Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Exhibition News from Noel Myles

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of the joiner pictures of Noel Myles. I really recommend seeing his work when exhibited, because his images are generally quite large, and work well when seen large. Web pages and computer projects just don’t show the size and clarity of his work. Noel currently has a piece called Earth that is on show at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts. Made up from 288 individual 12” x 8” prints, it is, as you can see, huge, measuring 2.75 x 6.53 m. He reports having very sore thumbs after pushing in over a thousand pins to mount the PVC reinforced prints. The installation will be on view until Easter at least, but due to alterations at the SCVA, it is worth checking in advance.

Earth © Noel Myles
Earth © Noel Myles

If Noel’s Still Films images can be considered as a form of photographic cubism, then this work is a close parallel to the colour field (!) work of Mark Rothko. The hue of the ploughed fields is as found; the typically rich red soil from the around Hereford and the light hues from East Anglia. To quote Noel: ‘I took the photos one winter in Suffolk, Essex and Herefordshire. I knew I wanted the red soil that's there. The bluish tinge is frost. I was using the different colours in a similar way to an artist using paint; the overall colour of the piece emerging with the placement of one colour next to another. After this series I moved from film to digital. Changing rolls with numb fingers and dropping them was too much for me.’ 

As with his other joiner pictures, you can spend much longer looking at these large composites than you can with individual photographs. The eye scans and rescans the image, picking up similar, but often different, detail with each glance. Because we are familiar with photographs and largely believe them to be an accurate document, we read them very quickly. With paintings and other manually crafted images, we take longer to explore and decode them. The experience of viewing Noel’s abstract expressionist composites is much closer to viewing a painting than a photograph, and one of the reasons they are so rewarding to see on the wall.

Following on from his successful exhibition at Cambridge University Noel Myles will shortly have the opening to a new exhibition at the Minories Gallery in Colchester. This is a joint exhibition with James Maturin-Baird called Between Photography and runs between March 16th and May 11th. Noel tells me that he will be showing a fair amount of new work which I’m looking forward to seeing.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Cristina and the Afronauts

umfundi © Cristina De Middel
umfundi © Cristina De Middel

If you follow modern photography to any degree you will have undoubtedly heard of Cristina de Middel by now. Last year she self-published her book The Afronauts and her career has accelerated from newspaper photojournalist to the darling of the art photography world, currently nominated for this year’s Deutsche Börse prize. When I saw that she would be presenting at a Guardian Masterclass alongside The Guardian’s photography critic Sean O’Hagan and Bruno Ceschel of Self Publish, Be Happy I knew I had to make the effort to attend. I’m a keen reader of Sean O’Hagan’s wide knowledge and balanced commentary. As he said in his opening remarks, self-published photobooks seem to have reached a critical point as a means of delivery of an artist’s delivery of their work to waiting world. While there have been photobooks as long as there have been paper prints, a physical book that can be placed in the hands of key critics and curators seems to now be a viable way  to present one’s work to the world. For many types of photo project, it would seem to make more sense than a me-too website or ruinously expensive exhibition.

iko-iko © Cristina De Middel
iko-iko © Cristina De Middel
I must admit I had first railed against the Afronauts when I first saw it described online. The premise of the book is that just after independence back in the sixties Zambian school teacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso, declared in a moment of high excitement that the new country, like Russia and the USA would have its own space program. Of course, nothing came of this wildly optimistic aspiration, but De Middel took this simple idea and developed a plausible photo story based on our common conceptions and iconography of both Africa and the space race. I guess my concern was that such a story could be construed as a way of presenting Africa and Africans as backward and foolish. Having listened to and spoken with Du Middel I am sure now that her intentions were only to illustrate and develop a rather ridiculous story that happened to have come from Zambia, and as a consequence, involved Africans. In a similar way, Eddie ‘The Eagle’ Edwards managed to paint a rather singular picture of Britain’s skiing abilities…

hamba © Cristina De Middel
hamba © Cristina De Middel
As it turned out, none of the photographs were made in Africa. Many were shot near her home town of Alicante in Southern Spain. The props for the photos were similarly home-grown. A converted street light served as a space helmet, the space flag was invented for the story, and the African space suit was sewn together by De Middel’s grandmother. The space control centre was part of a disused factory; the derelict space capsules were the drums from old cement mixing trucks. The only genuine space item was a Russian cosmonaut’s jump suit that was used and decorated for some of the pictures.

ifulegi © Cristina De Middel
ifulegi © Cristina De Middel
De Middel has played with our belief in the truth of photographs, and our willingness to suspend our disbelief in order to absorb a story. She has done this well. The completed book (original price €20, currently changing hands at €800) is small, like a notebook or instruction manual. It rather reminded me of some children’s books from my past and those of my children. There were lovely transparent interleaves with space diagrams, and typed letters to characters in the story. The pictures of Afronauts staring dreamily into space in some of the pictures, and the naivety of the original story, served to reinforce this impression. I rather loved the whole concept and its execution.

Cristina gave us an entertaining and informative talk about her development as a photographer and the motivations behind the series. She also provided good, straightforward advice in the book discussion sessions later in the afternoon.

jambo © Cristina De Middel
jambo © Cristina De Middel
The other story that will captivate many photographers is the way that De Middel has followed the courage of her convictions, and gave herself a year away from photojournalism to realise The Afronauts. She told us how she decided that she would ‘have a year of living in Utopia’, believing that The Afronauts would be only successful, and devoting all her energies to make sure that this would happen. It is a shining example of positive thinking becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps the Zambian space program required just a little too much self-belief.

botonguru © Cristina De Middel
botonguru © Cristina De Middel

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Remembering Ag

A couple of nights ago, after more than an hour of churning guts and thumping heart, I gave up trying to get to sleep and wandered downstairs to find something to read. On seeing my collection of Ag journals on one shelf I took a couple down and read a few articles. It made me remember how wonderful this small quarterly journal was, and how no other magazine quite ‘hit the right buttons’ as this did.

Ag was a beautifully produced, 100 page 8 inch square magazine, advert free, and apart from some outlets in the London galleries, only available by subscription. Its focus was squarely on the art and craft of photography. Born as an off-shoot of the BJP, it really found its voice when it became the early retirement project of former BJP editor Chris Dickie. As is often the case with niche photography magazine, Ag was a one-man-band production, with Dickie writing editorial, design and general management of the journal.

Photo by Robert and Shana ParkHarrison
Over the years I’ve seen several fine-art photography magazines come and go, and they have usually failed because they too closely matched the opinion and interests of their owner/authors, and as a consequence became stale and dull. Not so with Ag; Dickie regularly invited great writers including AD Coleman, Bill Jay and David Lee whose scripts kept Ag vital, entertaining and challenging. If there was one common theme linking all the writing in Ag it was the complete absence of pretentious arty clap trap talk. It was a journal that you could actually read.

Ag was a show case of excellent photography, and would feature short portfolios of work from many well-known and up and coming photographers: Michael Kenna, Mark Power, Branka Djukic, Noel Myles, John Claridge, Keith Carter, Beth Dow, Robert & Shana ParkeHarrison, John Davies; I could go on many times over. My little little library has many books that were purchased after seeing the artist’s work in Ag.  It was the springboard for many photographers’ careers, including Arena’s Colin Summers. Chris Dickie clearly was a man with a wide appreciation of photography, and the work presented ranged from the traditional to the very modern, but was always of a very high standard. Maybe I’m getting old, but there does seem to be a lot of photography these days, especially on the webzines and in the art house photography magazines that make me wince at its craft-less and point-less uselessness.

Photo by John Stezaker

Chris Dickie died early and unexpectedly in July 2011 from cancer, and Ag along with him. I never met the man other than brief telephone conversations when ordering back numbers, but I certainly miss my quarterly copy of Ag. There is nothing available today that matches it for quality, interest and plain good taste.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Five Minute Writing

Allotment Grid 1, 2013 ©Graham Dew
Allotment Grid 1, 2013

I have very few memories of my school days, and of those memories only a very few remain about the lessons or the homework that was set. My first English teacher, and my form tutor in the first year of Woodcote Secondary School was a gentle and kindly man by the name of Mr Lees-Jeffries. If memory serves me right he was a Kiwi, had a bush of wavy ginger hair, an even more unkempt orange beard and thick, heavy framed glasses. English lessons were I guess pleasant and agreeable, but I can’t really remember that level of detail. What I do remember is that he set us the most unimaginably horrid, tortuous, unreasonable homework that any teacher had ever set for poor overworked 12 year olds. He set us five minute writing.

Allotment Grid 2, 2013 © Graham Dew
Allotment Grid 2, 2013

 He asked us to write something, anything, each night, that we wanted to write about. It could be an observation of the weather, about something we did at the weekend, about something we had read or seen. It could be a poem; you could even add a drawing. The only stipulation was that it was meant to take five minutes, and definitely not more than ten. My efforts at five minute writing were risible and shameful, usually a dire serialisation of a very dull story. I was amazed, late in the year, when my best friend showed me something he had written recently. He had completed the task each day, and his book was full of interesting and varied subjects. He had done things, he had something to say. I felt rather foolish on account of my laziness and lack of imagination.

Allotment Grid 3, 2013 © Graham Dew
Allotment Grid 3, 2013

Of course, at that time I didn’t see that it was a wonderful invitation to creative writing and diary keeping. Maybe there are teachers with the same insight today encouraging their charges to take up mini-blogs; I hope so. Each time I write a post for this blog I think about five minute writing, and the mantra is always the same; make it interesting, to the point and keep it succinct. But only rarely does it take five minutes to write.

Allotment Grid 4, 2013 © Graham Dew
Allotment Grid 4, 2013

Today is the first birthday of Joined Up Pictures, and this the 85th post that I’ve published. It’s been a lot of fun and I’ve met quite a few people along the way. Thank you for reading and please feel free to leave comments or to contact me. Graham

Monday, 4 February 2013

Worth a Look: Pentti Sammallahti

Pentti Sammallahti, Solovki, White Sea 2, Russia (1992)

Pentti Sammallahti’s retrospective book Here Far Away was one of the best books to be published last year. If you have read any online or magazine reviews in the past six months you will almost certainly have seen this book glowingly praised in reviews. I have a copy (a very nice Christmas present); every word of praise for this book and the pictures within is fully justified. I have seen Sammallahti’s photographs in the past but never as a large collection. This book puts together some 300 images drawn from an impressive number of books that he has had published over the years.

Pentti Sammallahti, Solovki, White Sea, Russia (Dog with Bag), 1992

Sammallahti is famous for his pictures of snowbound, bleak Arctic environments, sparsely populated by brave people in heavy coats and thick hats. Always he seems to have his lucky dogs wherever he goes. These dogs that act as people substitutes; dogs bringing in the provisions, dogs enjoying the breeze, dogs hanging out with their mates. As Mike Chisholm commented, Sammallahti seems to be a dog whisperer who can conjure them up when needed and get them to perform a vital pictorial role. When dogs are not needed he seems to be able to muster similar assistance from almost any other species; cats goats, monkeys, you name it.  Sammallahti has travelled to many other places other than his native Finland and snowy wastes of northern Russia. Indeed, there are pictures from every continent within the covers of the book. I particularly liked his pictures from Morocco and some lovely group portraits of Roma.

Pentti Sammallahti, Solovki, White Sea, Russia, 1992

One obvious, striking feature of his photography is his wonderful use of the panoramic format. His images often read as mini cinematic sequences or Chinese scrolled pictures. In some pictures he manages to capture two decisive moments in the same elongated frame, with critical actions happening simultaneously on the both the left and right of the image. His pictures have a consistent elegance, sparseness and humanity. In all my reading and research about him and his pictures I’ve not found out which camera he used for his wide format pictures. No matter, the important thing is the eye and his sense of design.

Pentti Sammallahti, Cilento, Italy, 1999

It’s worth a word or two about the manufacture of the book. This book is a fine example of the book maker’s craft.  Given the large number of panoramic images it is hardly surprising that the book’s designers have chosen a landscape format for the layout. At 242 by 300 mm the book sits nicely on the lap when opened. The pale blue cloth binding with tipped in photo on the cover is nicely understated and the paper is a nice cream heavyweight mat that works well with the neutrally printed monochromes.

Pentti Sammallahti,
Solovki, White Sea, Russia (Man Walking Away on Snowy Road), 1992

The first edition of Here Far Away seems to have sold out from most online retailers, but is currently being reprinted and should be available again in a couple of months. If you would like a copy it might be worth pre-ordering. 

Here Far Away by Pentti Sammallahti is published by Dewi Lewis Publishing ISBN: 978-1-907893-26-1