I’ve always liked the photographs of René Burri. Burri came from Switzerland and was a longtime member of the Magnum Agency. His documentary work and his portraits appeared in many of the great news magazines. I picked up the major retrospective of his work, simply titled Photographs, a few year ago and recently acquired the two volume work, Mouvement.
I read a number of obituaries when he passed away in 2014 and was intrigued by a comment in the one which appeared in The Guardian. Amanda Hopkinson wrote:
A commission might provide him with the means to visit a new region, but then he would extend his stay, to ‘get beneath the surface’. It is almost possible to tell how long Burri stayed in a particular place by how close he got to his subjects: two monks performing deep bows to one another before a temple in Kyoto are in long shot; later shots are taken in close-up, inside the monastery.
I expect great photographers to be the sort of people who can land in a new situation and instinctively comprehend and record that world. The idea that a photographer of Burri’s calibre needed time to find his way under the surface of a new place came as quite a revelation, for this is my situation. For me it takes time, often a long time, to move beyond the general and the sweeping and begin to get closer, to understand a place and a people and try to represent that. It’s good to know I’m in good company. Of course for Burri it may have been not so much that he needed time, but that he took time. Either way, I find it an encouraging thought.
There is a great short video from PORT magazine of Burri discussing a number of his photographs on Vimeo.
Here is another short video from Phaidon Press shows Burri discussing his colour work at the time of the launch of Impossible Reminiscences.
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.
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.
Here are a few good online stories I’ve come across in the last few days. From the BBC an article on two women photographers in Somalia trying to break down social prejudices. From Petapixel, striking images from Ghana that reveal the disturbing reality of modern slavery. Another BBC piece looks at the ‘fingerprint’ of your digital sensor, otherwise known as ‘photo response non-uniformity’. Finally, photography lecturer Grant Scott shares his core convictions about photography.
‘I want it to be normal for women to take photos’
Somalia often conjures up images of violence and destruction but a photography exhibition in the capital, Mogadishu, sets out not only to challenge that perception but also to recast who is defining those images in the first place, as the BBC’s Mary Harper reports.
I talk a lot about photography, write about it and teach it. Therefore, I often find myself answering the same questions, saying the same things and explaining the same beliefs. So, I decided to compile a manifesto based on those beliefs and conversations.
There are more photographs by Fardowsa Hussein and Hana Mire from the Somalia exhibition on the site of the Somalia Arts Foundation. Jeremy Snell’s pictures from Lake Volta and his other projects are on his website and a book of images from the project is available from Setanta.
I don’t recall where or how I first came across Wolf Suschitzky but I do like those photographers who have documented life in the UK over the decades and Suschitzky is one such with a career stretching from the 1930’s into the 21st century. This book, Seven Decades of Photography, published in 2014 when Suschitzky was already 102 years old collects a selection of images from his long career.
Quite apart from his photography the man himself is fascinating. He was born in Vienna in 1912 to a Jewish atheist father who ran a bookshop and later a socialist publishing house. Originally wanting to study zoology Suschitzky ended up studying photography influenced by his sister Edith, herself a photographer. Observing political developments in Austria in the 1930’s he concluded that Vienna was not a good place for a Jewish socialist and moved to London.
Shortly after arriving he landed a job as a cinematographer working on documentaries before moving into feature films. Cinematography paid the bills and enabled him to continue with his photography on his own terms. Throughout the book there are portrait shots of some of the actors he worked with as well as animal shots and portraits reflecting his interest in zoology.
The first time I browsed this book I liked many of the images but there were few that really stood out. It was a pleasant browse but not much more. When I pulled the book off the shelf for the first time in almost two years my appreciation of his work was transformed. Now I see many great images and some that are truly outstanding. Perhaps it is just me responding differently after two more years of looking at and thinking about photography but I think it is also about the photographs. They demand and deserve a lingering look to fully appreciate them and I don’t think I paid enough attention previously.
What stands out now is Suschitzky’s wonderful use light and strong structural elements, something that was perhaps influenced by his work as a cinematographer. Yet he was happier to be known as a craftsman than an artist and an observer rather than a creator.
Suschitzky died in 2016 at the age of 104 and the book is an excellent testament to his work. It was originally published by SYNEMA – Gesellschaft für Film und Medien in Austria and unfortunately like so many photobooks is now out of print and expensive.
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.
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.)
In 2015 on a trip to Seoul I visited the National Folk Museum of Korea for a special exhibition of the work of Korean photojournalist and documentary photographer Kim Soo-nam. In the 1970’s Kim began photographing traditional shamanic rituals, concerned that the tradition was in decline in rapidly industrialising and modernising Korea. In 1982 he said, It’s for sure that the Dodang-gut (ritual) practiced in the southern Hangang River will disappear in a few years. When the shamans die, it’s the end. I feel lucky to have photographed those who have aged along with their practice for 60 to 70 years.
He continued to photograph these traditions until his death in 2006 amassing more than 170,000 images. Kim spent days living and talking with local communities, building trust, in order to gain access to these highly personal ceremonies: Sad stories are abundant at the scene. I often forget about taking photos and just listen to their stories, shedding tears. It is often my subjects who tell me to snap out of it and get to the business. I owe many of my photos to my tears.
Following Kim’s death his family donated his entire archive to The National Folk Museum and this exhibition shows around one hundred of his works covering shamanic rituals linked to human life and death in all their diversity.
The exhibition is a superb advertisement for what photography does best. It is a comprehensive documentary record of a largely lost way of life and, beyond the documentary element, many of these photographs have a wonderful aesthetic quality whether from the play of light, the quality of Kim’s composition or the intensity of the human emotions on display.
The exhibition focused on Kim’s earlier work shot in black and white, but Kim continued to travel across Korea photographing these rituals throughout his life and later worked in colour also. Sadly, Kim died in 2006 at the age of 57 but he left behind an invaluable record of a way of life that has largely disappeared.
At the entrance to the exhibition was a glass display case with Kim’s camera. Many of his images were shot using this simple enthusiast level Nikon FM and a 24mm lens. This only confirms once again that great photography often arises from simplicity and familiarity — keep your gear simple and make yourself familiar with it.