Archive for February, 2010

Through a Glass Darkly

Thursday, February 25th, 2010

Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2010
The Photographers’ Gallery
, London. 12th February – 17th April 2010

Maybe I’m going blind. Perhaps, I just can’t see the diversity of approach among the work on show from the international photographers included on the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2010 shortlist. Do photographers the world over, really choose to confine their efforts to recording, to the exclusion of almost anything else, doom, gloom and shabyness, or that the judges selections conform to a similar brief.

Taken by themselves, Magnum photographer, Donavon Wylie’s beautifully-executed pictures of the deconstruction of the infamous Maze Prison in Northern Ireland are undoubtably a powerful and passionate response to his subject but at the same time, set the mood of despondency, running throughout this exhibition. Sophie Ristelhueber and Zoe Leonard do little to lift the gloom. Even the notable exception, Anna Fox, whose whimsical and kitschy ‘My Mother’s Cupboards and My Father’s Words’, in which she juxtaposes tiny images of the assortment of ordinary objects she discovered while sifting through said cupboards, against dry comments in tiny script from her father, also includes her series ‘Gifts from the Cats’: images of dead birds and mice.

Maybe, some of those who posted comments about the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2010 on The Photographers’ Gallery blog have problems with their eyes, too:

Doctor Andrew Stevens, February 18th, 2010: Looking at the submissions and at the a lot of current students’ work I sometimes feel I’m in a totally different profession – I travel all over the globe shooting advertising and corporate photography on high res digital backs and haven’t seen anything that relates to everyday photography and actually earning a living as a practitioner – or perhaps we are in a different profession.

Marjorium, February 23rd, 2010: The photographs I saw today don’t look anything like the stuff me and my friends take… Except for Anna Fox photographs, it all feels really serious and dry. It’s a complete turn off, pretty boring and doesn’t make me feel hopeful about my future as a photographer…Is this what I have to do to show my work in a gallery?!!!

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Roses Grew on Me

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

The Garden of the Rose
Weekdays 9am – 5pm. Members of The Royal National Rose Society only

I’m not sure what might have triggered it off – it seemed to come out of the blue – but I remember once, when I was in my mid-twenties, long before I had a garden, telling a colleague that I hated roses. Clearly puzzled, he screwed up his eyes and looked at me strangely, not quite knowing how to respond.

Prior to my impassioned outburst, I suppose my only experience of roses had been those I’d seen on chocolate boxes and the massed ranks of Hybrid Teas grown in the middle of roundabouts in dull, British seaside resorts or in municipal parks. I probably could have named a couple of other flowers – daffodils and pansies – but, on the whole, felt pretty ambivalent about them.

Shortly after my odd declaration, I was put in charge of the design of the Lifespan pages at The Sunday Times Magazine, which, among subjects such as food and travel, included, for my sins, gardening. The gardening editor at that time was the late, and appropriately-named, Graham Rose – who, at first struck me as a stubborn sort of man with a deep, rasping voice that the more he smoked got deeper and more rasping. His fingers may, in an earlier life, have been green but nicotine had turned them the colour of polished oak. While I tried hard to temper evidence of my own northern roots, Graham spoke with a raucous, music-hall Geordie accent which, whenever he came near my desk rose in decibel-rating and frankly embarrassed me. Possibly out of what he imagined as kindred spirit – both of us were displaced Geordies – Graham took a shine to me and in no time, I found myself – a non- and fervently anti–smoker – dragged off in a smoke-filled car, in the rain, to some nursery in, I think it was, deepest Berkshire to look at a few canes with sodden, limp string stretched between them that had been stuck into a muddy corner of a field. This ensemble apparently represented the plan of The Sunday Times competition garden, which would be installed at that year’s Chelsea Flower Show. I was unimpressed and unconvinced. But, little by little and with a lot of cajoling and witty remarks from Graham  – it had dawned on me he had a very dry but hilarious sense of humour – and his encouragement, over the next couple of months, my own fingers, at first reluctant, took on a distinctly green-ish hue and by the time Chelsea came around, wild roses wouldn’t have kept me away. Graham kindly got me a ticket for press day and, that summer, even came around to my and my wife’s first house to give us a few tips on how to sort out the garden, including where to position the climbing rose he’d recommended; it was raining so we even let him smoke indoors.

About twenty years later, on a blisteringly hot day, last summer, I visited The Garden of the Rose at the The Royal National Rose Society, in Hertfordshire, where, in the course of 8 hours, totally engrossed and in my element, I photographed 73 different varieties. A dozen beautiful red ones, including Rosa ‘The Jubilee Rose’, pictured above, are now blooming on Pedro

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A Letter to Van Gogh

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

The Real Van Gogh: The Artist and His Letters
Royal Academy of Arts, London.  23 January to 18 April, 2010

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen two massive Van Gogh exhibitions in the last 18 months; the first at the Albertina in Vienna, the second, yesterday, at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. Having always wondered what all the fuss was about Van Gogh’s work, the Vienna show represented for me personally, an extraordinary epiphanic event. Rarely do I put myself through the ordeal of struggling past the reverential, head-phoned hordes, who inch along, pausing for far too much time in front of each and every painting, to go around any art exhibition a second time. But, on this ocassion, bowled over, suddenly transformed into an ardent Van Gogh fan, I couldn’t help myself.

The same, or similar hordes – the plague of most large, metropolitan galleries – were in full attendance at The Royal Academy. Dimly-lit, because many of the rarely-shown, fragile originals of Van Gogh’s letters – mostly written to his brother and life-long supporter, Theo – are on display, the tall-ceilinged main gallery space had the air of a compact cathedral: spot-lit, Van Gogh’s bright, colourful paintings substituting for stained-glass windows. When I was able to get near enough to look at the letters – very often by craning my neck to view them through the gloom over someone’s shoulder – I saw that that Van Gogh had added in wonderful, tiny but often detailed pen and ink sketches many of which were scaled-down roughs for the paintings he was working on, which the gallery had hung alongside.

For a man who died aged only 37, Van Gogh produced a prodigeous oeuvre. The Royal Academy show is extensive and even then, I could barely remember many of those images on show being part of the Vienna selection. Half-way round, somehow not as impressed as I had expected to be, I overheard someone say quietly to a companion: “I’m disappointed, one picture is marvellous but the next looks as if it was done by a child.” And that was it; I had exactly the same feeling. The early, very bold drawings of peasants going about their arduous work in the fields are incredible. Van Gogh’s deft flicking in of a few irises at the corner of a field outside Arles demonstratively illustrate the confident hand of a master draughtsman. With natural skill, he uses charicature to emphasize the great mass of a bending, full-skirted woman’s bottom; choosing a low viewpoint, and fish-eye perspective, he draws attention to a man’s enormous wooden clogs. But, almost all of the early paintings on show are poor and do little more than highlight the artist’s struggle with oils. Struggle over, into his stride – a man with a mission – we are shown how Van Gogh goes on to produce the most sublime paintings of vases of flowers, trees and landscape as well as his portraits, including the version included from the famous postman series. But, even amongst these later works, albeit the worsening state of his mental health, I saw more than a few that, if he were around today, I can’t help thinking, Van Gogh would have lopped off the selection list.

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