Tag: Photobook (page 1 of 1)

Ragnar Axelsson – Fjallaland

On a visit to Reykjavik in 2018 I spent a morning at the Museum of Photography, one of five sites making up the Reykjavik City Museum. The Museum holds a collection of over 6 million images dating back to 1860 and around 35,000 of these are accessible online. The exhibition spaces are relatively small but the works on display when I was there were excellent – definitely a case of quality over quantity. The museum also has a library of photography books and while browsing these I came across several by Ragnar Axelsson. I was vaguely aware of Axelsson, but had never looked closely at his work, so this was still something of a new discovery.

Of the books by Axelsson available in the library Fjallaland was the most striking. The books subject is the annual autumn round up of sheep that have spent the summer grazing in the Fjallabak Nature Reserve and are being brought down from this highland region for the winter. Axelsson has followied the farmers who take part in the round up for more than two decades, photographing them and the rugged volcanic landscape of the region. The result is a stunning collection, part documentary and part landscape.

I decided I wanted my own copy but a search on the usuals sources showed only a few new copies available which were selling for $300 and upwards, with used copies not much less and often more. So it seemed best to try to find it locally. One Icelandic retailer did claim to have it in stock on their website but when I visited the bricks and mortar outlet they had never heard of it. Another I tried turned out to a fashionable clothes store that also sold a few photobooks and CDs of Icelandic music on the side. When I asked the sales assistant she started wandering round the store searching on random shelves and bits of old furniture that served as display stands for the clothes but also had a few scattered books. So I joined in. And then I found it. The last copy in stock. Some negotiation on price and it was mine for an acceptable $80.

The book itself starts with a satellite image of the Fjallaland region, then a number of aerial shots that give a sense of the landscape, before bringing us to ground level with the farmers as they go about their work. Apart from the aerial images all the pictures are shot in a punchy monochrome. There is some descriptive text scattered throughout but since mine is the Icelandic version I have no idea what it says. No matter, the pictures are what counts.

What makes this project stand out, I think, from his other books I have seen is the concentrated focus on one community, one event, and one location. The project and the book have a coherence that is often lacking in photobooks of more broadly based projects. That Axelsson has been visiting the same community of farmers year after year for decades must create a sense of familiarity and ease with the photographer and his camera that facilitates great images. There is a certain timelessness to the pictures, as though they could have been taken anytime in the last hundred years. Only the ocasional presence of a Land Rover or a truck reminds you that this is a – more or less – contemporary event.

I would highly recommend this book if the images here appeal to you but you will need to have a sizeable book buying budget since it is out of print. I have not seen my Icelandic version on sale anywhere for some time and the English version, Behind the Mountains, goes for 800 – 900 dollars / pounds / euros when it occasionally comes up for sale.

LINKS
  • A selection of images from the book can be found on Axelsson’s website.
  • There are also interviews with Axelsson herehere and here.
  • There is an 80 minute documentary made by a Greek television company on YouTube. The video covers the subject of this book at around 50 minutes with some spectacular aerial views of the landscape. The documentary is mostly in English though the conversations in Icelandic are subtitled in Greek only.

Sofia on Film Photobook

An email from Snapfish arrived a couple of days ago reminding me that I hadn’t ordered anything from them for some time. A quick check on the current deals revealed that 20-page 8 x 11 photobooks were going for $1.99 (plus p&p which brings it up to $10, but it’s still a good price). So, not yet having printed any of my pictures from Sofia I decided to do a Sofia photobook and then decided to make it a Sofia on film photobook.

While Snapfish photobooks are not the greatest quality they are decent enough and I’ve probably bought 7 or 8 of them over the last few years taking advantage of the regular deals. It shipped today and assuming there are a few planes still flying in COVID-19 lockdown world it should be here by the end of the month. Over the next few days I’ll post all the pictures.

Niall McDiarmid – Town to Town

I don’t read or watch the news any more. Somewhere along the way the news media lost their integrity and reduced the world to an endless cycle of win-lose conflicts between extremists. When I was a kid newspapers printed one edition a day and there were four news bulletins – morning, lunchtime, early evening and late evening. Time and space were limited, valuable, so editors had to think carefully about which stories to cover. Journalists had to make phone calls, talk to people, write up stories – they had to do journalism.

Now? With 24/7 news channels and newspapers reduced to mere websites with near endless pages, discernment or editorial judgement is no longer required. News organisations could use all that available time and space to dig deeper, to widen their outlook on the world, but that would take time and money. Easier to fill the space with celebrity gossip and the latest Twitter spat. That brings in the numbers and numbers bring in advertising and advertising bring in money which ultimately is what it is all about.

The news media inhabit an alternative reality where the 2 percent of Twittering fanatics are representative of the nation, where every social or political issue is reducible to either / or or them / us. And if at times it seems like our societies have taken leave of their senses then the news media is culpable of driving that process.

All of which is a rather long introduction to a photobook review. The connection being that photobooks can tell us a lot more about our societies and their people and can portray the irreducible complexity of society in a way that the news media are no longer able or willing to do.

In the UK context which I’m most familiar with I think of Mahtab Hussain whose photography project, You Get Me?, documenting the lives of young British Muslim men was published a couple of years ago. Hussain described the series as ‘an intimate portrait on negotiating masculinity, self-esteem, social identity, and religion in a multicultural society faced with high unemployment, discrimination in the workplace, and racism’. At the same time he noted that his subjects ‘identify with Britain and they have a strong sense of Britishness’. (In fact research published in 2014 showed that British citizens of Pakistani origin have a stronger sense of British identity than any other group.)

I also think of the recently published work by Chris Steele-Perkins, The New Londoners, which I am patiently waiting on arriving. Steele-Perkins photographed 165 families in London who between them represent more that 200 countries, emphasising again the wonderful complexity of society that defies the reductionist and divisive vision of the news media.

And then there is Niall McDiarmid. Town to Town collects some of the pictures McDiarmid took as part of a project to create a portrait of contemporary Britain. McDiarmid, Scottish but based in London, started out in his adopted city but then started travelling across Britain: ‘I’d search for cheap tickets available online and catch a train out of London early every Saturday. Then, because it’s expensive to stay away, I’d come back on a really late night train crawling into London after a day somewhere up North’. He ended up visiting over 200 towns wandering the streets and approaching random people who caught his eye.

McDiarmid wanted his street portraits to have a distinctive style and he defines that style as focusing on colour, shape and pattern. His use of colour is particularly striking. Not just in the bright, vivid colours of many of his diverse subjects but also in the way McDiarmid photographs them against backgrounds that echo these. This is real Britain beyond the warped world of the news media, and the 120 pages of this book will show you more about Britain than the endless pages of dross that fill the news websites.

The book itself is published by RBB Photobooks and the quality of the binding, the paper and the reproductions is excellent. There are no introductory essays, no attempts to shape or steer the viewer’s encounter with the image. There isn’t even a blurb about the photographer. It’s all about the images. Originally published in 2018 it’s starting to get a little harder to find now and no doubt will be out of stock everywhere very soon.

LINKS

There is also a video of McDiarmid in conversation with fellow photographer Daniel Meadows during preparations for the opening of the ‘Town to Town’ exhibition. (For some reason the YouTube video will not embed but the link will take you there.)

Martin Parr – The Non-Conformists

Think of Martin Parr and what comes to mind are vibrant and richly saturated colour images. But it was not always so. Early in his career Parr shot in black and white and this book, The Non-Conformists, presents some of that early work. Just out of art school in the mid 1970’s Parr moved to the mill town of Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire and began documenting the everyday lives of the people of the area together with his friend, and later wife, Susie Mitchell.

The area was historically a stronghold of non-conformists, Christians who had rejected the dominant Church of England, and there were Baptist and Methodist chapels in many of the towns and villages. Parr’s father had been a Methodist lay preacher and he was drawn to the chapels, eventually developing a strong relationship with the elderly members of one particular Methodist chapel in the village of Crimsworth Dean. Over the course of what became a five year project Parr photographed everyday life in the chapel and the community and this book brings together those images together with notes and commentary taken by Susie at the time.

While these black and white images seem superficially a world apart from Parr’s later work it only takes a moment of looking to see the continuity. There is the same observation of detail, the same ability to pick the moment, the same quirkiness, the same dry humour, but there is also a gentleness, even melancholy, in these pictures that sets them apart from his later work. Parr covers everything: chapel life, business and commerce, farming, parties and celebrations, recreation, cricket, auctions, grouse shooting, mining. Nothing is too insignificant. And out of each setting and situation he manages to find images that provoke both emotion and reflection.

Like Parr, I grew up in these non-conformist traditions, in my case among the Baptists and the Brethren in Northern Ireland, and many of his images reflect my own memories of visiting my grandfather who was a member of the gospel hall in the small village of Ballyhalbert 25 miles from Belfast. Susie Parr notes in the book that at that time the chapels were in decline, as were many of the towns and villages as traditional industries disappeared or shrank. The same was true in Northern Ireland though perhaps there it took a little longer, and when I return from time to time I’m aware of passing a spot where a gospel hall or mission hall once stood. Some are gone completely, some have fallen into disrepair, some have been converted for other uses, but I do think it is sad that there is little or no record of their existence and of the communities that worshipped there. The chapel at Crimsworth Dean that Parr photographed is also gone, closed in 1997 and converted into a private house a few years later, but thanks to Parr a record remains of the place and the people.

This is undoubtedly one of my favourite photobooks with the superb pictures complemented by Susie Parr’s contemporary notes on the places they visited and photographed. Paper, printing and binding are all high quality and copies are still available either in the US direct from the publishers, Aperture, for $36 or from the usual sources for a similar price. In the UK you can get it for around £27 at Blackwells or for the same price you can have a signed copy from Beyond Words.

Links

Mark Power – Good Morning America

I’m not really sure what to make of this book. Perhaps my mistake was to start at the back where Power has a short essay.

‘For as long as I can remember’, he writes, ‘I’ve wanted to explore America, an ambition fuelled by a legion of TV shows that crossed the Atlantic in the 1960’s. As a young and impressionable child I devoured The Man From UNCLE and The Fugitive but it was the westerns evoking a landscape altogether removed from the congested English suburbs surrounding me that I loved the most: Bonanza, The High Chaparral, The Virginian and in particular Casey Jones, the adventures of a middle-aged railroad driver putting the world to rights.’

I am of a similar vintage to Mark Power and I grew up on a similar diet of Americana, adding only Alias Smith and Jones, though I believe that was from the early 1970’s. These television shows evoked an imagined America for me also and perhaps I expected Power’s childhood vision to more closely match my own. Instead, turning to the photographs my impression is of a bleaker, harsher imagining of the country than these shows ever conjured up for me. (Though perhaps the contrast with my expectations renders the pictures gloomier to my eye than they might otherwise appear.)

Part of the difficulty of assessing this book is that it is only the first of five planned volumes so the images gathered here are only a fragment of the whole. The pictures in this volume were taken across the country between 2012 and 2018. The challenge for Power, as for any photographer who trains his or her lens on the US, is that the ‘decline of America visually expressed’ genre is heavily oversubscribed and even more heavily clichéd. On first glance, not a few of Power’s images seem to fall into this genre and clichés are largely unavoidable. Of course, this is just my reading of the images for Power himself does not seem entirely clear what his project is about.

I never begin a project with a thesis I want to prove; if I did that I’d surely limit myself denying myself all sorts of opportunities. I try to remain open-minded and, certainly, the longer I spend in America the more I learn…but the more confused I get as well.

Elsewhere, though, Power is much more explicit about the thinking behind the project. In an interview with In Sight published in the Washington Post Power described the work as ‘endlessly shattering these romantic, imaginary images that exist happily in my head.’ So, not so much in search of that imagined America of his youth, but more in search of its dissolution. Power also explicitly connects the work to the ‘decline of America’ genre, but argues that ‘the decline has been going on for decades’. This is a thesis, and while Power may not be intent on his photographs proving that thesis, clearly the choice of subject and the choice of images for the books is going to illustrate that thesis.

There are good photographs in here and as I have returned to the book I have found certain images revealing more than I saw at first glance. However, there are still too many that leave me cold. Perhaps if this had been a one off book rather than one of a five-part series the picture selection might have been more rigorous. Or perhaps I’m just missing something.

Power’s biggest challenge is that in producing a book that aims to represent the American everyday in colour he is following in the footsteps of the likes of Joel Sternfeld, William Egglestone and, above all, Stephen Shore. Interviewed by the Guardian in 2007 Shore said,

To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap. But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that is what I am interested in.

Power is trying to see the photographic possibilities in the ordinary but anything less that a truly exceptional image or project is always going to fall short when set alongside Egglestone or Shore, no matter how provocative the thesis.

I’m still undecided whether I should persevere with the series. The second volume has already been released and I go back and forth over buying it, though today I am leaning towards doing so. The book itself is of very high quality. Unfortunately many of the images are printed across two pages and the book does not lay flat. There are also quite a few panoramic images that are spread across two pages plus a third fold out page.

I will finish with a comment on Amazon. I try not to buy photobooks from Amazon but sometimes the prices are unbeatable as was the case for this book. True to form the book came packed in a totally inadequate way with no protection for the corners which were bent. I could have sent it back, but I tend to treat Amazon like a second-hand book retailer these days. If it’s cheap enough I’ll look on it as a used book and not worry about superficial damage. I did contact them to point out the problem but they clearly could not care less.

Links

  • Publishing Information: GOST
  • Mark Power: website
  • Review: ASX (lots of sample images)
  • Where to buy: Volume I is now out of print though new copies are still available at Photobookstore in the UK at £85. In the US you will need to check with Alibris on Abe Books where you can expect to pay upwards of $100.

Daido Moriyama – Record

A prolific photographer, Daido Moriyama is also a prolific publisher of photobooks. As well as dozens of monographs Moriyama also publishes a regular journal, RECORD, containing a selection of images and a brief commentary. Originally started way back in 1972, Moriyama got as far as issue 5 in 1973 before stopping publication. Revived more than thirty years later in 2006 RECORD has been published regularly ever since with issue 42 appearing recently. While many of the older issues can still be found second hand some of them are much rarer and correspondingly expensive when they do show up. A reprint of issues 1 – 5 appeared around ten years ago but that book is now out of print and sells for $200-300 on the used market. Thanks to Thames & Hudson though, the earlier issues of RECORD are now available in a more affordable package. Daido Moriyama: Record contains a selection of images and Moriyama’s brief commentaries from issue 1 to issue 30 taking us up to February 2016. The publisher decided to make the book the same size as the journal so the images are reproduced at the same size as the originals.

Coverage of the first five issues is disappointingly basic. While there is one full size image from issues one to four the rest of the images are much reduced in size with two double page spreads from the original being compressed onto one page. Number five is treated a little differently with what appears to be the full issue presented in facsimile, though again at reduced size. This lack of full size images is a shame since it would have been interesting to compare them with the pictures appearing from issue six onwards given the gap of more than 30 years between the earlier work and the later. From issue six onwards all the images are full page and there are plenty of them with ten to twelve pages, and sometimes more, devoted to each issue.

The immediate impression on opening the book is what you would expect from Moriyama – the everyday urban environment shot in high contrast, sometimes to the point where images seem almost to be literally black and white, with lots of grain. Once settled in for a slow browse the pictures reveal much more. I find that there are some photographers whose work is best viewed in small batches or even single images but for me Moriyama’s images cry out to be consumed in bulk. There is a relentlessness to his photography that requires a corresponding relentless looking. While an individual image may seem mundane, even boring, cumulatively there is an incredible visual power here.

While Moriyama is probably the best known Japanese photographer of his era and is steeped in the Japanese photographic tradition a number of the brief commentaries that accompany each issue focus on the many non-Japanese influences on his work: Richard Avedon, Roland Barthes, James Baldwin, Jack Kerouac, William Faulkner and above all William Klein. In Record 23 Moriyama describes the impact of Klein’s work on him as a young man.

My encounter with Klein’s book New York when I was just twenty-two and still loitering at the door of the photography world was a defining moment for me. The abundant results of extremely violent and freewheeling camera work that were tossed into that single volume made me dizzy. For the first time I experienced the physiological pleasure and impact of the photographic image. Without giving a damn at that time about rationale and knowledge, I just stood there gazing and muttering, ‘Awesome.’

Klein in turn is a fan of Moriyama. In Record 10 Moriyama recalls words that Klein wrote for one of Moriyama’s photobooks.

So many photographers, HCB is one, keep telling us that life can be beautiful, but for Daido life can be, and is, pretty shitty…and photography as well. Now, after rubbing our noses in that for years and years, he has just put together a show in Paris – the first show of his that I’ve seen – and its like the movie when the man says to the girl, ‘Hey, take off your glasses,’ and she does. ‘But your beautiful,’ and she is. And today we see Daido’s tragic, despairing, no-way-out, end-of-the-world photos for what they always were, fucking beautiful, like he is himself. So…more power to him.

Moriyama himself appears to be refreshingly free of self-regard and eschews the opportunity to over analyse or explain his own photography, while still offering some insight into his work. In Record 24 he reflects on the meaning of his ‘snaps’ having looked up the word in a Japanese-English dictionary.

I consider the style of my own street ‘snaps’ as scraping and snatching all kinds of views and all kinds of people and scenes I encounter in the streets. At the back of my mind I am biting at everything in the external world. It is almost the same as stealing.

This record of Moriyama’s snatched encounters with the streets, not only in Japan but around the world, is a must have for anyone who appreciates Moriyama’s work or good street photography in general. Highly recommended.

Finally, here are a couple of excellent short videos about Moriyama. The first, from the Hasselbald Foundation is an interview conducted when he was announced as the Foundation’s Award winner for 2019. The second was produced by the Tate Gallery in 2012 to coincide with the joint Moriyama- Klein exhibition at the Tate Modern that year. This video is narrated by Moriyama talking about his photography while showing him at work on the streets of Tokyo and in his studio.

This a substantial hardback book with 280 images spread over 484 glossy pages and comes in a slip cover. I bought my copy from Amazon in the full knowledge that it would be damaged on arrival as a result of shoddy packaging. Sure enough the corners were dented, but at least the slip cover protected the actual book. I bought from Amazon because they were offering it a great price, but generally I always recommend people to buy books elsewhere.

Links

Val Williams – Martin Parr

In 2014 Phaidon published an updated edition of their Martin Parr retrospective called, imaginatively enough, Martin Parr. In numbers: 464 pages, more than 600 photographs, and a list price of £60 / $100.

I’ve always liked Parr’s work so when a new copy showed up on AbeBooks for less than $40 I snapped it up. The book covers Parr’s photographic work from his earliest days up to 2011 and has broad selections from many of his projects and publications. The images are accompanied by an extensive text from Val Williams detailing Parr’s career and discussing his work.

I lingered over the early work from Hebden Bridge shot in black in white and recently published by Aperture as The Non-Conformists. For those used to Parr’s vivid colour imagery these pictures will come as something of a surprise not only for being in black and white but also for their gentle almost melancholic feel. Even as Parr was shooting these images in the 1970’s this way of life and these communities, often centred round church or chapel, were dying out. Growing up at that time in a similar environment of non-conformism I find these truly moving images.

Parr’s transition from black and white to colour was strikingly demonstrated in The Last Resort probably Parr’s best known work. The images from The Last Resort, published in 1986, were shot between 1983 and 1985. At the time this work was quite controversial generating considerable criticism of Parr for supposedly mocking and ridiculing the British working classes.

The Last Resort was published during the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister of the UK. Mrs Thatcher polarised political opinion in the UK and the policies her government pursued in those earlier years did weigh heavily on working class communities as the country’s long established industries were broken up, privatized and in many cases reduced to mere shadows of what they had once been.

Parr’s ‘crime’ was to portray the British working class, facing this transformation, honestly. And an honest portrayal was unwelcome among many of the largely middle class and often metropolitan critics of the Conservative government. Middle class radicals needed the working class to be victimised and oppressed, or radicalised and rebellious. In Parr’s New Brighton they refused to play along, neither skulking at home feeling sorry for themselves nor lining the barricades fomenting revolution.

For people like me, who spent each year holidaying in resorts not dissimilar to New Brighton, dining on fish and chips, eating ice cream even as the wind took the skin off our bones, determinedly picnicking while huddled inside the car in the driving rain, spending all our preciously accumulated pennies in amusement arcades, Parr’s subjects look like us. We had no need to create a fantasy working class, and thus we saw nothing in these images that was offensive or judgemental.

As Val Williams, who curated Parr’s major retrospective at the Barbican in 2002 and has written the accompanying text for this published retrospective, argues:

I don’t think The Last Resort is controversial…The reviewers at the time had a problem with the working class. There’s a whole load of predominantly male, middle-class journalists who have a fear of mothers with pushchairs. I kept looking at the pictures, thinking, ‘This is just normal life.’ These are people having a good time.

Over time with the passing of that particularly confrontational era, Parr’s work in The Last Resort has grown in reputation and, indeed, affection. In the meantime, other photographers have turned their cameras on the British working class with results that make Parr’s work look positively rose-tinted.

We’re not even half way through the book at this point and there is too much in here to begin to describe or discuss. Yet one more controversy does deserve some comment. In 1994 Parr applied to join the famous Magnum agency. His application was met with considerable hostility on the part of some members, most noticeably Phillip Jones Griffiths famous for his work in Vietnam and a former President of the agency. It’s no exaggeration to say that Jones Griffiths despised Parr and his work. As part of his campaign against Parr’s membership he wrote to existing members:

[Parr] is an unusual photographer in the sense that he has always shunned the values that Magnum was built on. Not for him any of our concerned ‘finger on the pulse of society’ humanistic photography…His penchant for kicking the victims of Tory violence cause me to describe his pictures as ‘fascistic’ … Today he wants to be a member…Please don’t dismiss what I am saying as some kind of personality clash. Let me state that I have great respect for him as the dedicated enemy of everything I believe in and, I trust, what Magnum still believes in.

Not all of Parr’s critics in Magnum shared Jones Griffiths political and personal animosity towards Parr but they were still sufficiently sceptical of his work to oppose his membership. In the end he was elected by the necessary two thirds majority but only just. (Times have changed. Parr was elected President of Magnum in 2014). Their core objection was that Parr was not a sufficiently ‘humanistic’ photographer. As Parr recalls, ‘the principle objection would be that I would appear to be cynical, voyeuristic, exploitative. All these were the words that I heard.

And perhaps if Parr had been photographing war zones, famines and the aftermath of natural disasters as many Magnum photographers did they might have had a point. But what they failed to realise is that humanistic photography could mean different things in different contexts. What they also failed to realise is that for the overwhelming majority of the world’s people, and not just those of the ‘West’, war, famine and disaster are not the norm. Documentary photography had to be about more than humanising those dehumanised by the most extreme of circumstances. Parr made this point himself when interviewed for the BBC series The Genius of Photography: ‘Magnum photographers were meant to go out as a crusade … to places like famine and war and … I went out and went round the corner to the local supermarket because this to me is the front line.

This, for me, is the genius of Parr’s work. He is a humanistic photographer, if that means a photographer who allows us to see human life in its abundant variety and allows us to see it in all its frailty, complexity and glory.

If you already have a dozen of Parr’s books on your shelves this one is probably superfluous. If not, and if you like what you have seen of Parr’s work this is highly recommended.

Martin Parr’s website. Martin Parr on Magnum. Martin Parr interviews at ASXLensCultureDaily TelegraphObserverand theBBC.

Donovan Wylie – British Watchtowers

My friends had decided to go wind surfing on Camlough Lake. Not seeing the appeal of windsurfing myself I chose instead to go for a hike on Camlough Mountain. Calling it a mountain flatters it somewhat. It’s more of a large hill rising to less than 1400 feet.

I can’t remember exactly when this was but it was probably in the mid 1980’s when Northern Ireland was still in the midst of what we euphemistically called ‘the troubles’ or sometimes ‘The Troubles’. Since Camlough was in South Armagh, an region known as ‘Bandit Country’ in testimony to the intensity and ferocity of the violence there, the area wasn’t exactly a tourist hot spot and so I had the mountain to myself. Mostly.

As I approached the peak a helicopter appeared. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t hear it coming. It just appeared. I believe it was a Wessex, a variant of the Sikorsky S-34 developed for the British Armed Forces. It was facing towards me and it felt and sounded like it was hovering far closer to me than I wanted a helicopter to be. After a few moments, presumably having had a look and deciding I was no threat, it peeled away and flew off.

Apart from my surprise at its sudden appearance and unnerving proximity I didn’t think much of it. Helicopters were part of the background noise in Northern Ireland in those years and were ubiquitous in South Armagh where the roads were unsafe for military and police vehicles, leading to personnel and supplies being ferried around in fleets of military helicopters. For many years the military base in the nearby village of Bessbrook was reputed to house the busiest heliport in Europe, such was the intensity of the military operation.

So I carried on towards the domed peak from where I was able to spot the sails of my friends’ windsurfers on the lake below. It was then that I noticed a line of rusted barbed wire, evidently an old fence that had decayed over the years. Then, beyond the wire I spotted small mounds of sandbags. At this point I was beginning to get a little nervous, and while I appeared to be alone on the hill I decided to keep my distance. After a few moments taking in the view and catching my breath I started back down.

Later — perhaps a year, possibly a few months — I returned to Camlough Mountain with a friend and set off for the summit once more. This time there were no helicopters, but on reaching the top I found that the small sandbag emplacements had grown larger and more substantial and a handful of prefabricated structures in military green had also appeared. This time we were not alone. As we stood looking at this mini fortress faces appeared in the gaps in the sandbags and a handful of soldiers materialised as if from nowhere. We went over for a chat.

They were from the Devon and Dorset Regiment, since amalgamated into The Rifles with a number of other infantry regiments, on a six month deployment in South Armagh. While the Royal Marines were on the ground in the villages and fields below, the Devon and Dorsets were manning a daisy chain of observation posts across the region. This particular post, if I remember rightly, was watching over another observation post on another hilltop which, in turn, was watching over the police station in the village of Forkhill. Unsurprisingly, they were thoroughly bored and our arrival provided a welcome diversion from the tedium of life on the mountain. They politely enquired who we were and what we were doing there and after a few minutes we said our goodbyes and headed off.

I was reminded of this when I first came across Donovan Wylie’s British Watchtowers, published in 2007. Wylie, who is from Northern Ireland, photographed the network of watchtowers constructed by the British military in the 1980’s across South Armagh before they were finally demolished in 2007.

Wylie shot many of these installations from a helicopter, courtesy of the Ministry of Defence, and the resulting images clearly locate the watchtowers in their environment. We can see their isolation on mountain tops and hillsides and, equally, we can see the sweep of the land and the towns and villages they watch over. A number of images are of towers that are integral parts of police stations — in reality military bases — in urban locations which convey something of the scale of these installations and the degree to which they attempt to dominate.

There is a certain relentlessness to these pictures. The landscape is a rich Irish green, mixed with the yellow brown scrubbiness of the mountain tops. The sky is uniformly grey — whether that was simply a matter of when the helicopter was available or a deliberate choice on Wylie’s part I’m not sure. The horizon lies in broadly the same place throughout. Yet the pictures are also ‘nice’. The landscape is pleasant, the green of the land and the grey of the sky are harmonious. Even the watchtowers show an honest simplicity and utilitarianism. Only when we come to those images of towers set directly in urban locations do they become ominous or disturbing, clashing with the scale and style of the town or village.

The book also contains an un-illuminating essay by Louise Purbrick, an art historian otherwise unknown to me, complete with the predictable references to Foucault on surveillance. Still, there’s no reason to read it since it adds nothing to the images and the images do not need an interpretive text. (Having said all that I grew up in Northern Ireland during this era, so perhaps for others who did not Purbrick’s commentary may have some value.)

The image above is Wylie’s photograph of Romeo 13A, the watchtower on Camlough Mountain. This is what the rusted fencing and sandbag piles developed into over the years. I imagine if I had tried to climb Camlough Mountain again in the years when this watchtower was in place the welcome might have been a lot more formal and a little less friendly.

Wylie followed this work with another, Outposts, on a similar theme but shot in Kandahar province in Afghanistan during NATO operations there. While the watchtowers in Northern Ireland are starkly present and unmistakable despite their military green hue, these outposts blend seamlessly into the uniformly drab landscape to the point of invisibility. While the watchtowers in Northern Ireland were a new development, the outposts in Afghanistan are just the most recent reworking of an old theme. NATO’s Canadian soldiers built some of these in the same places the Soviets had built theirs and they in turn, no doubt, had built theirs where the British had built long before. And while the watchtowers of Northern Ireland are long gone, I’m sure those in Afghanistan remain even if their Canadian builders have left.

One image in particular struck me, pictured below. In this photograph lines of Canadian armoured vehicles are parked beneath the hill on which the outpost stands, a tiny fraction of the military power deployed by NATO and the US against an ‘army’ equipped largely with hand-me-down Soviet weapons, a collection of motorcycles and pick up trucks, and mobile phones.

Again, in the context of Afghanistan there’s nothing new in this.

A scrimmage in a Border Station-
A canter down some dark defile
Two thousand pounds of education
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.
The Crammer’s boast, the Squadron’s pride,
Shot like a rabbit in a ride!

No proposition Euclid wrote
No formulae the text-books know,
Will turn the bullet from your coat,
Or ward the tulwar’s downward blow.
Strike hard who cares — shoot straight who can
The odds are on the cheaper man.

The Taliban’s weaponry has moved on from jezails to Kalishnikovs since Kipling’s Arithmetic of the Frontier was published in 1886, but in many respects the Taliban’s way of war has changed little. NATO continues the British tradition of sending the best trained and equipped soldiers to ‘hold the fort’ but the contrast between the Taliban’s ‘cheaper man’ and the modern Western soldier is greater than Kipling could ever have imagined. Yet time and time again we have seen that in 21st century Afghanistan, as in 19th century Afghanistan, ‘the odds are on the cheaper man’.

Outposts also comes with an accompanying essay, but in this case a genuinely thoughtful discussion by Gerry Badger. This one is well worth reading — and not a word from Foucault.

Finally, a third book, North Warning System, focuses on a single installation in the Canadian Arctic designed to provide early warning of threats to North America. This is by some distance a much weaker work that the other two, with only a handful of images of a single installation. Wylie explains some of his thinking behind the images and his method of shooting them, but even with that context, these images carry nothing like the impact of those in the earlier series.

Originally published individually, the three volumes were published together as The Tower Series in 2014 and this is the edition I have. The publisher is Steidl so needless to say the quality is superb and the three volumes come nicely presented in a rigid slipcase.

Wylie has continued to focus on the architecture of conflict in Northern Ireland having published a book of images from the Maze prison and, more recently, Housing Plans for the Future which focuses on a more subtle form of conflict architecture examining the way in which the communal violence influenced the design of public housing.

Links

Reference

Rudyard Kipling, ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’ in Selected Poems (Penguin 2001)

Toby Binder – Wee Muckers Youth of Belfast

A mucker is a mate or a friend. “All right mucker?” or should that be “alright mucker?” The etymology and origins are unclear with ‘mucker’ being described as both a Britishism and an Irishism. Since we in Northern Ireland have spend more than a few centuries disputing our Britishness or Irishness it seems a highly apposite word for us to use.

Toby Binder is German so even with a thorough grasp of English it seems unlikely that he would have come across ‘mucker’ before he started his long-term project photographing the lives of young people across the United Kingdom. Post-Brexit or, rather, post-referendum – he travelled to Belfast and Wee Muckers – Youth of Belfast is the result.

Binder chose six inner city neighbourhoods of Belfast, my home town. All struggle with socio-economic deprivation and exclusion and all are deeply marked by Belfast’s sectarian divisions. Highfield, Shankill, The Village and Sandy Row are overwhelmingly Protestant / Unionism / Loyalist (categories that while overlapping are not synonymous). Clonard and Carrick Hill are overwhelmingly Catholic / Nationalist / Republican (again, overlapping but not synonymous). This, then, is a very specific ‘subset’ of youth of Belfast.

The most striking aspect of Binder’s pictures is the way they illustrate both the ‘sameness’ and the ‘difference’ of these young people and their lives. Protestant or Catholic, Unionist or Nationalist, Loyalist or Republican they look the same. Throughout the book Binder presents portraits of the young people he met. These are striking closeups focusing just on their faces and stripping out the environmental signals of flags, graffiti, tattoos and such like. Seen in this way it becomes impossible to ‘assign’ a particular individual to a particular tribe.

Pulling back a little, photographs of these young people in their environment maintains the sense of sameness – up to a point. The same Adidas and Nike casual wear, the same rows of red brick houses, the same patches of waste ground, the same detritus and litter, the same walls and fences and barbed wire. Up to a point – because in the sameness there are always markers of difference. The flags, the graffiti, the football shirts.

All of us who grew up in Belfast in the 1970s and 80s had a finely tuned sense of ‘our’ territory and ‘theirs’. It seemed almost innate. I remember back in the early 1970s, when the British Army were patrolling my neighbourhood, getting my hands on a map of the city that the army provided to troops on the ground. This was a cartographic representation of Belfast’s patchwork of division. Protestant areas were marked in orange, Catholic in green, while the ever-dwindling number of mixed neighbourhoods holding out against sectarian fragmentation were hatched (though I’m no longer certain of this last one). Back then, I couldn’t understand why anyone would need such a thing. Surely it was obvious? Back then I was hyper-sensitive to difference and largely oblivious to sameness.

Many of Binder’s photographs were taken during the period known as the ‘marching season’ when the Protestant community organizes parades and marches across Northern Ireland. The highlight of the marching season comes on the twelfth of July, with the parades preceded on the ‘eleventh night’ by huge bonfires lit in Protestant neighbourhoods. Pictures of bandsmen in uniform and bonfires reflect the Protestant experience, while images from the Catholic neigbourhood of Carrick Hill reveal the contested nature of the parades. No celebrations here. Instead, ranks of police Land Rovers – in my day a steely grey, now utterly incongruous in white with blue and yellow checks – blocking off streets, while lines of police officers face lines of young men. In the middle of it all a young girl takes her dog for a walk.

While these kind of pictures perhaps conjure up images of the photographer prowling the streets with Leica in hand, they were all shot on a medium format film camera. Interviewed on the WPO website (link below) Binder highlighted the way in which this medium forced him to take his time to get the shot which, in turn, helped him get closer to the young people he was photographing.

In the book itself Binder chooses not to comment on the project or the individual images. Instead, we have a superb essay by Belfast author Paul McVeigh on identity, borders, departures and returns, sameness and difference, all woven round his personal experience. I won’t do McVeigh the disservice of trying to summarise his words since they deserve to be read in full.

Binder’s images do not portray a flattering image of my city but I’m delighted that the book has been published. For too long Belfast was simply an easy stop off for lazy photojournalists looking for a bit of violence and drama but who also wanted to stay in a nice hotel between shoots and liked being only a hour from London. The natives were generally friendly to outsiders if not each other and they all spoke English – after a fashion. The violence ended, the photojournalists moved on and communities living with the consequences were left behind and forgotten. Toby Binder reminds us that the damage done is not easily repaired and that young people, some of whom were not even born when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, are still shaped by the conflict. Meanwhile Northern Ireland drifts, politically rudderless, while the politicians in London and Dublin obsess over Brexit.

Links