon is now a doctor of Russian literature, and had been in the 'burg for a number of years, initially on a Fulbright grant with his artist wife Emily also a Fulbrighter. Her work can be found here.

We were to watch the football, but this became a nonsense as England sheepishly folded to Germany, the Octopus watching smugly unblinking. Another bummer, but probably always on the cards.

So we walked back to the station, a little more time on our hands than expected. The Sun had appeared and now it was its time to set. We were looking for a building I had seen to make a picture, but when we arrived the idea didn't work, oh dear. We looked at hidden Soviet ornaments, found an unexpected police station in the courtyards, Jon continued to relate stranger examples of Russian theory. Architectural genius Melnikov was a follower of Fydorovian ideas of immortality. One which I will remember is the view that smaller mammals, such as squirrels, are escaped human organs and need to be somehow recombined into humanity. Jon himself has developed a nice theory about robots.

So the curtain closes on that period of life, Jon and Emily will move to Pittsburgh shortly, Jon has an academic post. To continue my recent Eastern logic - through this series of unplanned events I realised I had photographed their respective semi favorite buildings in the city. Good had come from my unforeseen frustrations of light and football. I hope that the pictures will stand as good memories for both John and Emily, and the last light on the buildings gives a temporal indication to me of the place in time. It could be a new dawn.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

like clockwork


This little clip I made in the winter during a catalogue shoot I was helping out on with my shooting partner Tom. If you ever wanted to see the speed of shooting on these sorts of things, to help you judge - this is about 30 minutes compressed to just over 1. My apologies to Mr Kubrick for ripping off this scene so wholesale from Clockwork Orange.

As a youth Clockwork Orange was required reading, I fell under the spell when i was 16 and had no idea how long this odd book then film would stay with me. When I arrived in Moscow in 1997 as little more than a punklet I was astonished to hear the words spoken that I thought only existed in the book, and I'm sure my fascination with the Russian aesthetic was shaped by the Kubrick film. A couple of years ago I chatted with a Russian architect who helped design Milton Keynes, the location of Kubrick's version of Burgess's dystopia.

Its also fun to experiment with some more time related media. Although not quite timelapse, the idea is the same. BTW check out some interesting timelapse stuff here, which is done with tilt/shift to get the scurrying, microscopic type feel. Not a big fan of T/S, but here I like it.

Kubrick spent time as a still photographer, as did David Lean, which was motivation enough for me to take up a camera. So herewith a film, done on my trusty and buggered GRD2, starri droog that it is.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Interior Photographer's secret dread of the concierge

Up there with the loneliness of the long distance runner and the the goalkeepers fear of the penalty, there is a specialised and peculiar psychological trait associated with my profession. The gatekeepers of the properties we seek to photograph are often the last in the loop of events, and when a bunch of creative types and their baggage train of equipment turn up and demand access to that which they are paid to protect, they can understandably sometimes stand firm and deny.

Which can lead to gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair as the beautiful morning light slips away (never to be seen again?), and gets the whole operation off on the wrong foot while the administrative details are sorted out. So not without reason a photographer treads over the threshold with some trepidation. Once this fear is there, it will never go away, unless...

I spent last week assisting french based British photographer Richard Powers, which was an education. As author of several books and a directory like list of magazines to which he contributes one can safely assume he knows about the photography. I wondered while working together if it's the technical excellence alone that makes him in such high demand, and how much is the fact that he is so extremely pleasant to work with. The two complement each other, and I cant help but feel this is often overlooked by photographers trying to find their way.

Our first shoot was delayed by a couple of hours with the very issue described above - a snafu with access and a stern looking military type, arms folded, none shall pass. Richard continued to smile, and after a while and a coffee it was all sorted out, and that was fine. Like he says, getting angry only shortens your life. I would add life is short enough as it is without wasting time being wound up.

I was shooting yesterday and came in to the apartment block entrance to be confronted by the little box with little windows that indicates there may be trouble ahead. As it was the concierge delivered silently the withering stare that turns criminal elements to stone, but leaves unaffected those pure of heart (although recent research suggests prolonged exposure may lead to fruit allergies and existential listlessness). Luckily, yesterday we were pure of heart.

As the first shot was being set up in the apartment, I went back to try and secretly document this scenario, and managed to get one frame off before getting busted. Turns out she was a very nice lady, and was more concerned she might not look so good in the photograph. So like all these things, that which we fear is more ourselves, and our irrational fear of being denied, unfairly, and how we react to these obstacles. "Fear is the mind killer" as Frank Herbert had his characters say, and I much prefer Richards option of smiling through.

Friday, June 18, 2010

green green glass of home

Last week I was in Astana, the (administrative) capital of Kazakhstan. Sir Norman Foster is the man behind a new building, the Khan Shatyr, that will be shortly opened there and I went to help with the PR for this event. The building is quite something, but then so is Astana.

Originally and probably still in the hearts of most Kazakhs the capital of this country (popn 16 million, size 4 x Texas) is Almaty, but with an influx of oil dollars and some complex ethnic issues, it was decided to relocate the main city to a more central location. Pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

So they started building about 10 years ago, from a small town in the present location, and they continue building. This is the second Foster building to go up, following a glass pyramid some years back.

Its all interesting stuff, the state of public works says a lot about whats going on in a place, which is the purpose of course. Astana has all the bling of place starved of anything glamorous for a soviet length period of time, and the mix of different hues of glass reflects the multiethnic background. As well as being a historical melting pot pitched between Asia and Persia below it, it also served as Stalins dumping ground for unwanted peoples from across the Soviet Union. The stories of midnight mass deportations are as numerous as they are horrific. I once documented the remnants of an Italian diaspora living quietly (under invitation of Nicholas II during the 1850's) in the Crimean peninsular until they were dispatched to Kazakhstan during the 39-45 war. There were also Volga Germans, Kalmyk Bhuddists, Chechens, the list goes on and on.

So from this grimness it is good to see something grow. The climate is profound continental, with bitter winters, and this itself provided a problem for construction of the Khan Shatyr, as well as the inherent difficulties of what is essentially a massive tent - a canopy strung from an enormous central tripod. The location was a massive obstacle too. That didn't stop them putting a beach in the top floor.

And yes to Western taste Astana may have a little to much that jumps out into one's eyes, and maybe some of the interior decisions might seem far fetched. But they will stand as monuments to this time, and its background. Better to have started something and see where it leads, than not at all.

The soldiers pictured here seemed happy to have their pictures taken, they had just been demobilized. A little chapter in life was over and they were off back to a town somewhere out in the steppe. It all seemed fairly natural to them to be wandering around amongst the sky scrapers in the early morning being photographed by someone from another country. Tastes differ, as do approaches to what life happens to hold, for a country, or for the individual, and I've started to find it difficult to make judgments as to what is good/bad, right/wrong in this respect. I think its better to try to understand what is behind it, which is of course pretty impossible, and show it as it is. Awareness I guess. The camera never lies.

Friday, June 4, 2010

small voices

Nigel Shafran's work seems to me ideal, have a look see here. Back in the day he was amongst it in the fashion business, now he takes pictures of what he likes, produces some books and so on. While maintaining a healthy commercial presence. I first got to know about him from the cover he did of the 2007 Young Knives album "Voices of animals and men". The straw bear on the cover I had the pleasure of running into in 2008, see below.

Nigel was at HOST gallery last week where he was taking part in a discussion on "theatres of the real", which is incidentally the name of a book by photoworks. Nigel, Sarah Pickering and Tom Hunter were the artists present. The topic up for grabs was new movements/incorporating new directions in the realm of documentary/photojournalism/reportage. It got quite semantic. Nigel seemed to be a man of few words and I'm sure this serves him well.

As a former psychology student I always find it interesting to put faces to bodies of work. Half of this is the very human nosiness, kind of "whats all the noise about?" As I said Nigel was far from noisy, and when talking about his inspiration and process he himself said that often he can think of nothing more to say than, "just do it, or else it doesn't get done." His images on show were reflective of that, in particular the series on charity shops. As an interior photographer I've always felt that pictures of spaces tell their own stories and are documentary in nature and this is a good example. Nigel didn't open up on his reasons for taking these pictures, a good thing too, the quietness of composition requires work from the viewer, more rewarding than being prompted by the author's personal quest. The naturally lit shops with their filings of peoples former lives, on offer for others to use now their previous owners have finished with them. It strikes a little at the heart, slightly anthropomorphizing inanimate things, unwanted, looking for purpose.

This is also a sign of the times, maybe of times 20 years back to judge from the items on display, but also of the time now where this sort of recycling activity goes on. Contrast with the boom in second hand goods auctions(re-branded then as antiques) that followed the first world war as a class of English families resorted to selling the family silver as the rug was pulled from under the empire.

In the words of David Chandler, director at photoworks:

"Shafran has chosen to concentrate his work on what he knows best, on what he understands more then anyone else: his own life - the most personal relationships, the most familiar spaces and objects, the most ordinary, everyday situations. His work is about preserving identity and uniqueness: it quietly records what is unique to him. As he has said: 'My photographs are the ones that only I can make."

When people ask me what you need to be in order to take good photographs, I try to convince them only that you need to be you. Nigel has taken this to new level, he railed against replicating others work, the sense of inauthentic, in a rare outburst of several sentences. His conciseness of language affirms his vision. Regardless of how you want to classify it.

And thats about all I have to say about that. (Tom's work and Sarah's, esp the fire series, also v.good)

Monday, May 31, 2010

the house that Melnikov built

While in Moscow I managed get some time to take pictures in the unbelievably inspiring Melnikov House.

Rightly considered one of the most important monuments to Soviet and constructivist architecture by one the most important architects, wedged in the heart of Moscow's prime real estate, this building despite its meaning seems to have an uncertain future. I took the pictures for the use of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society (MAPS), a group of foreign journalists and Russian activists who are trying their hardest to conserve some of the historic buildings in Moscow that are being torn down in the name of progress/profit.

I cant really begin to go into the story behind the Melnikov house, best for you to look at the MAPS releases. I've been in the building a couple of times and on every occasion have the feeling of awe. The use of space contravenes the need for anything majestic. Two interlocking cylinders, with a honeycomb structure by Shukov, and the hexagonal windows, as much a product of building material rationing. A man built a home without resorting to any kind presumption to historical precedence, or needing to impose his vision on visitors - his vision was imposing enough. Actually I got the feeling that visitors didn't play a huge part in the design process, it was a simple and unique way to house and provide working space for his family. Not that Konstantin Melnikov was a simple man, and his character may have contributed the relatively short span of his working life under Stalin.

The first time I visited several years ago was to take pictures of Daniel Libeskind, visiting Moscow briefly, and who demanded to see the place. I arrived early and was greeted by Viktor Melnikov, Konstantin's son, who was elderly, frail and lucid. Viktor was still painting in the upstairs studio at the time, and it seemed that the place then would be around for ever as we chatted on the stoop of this masterpiece with no-one around. He told me about the circumstances surrounding the death of his father. It was very moving. Viktor's death precipitated the current situation.

It was great to be able to contribute something to the cause, as Churchill said - "we make a living by what we get but make a life by what we give". Not that my contribution is great, but it is all I can give. Circular buildings do present problems for interior photographers, so it was an education as well.