Friday, 24 April 2015

A very early photograph of the Palace of Westminster

On the whole and notwithstanding a few worthy exceptions, 19th century British gothic revival architecture is not to my taste. I find it overworked, artificial, graceless and fraudulent for its attempted identification with a pre-modern grandeur. From the perspective of the contemporary world it can seem almost twee, like a person who persists in dressing themselves in anachronistic clothing associated with an age of elegance and wealth. Dress yourself as an Edwardian today and the desired effect of elegance and ease is undercut by the absurd pretence. The Palace of Westminster, or the British Houses of Parliament as they are more commonly referred to, are a good example of this problem. The architecture presents itself as having adopted a pose of out-of-time grandeur - more theme-park pretending than real awe-inspiring presence.

Or so it seems to me. But then I encountered this undated photograph of the Palace and was able to see it in a new and, to me, very unfamiliar way:

I don't know who the photographer was, or the exact date, though it is clear that it is close to the date when the building was being completed - so probably somewhere around the mid to late 1860s.

What I like about the image is the way the building dominates the north bank of the Thames. The angle is just right to obscure the towers of Westminster Abby across the road, and so it really does have the appear to be a truly monumental building.

If you don't see my point, do a Google image search for the Palace of Westminster. What you will find is a building that appears far more modest and tamed by its surroundings. Here are three chosen more or less at at random:

These latter pictures give us the building as we are familiar with it, but both seem to show a heavily wrought, complicated and very tame edifice. They show a building that far from having an authority rooted in age, is now a tired old thing ready for retirement.

(It was recently reported that the building is literally crumbling and requires billions of pounds of renovation work if it is not to simply collapse. There has been some discussion that it would be better to simply build a new parliament building. This seems to me to be a very good suggestion, for many reasons beyond my dissatisfaction with Barry and Pugin's pile. Another parenthetical note: if you do the Google image search recommended above, ask yourself why the vast majority of images are taken from the direction of Westminster bridge - or from the righthand side of the building from the perspective of the south bank of the Thames, and why do almost all of them give a prominent place to the rive? Its really strange how few images there are taken from the opposite sides.)

Maybe these aren't the best postcard images of the Palace, but I couldn't find any other image on Google that had the same powerful grandeur of the one from the 19th century, and which aroused in me a kind of awe at its presence. Its often said photographs can get us to see something familiar in unfamiliar ways, and this lovely 19th century photograph of the Palace did just that trick for me. 

Monday, 30 March 2015

A remarkable un-photographic photograph of a whaling schooner, 1886 (after Whistler)

Here is an eye-catching photograph. Its an image made by a member of the crew of the US Revenue Cutter Bear, the only US government naval presence in the Bering Sea in the early years after Alaska was purchased from Russia. (The Bear had a extraordinary history, having been constructed in Dundee in 1874, seeing action in World War II and only finally meeting its end while being towed to Philadelphia in 1963. More on its history can be found here.) The photographer, as we learn from the inscription on the righthand side was Charles D. Kennedy, who was a young officer on the Bear. As the the inscription also indicates, the subject matter of the image is the whaling schooner San Jose in the ice of the Bering Sea in 1886.

When I first encountered this photograph I initially thought it was a rather good pen and wash illustration, because it has a certain un-photographic quality. A closer look dispels these first impressions as it has a few features unlikely to appear in a drawing, such as the blurred edges of the flag blowing in the strong wind, the inexplicable staining of the sail, and (perhaps) the indistinct figures to the far right the image.

But why does it still have a somewhat un-photographic look? Several features seem particularly important in bringing about this effect. The first is that the picture looks like it has been slightly or partially solarised, though the relative whiteness of the ice seems to suggest otherwise. This can be explain I think by the fact that the light leakage that caused the solarisation came in from the top of the image, particularly to the left where the darkest patch is to be found. But whether it is partial solarisation or the result of some other cause, the ship and it background look somewhat unreal in just the way one would expect from solarisation.

The second un-photographic feature is the composition. Amateur photographers, and even accomplished ones whose purposes are documentary, tend to place the main subject of the image in the centre of the frame. The placement of the ship to the right of the frame, with an empty lefthand side, is more the technique of the illustrator artist wishing to give a sense of the ship as unbound, if not moving, existing with a dynamic environment and being drawn forward into the empty space.

Finally, it looks as if the image is produced under the strong influence of the painter James Whistler, not only because it embodies Whistler's devotion to whites and greys, but also because Whistler' subject matter was often many ships, boats and and water.  His Harmony in Grey: Chelsea in Ice (1864) is, like many of his paintings, far more impressionistic than my whale  schooner image, but both share a certain tonal quality.

But I just can't decide whether a young US navel officer working on a ship policing the northwestern frontier would in the mid 1880s would be likely to know about Whistler. Maybe, but then as we hardly know anything about him, then why should we suppose he would. After all, not many of his other photographs have the same Whistler-like quality. Setting aside those which document people and places on land, Kennedy's other photographs of ships are less interesting and less reminiscent of Whistler:

Its is also worth nothing that these latter two photographs follow the documentarian's convention of placing the central subject matter squarely in the centre of the frame, depriving these images of the drama attached to first image of the San Jose.

But these latter images, despite being very photographic, do seem to owe something to 19th century naval painting. Compare them with, for example, this:

or this:

But then most naval painting exhibits a very limited aesthetic sensibility, showing us ships side or three quarter on, sometimes at anchor in an anodyne landscape, sometimes shooting cannonballs at another ship. With a few exceptions its all pretty similar and unremarkable stuff; not a genre for anyone other than the ship enthusiast (and even then, not for the most aesthetically adventurous among that limited group).

And yet, Kennedy's un-photographic photograph of the San Jose stands out as among the most memorable pictures of a ship I have every encountered. It owes something to illustration and painting, but maybe it owes even more to sheer luck. Somehow I doubt it is luck, and I can't help to want to know more about Charles W. Kennedy though it would be appear he has disappeared into the sea fog of history without leaving many traces.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Photographs that look down from a great height

There is something so compelling about seeing our world from on high. What has become such an easily accessible experience for us was once something truly extraordinary. What must the residents of Paris have thought when they first encountered their city photographed by Nadar from a hot-air balloon in 1858.

To help orient viewers, Nadar helpfully uses superimposed words to provide a few reference points: 'Montmartre' is indicated in the top right, 'Les Ternes' (which in 1858 was a town that had not yet been incorporated into Paris) is at the top left, and the 'Avenue du Bois de Boulogne' is clearly indicated at the bottom. Today an image such as this would hardly merit notice, but it must have sold enough copies to encourage James Wallace Black to produce this photograph of Boston in 1860:

Another magnificent example, produced some decades later, is George Lawrence's aerial photograph of San Francisco immediately after the 1906 earthquake. Rather than using a balloon, Lawrence used a kite to produce his image, and it was striking enough that he sold them for $150 each - the equivalent of several thousand dollars today.

A decade or so later the development of aeroplanes made it much easier to make striking images of cities from the air, and so begins the process by which such images become familiar and less striking. Still, everyone now and then photographs appear that recapture the magic. This is one that I stumbled across recently, taken from the very top of the Burj-Khalifa:

I am prone to acrophobia, and when I came across this image I did (and often still do) feel a mild dizziness. I suspect it is the shoes resting on the edge of the precipice that gives me the flutters. I don't admire the person who can stand there managing to stay calm while they set camera up. Rather I feel a kind of horror.

The Burj-Khalifa is 829.8 metres high, well above the altitude at which the earlier pictures of Paris, Boston and San Francisco were made. Indeed, so much so that what we see below doesn't really look much like a city. That might seem even more obvious in the following image, in which we are spared the feet of the photographer.

If you encountered this last image without any explanation of what it depicted, I doubt many people would quickly be able to identify the subject matter even in general rather than specific terms. The skyscrapers on the left are the best clue, but ignoring them it looks rather like a rather busy abstract composition. Knowing what it depicts, however, I think there is still a bit of 'wow' to be had from this image.

You may have noticed that all of the photographs so far discussed picture their subject matter from a greater or lesser (very much lesser in the case of the Burj-Khalifa images) angle. But the Burj-Khalifa photographs also suggest that a perpendicular perspective provides a potentially very interesting and different way to view a city.

Jeffrey Milstein has noticed tho and produced some quite extraordinary images of Los Angles. Even more than the Burj-khalifa images, which after all are more of the 'hey, look at this', they present urban environments as abstract compositions. One of my favourites is this one of the Los Angles container port.

Would you have been able to work out that it was a container port? And how long would it take you? This gives us the world transformed into forms and colours, disguising its origins. Here is another Milstein photograph, this time of a Los Angles suburban neighbourhood:

and another of the same neighbourhood:

Or another, looking just like a striking abstractor composition:

Not all of his photographs so readily become abstracts. This one of the airport is obviously an airport, and yet the appeal of the forms almost overwhelm the our readiness to see the subject for what it is:

What Milstein manages to achieve is a way of reconfiguring and reinvigorating the wonder at our world seen from above. A similar affect and achievement can be found in the work of many other photographers. Kacper Kowalski, name but one, approaches his subject much as Milstein does, but in his world we find far more organic forms, and a rather more peaceful mood:

But it seems to me that all of these images work their very different magic by being in a kind of Goldilocks zone of not too high and not too low to the ground. Too high up and the disconnect with the world of experience is too great. Too low down and it doesn't provide an interestingly different perspective on our world.

Get it just right and we are given the impression of being in a privileged place, seeing our world in a manner out of the ordinary but also to a degree thrilling.


I mentioned that I suffer from mild acrophobia. Sometimes to test my resilience I try to watch the following film to its conclusion. I usually give up after a while as I simply find it to too uncomfortable. Its such a strange phenomena suffering acrophobic discomfort from a film.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Duane Michals - "Things are Queer" (as a Fairytale).

For me Duane Michals is a photographer that I more admire than like. His work is always clever and challenging, but - for me at least - oddly cold. The individual images are not unappealing, but they don't  capture my attention so much as the narrative idea which tickles the intellect without ever satisfying it. Consider one of his most famous image series, 'Things are Queer' (1973):

For those unfamiliar with the work, a brief explanation might help. The work is a circular narrative, with the first and last image being identical, but the significance of the image is radically altered by the narrative. So, in the first image we have what appears to be a bathroom suite. In the second image the camera perspective moves slightly closer to the wall and fittings, and a  foot and lower leg that are so large as to be out of proportion with the fittings is introduced into the scene.

In the third image the camera steps back and our understanding of what we are seeing changes and is partially clarified. What we discover is that the bathroom fittings are miniature and the leg belongs to an adult male who is bending over, appearing to look at his feet. Two other features of this image are important, and not so often commented upon. The first is what we see on the left of the picture, some sort of unidentifiable backdrop on the wall, possibly a map, that appears to be peeling away at one corner, and some other unidentifiable items as well as a partially obscured exit sign.  Secondly, on the right we discover the wall is a reflecting surface of some sort, but much of what is reflected appears smudged, except for the bathroom fittings, some of the bent-over man and some elements of the exterior of a building.

In the fourth image the camera takes another step back and we discover that the third image is an illustration within a book, and the prominent thumb introduces a new character who is holding the book. I think this is in some respects the most important image in the series and I will return to it in a moment. In the fifth image we again step back and the book, with the picture (third image of the sequence) is being read by an indistinct man. In the sixth image we again step back and see that the man reading the book is in some dark passageway, with a lighted exit "at the end of the tunnel".

The seventh image reorients the viewer's perspective upon the sixth image revealing it to itself be a picture within a frame, mounted on a wall. With the eighth image we take another step back and discover that the framed picture of the seventh step in the sequence is mounted above a familiar sink. With the eight image in the sequence take another step back and discover ourselves at the place where it all started.

What are we to make of this sequence? It might be tempting to say the circularity of the image narrative is the point at leave it at that, but this is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, it is hard to not suppose that the handwritten title at the top makes reference to Michal's  homosexuality, and as several critics have taken this to be the key to the interpretation of the whole. Jonathan Weinberg's essay on 'Things are Queer' is among the best examples of this approach, and I certainly wouldn't went to deny the significance of Michal's homosexuality for thinking about what is going on in this work.

The second clue for understanding the work is to be found in the small portion of text in the fourth image in the sequence. It is a fragment of the Brother's Grimm fairytale (from 1812) that goes by various titles, including 'The Story of the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear' and 'The Youth Who Could Not Shiver and Shake'. The Story is about a boy (Hans) who, we are told, is very stupid and incapable of feeling fear (of shivering and shaking). He is thrown out of his home by his father, and goes into the world to find learn how to feel fear as he believes this is a prerequisite of worldly success. After various people fail in their attempts to teach him to fear, he is finally challenged by a King to spend three nights in a haunted castle and promised the King's daughter in marriage if he succeeds. Hans survives all manner of ghouls and threats without feeling fear, and this ordeal culminates in a confrontation with a giant.

The giant promises to teach the Hans fear by killing him. Hans responds that the giant will have to defeat him in a fight if he is to kill him, and the giant agrees, taking Hans to a forge in a basement of the castle for the fight. The giant picks up an ax and splits an anvil in half, to which Hans replies that he can do even better. He picks up an ax and heads to another anvil, and then:

The monster was so surprised at this daring on the part of Hans that he followed him closely, and as he leaned over to watch what the youth was going to do, his long white beard fell on the anvil. Hans raised his axe, split the anvil at one blow, wedging the old man’s beard in the opening at the same time.“Now I have got you, old fellow,” cried Hans, “prepare for the death you deserve.” (emphasis added)
In the Michal's image this is the point in the tale that we see in the open book. The giant pleas to be let go and promises Hans all the wealth in the castle:

The giant kept his word, however, and leading the young man back to the castle, pointed out to him a cellar in which were three immense chests full of gold. “There is one for the poor,” said he; “another for the King, and the third for yourself.” Hans was about to thank him, when the cock crowed, and the old man vanished, leaving the youth standing in the dark. “I must find my way out of this place,” he said, after groping about for some time, but at last daylight penetrated into the vaults, and he succeeded in reaching his old room, and lying down by the fire, slept soundly till he was aroused by the King’s arrival. (emphasis added)
Returning to Michal's sequence of images, the text suggests the stooping man in the image is the giant, the last of the castle-dwelling spirit's attempts to teach Hans fear and vanquish him from the castle. The man in the passageway looking at the image of the giant - and perhaps reading the text - refers to Hans, trying to find his way out of the cellars, and finally finding some light to lead him back to the world above. 

But where do we go from here? The interpreter of Michal's image sequence now has a circular narrative sequence, a plausible reference to Michal's homosexuality (incidentally, the reference to a fairytale, any fairytale, might be said in a very unsubtle way to reinforce this reference), a reference to a particular complex fairytale that itself has been given widely divergent interpretations. What are we we to make of "Things are Queer"?

I don't have much of an answer, but part of the point of these reflections to illustrate my point that Michal's cleverness is so engaging that it overwhelms his imagery as aesthetic objects. He might not care about the latter - though other work by him suggests otherwise - but I do, and hence my admiration without much liking of his work. So much intellectual complexity that grabs us with multiple layers of meaning, but the images are reduced to cold, unmoving means to reflecting on the puzzles of meaning. 

But here are a few more thoughts. First, 'Things are Queer' reflects Michal's belief that photography fails to capture reality, and does so by upsetting initial expectations of a photographic encounter with the real world, leaving us in a reality as "real" as a fairytale world. Here is a wonderfully brief and clear statement by Michal's of the position in his work 'A Failed Attempt . . . ' (1976):

The penultimate sentence in particular could almost be said to said to echo the concerns of 'Things are Queer'. The reflective wall on the lefthand side of image three in the sequence seems to suggest an alternative world, but also one in which reflection and reality are blurred. I may be intrigued and even dazzled by these ideas, but the images themselves seem no less connected with the reality they are used to question. At least, so it seems to me. 

Secondly, the Brothers Grimm ' fairytale employed in the sequence strikes me as relevant. The giant takes Hans down into the dungeons of the castle, to a blacksmith's forge, for their fight, and when it is over Hans says he has to find his way out of that place. The suggestion is that the last of the challenges that are designed to make Hans feel fear takes place in hell in confrontation with a demon. Remaining fearless, Hans overcomes the demon, wins a third of the castle's treasure, marries the princess, and thereby has found a success that his father thought he could never have and that Hans believed could only come if he learned to fear. Fearless is the means to success rather than a barrier to it, and this I take out means we need courage in the face of the queerness of the world. 

But how does this relate back to the fairytale world of the Michal's sequence? Or, how might we relate all of this information to the sense of many that the sequence concerns homosexuality? I'm not sure, but I find the levels of complexity wonderful and intriguing. Its pleasurable to think about, and I often find new things in the images to wonder about. But this seems a strictly intellectual exercise, enjoyable without doubt, but without falling in love with the images that make up the sequence. But also, his work always leaves me with more questions than satisfying answers. But then, maybe if their meaning could be unravelled, they would cease to be quite so queer.