When you see a photograph credited to a particular photographer, what do you expect? The person held the camera, pressed the shutter, set the F-stop and exposure time? Selected the lens perhaps? Created the set? Dressed the model? Was in the vicinity of the studio, or set?
It seems so feudal when two dozen assistants work diligently to set up the shot and the maestro shows up for a second, or two and presses the shutter (or not) and takes all the credit.
Granted, in every discipline of work and play there are leaders and followers; prima donnas and blinded fans; kings, queens and serfs. However, as a photographer, does this mean that once you have shown that somewhere in your past you could actually compose and crate a beautiful photograph that you can rest on those laurels for the rest of your life?
Case in point the photograph I saw online in a newsletter the other day, shown below. I am showing the credit, as it was given in the publication, however, it is very clear that Testino is neither holding a wire release, or pressing the shutter. Clearly, one of his 12 assistants makes this photograph (there are 11 in the photograph that I can see, so one behind the camera makes 12). There is no ‘Testino’ in this shot, as far as photographer goes, only a set full of people milling about and a famous photographer – Testino – standing on some kind of box, or piece of furniture holding a camera as though taking photos of the ceiling, and trying to look cool.
Is this where we are? Testino claims the work of one of his assistants and we are OK with that? Probably the poor photographer that actually made the photograph is an unpaid assistant, intern or….. Are we OK with this? Really?
Has the profession of photographer rolled into the present age completely un-checked? Values such as honesty, truth, credit-where-credit-is-due…. sharing the wealth, accolades and triumphs with employees? A slave by any other name is still a slave.
We all like new talent, because they do their own work, their own set-up, they press the shutter, make the decisions. Leibovitz’s original work for Rolling Stone comes to mind, not the spliced together images in Vanity Fair magazine, or the portrait of the Queen that wasn’t even there. We fawn over their skill and speak of their ‘raw’ talent, and then they become this soft in the middle, standing on a box, pretender. Past prime and living off the work of those that are unknown, uncredited and forgotten.
I have an idea; let’s roll credits for photographs, just like we do for film. We can see who did the screenplay, built the set, lit the place, and was the Key Grip (I still don’t know what that means, but it always rolls by in the credits), and perhaps the maestro can list him- or herself as the Executive Producer. The one that doesn’t do anything, but sits on set in a comfortable chair and secretly cannot believe his, or her own luck.
After a hiatus in 2020, Paris Photo 2021 was back this November. While I should have written about the event sooner, it is perhaps good that I have had time to digest and think about things before writing.
I was able to secure a hotel quite close to the new temporary venue at the south end of the Champ de Mars, where every morning and afternoon I was greeted by an uninterrupted view of the Eiffel Tower before entering and after leaving the exhibition. This alone made it Paris Photo.
I was astounded by the ease with which traffic moved in and out of the venue. The checking of COVID passes and the checking of tickets and badges was smooth and at least as good as it has ever been at Grand Palais. Full marks there!
Once inside, the venue looked and felt very permanent. There was nothing temporary, or cheap about the construction, or materials used to form the exhibition hall. It was laid out as a giant letter T. At the top, where one enters, there were rows of booths across, separated by main aisles. Down the center column of the T there were first a few more gallery booths, and then the various ‘special’ sections and finally the books and a small stage area at the back. The book section I found was well done. I did not go to the show during any of the book signings, which may have created some serious bottle necks, but when I was there, the opening afternoon and evening and during the mornings later in the week, it was great.
I had an opportunity to revisit some classic images at the galleries. There was a prominently centered print of one of my all time favourite works by Chris Killip (Killip sadly passed away in October 2020), among several of his well known works from the North of England in the mid-1970s. Of course there were superb works by several of the usual suspects: Penn, Avedon, Newton, etc., etc., but equally there was new work, and a few new discoveries for me, which is always wonderful.
However, I did want to point out one booth in particular (You know who you are….); It was an exhibition of work by a single photographer (I understand this is one of the things that you get bonus points for when applying to participate in Paris Photo. Why? I don’t know….). I bring up this particular booth as it showed a mix of modern Estate Prints that looked to me to be printed on 30cm x 40cm paper and hung along side vintage prints some of which were the same size, some smaller. The frames and frame sizes were almost identical throughout. The exterior walls of the booth were predominantly hung with the Estate Prints. I seem to recall, priced around EUR 2000.
I avoid Estate Prints like the plague. They have no secondary market value to speak of, and I think they misguide the new and young collectors, who are dropping good money on something without any real chance of ever recovering even a fraction of their investment. Estate Prints, particularly those that are not limited in terms of numbers are downright scary. They can of course be nice decorative pieces, but so can posters.
In the case of the booth that I am speaking about at Paris Photo, I found deception in the air. I think anyone who is new to collecting photography would be tempted by a price-point in the EUR2000s, for a photograph that they might well remember having seen in a book, or magazine. Of course, the very tempting price point compared to other photographs that were hanging in the main aisles would perhaps have led more than one novice to make a catastrophic mistake. I don’t think the majority of casual visitors to Paris Photo would know the right questions to ask.
Of course, there are exceptions to my Estate Print rule, such as the work of Diane Arbus, or that of Luigi Ghirri. The latter because the colours in his vintage work have shifted so badly that they look worse than my 1975 family album in most cases! In the case of Diane Arbus, the fact that she barely printed any of her work in her lifetime so sadly interrupted, and the fact that her daughter took charge with a master printer has over time proven to be a reasonable way of sharing Diane Arbus’ incredible images.
Perhaps an argument could be made for entry level collectors to have access to work by great photographers, but when you can go into the auction and secondary market and purchase work for under EUR 2000 that is vintage, or at least signed by the photographer in her or his lifetime, it is wholly inappropriate that someone should pick up a modern Estate Print with no real value at an event like Paris Photo.
When you attend an event like Paris Photo, the premier photography event of the year, there is no room for this kind of deception and the booth should not have been allowed to show the Estate Prints in the way they were shown. It made me, as a collector and a photographer want to go wash my hands, if not have a shower.
I don’t think I saw a single Chinese gallery represented, which I found interesting, but of course given quarantine rules in China and Hong Kong, I completely understand that you cannot attend a show and then go home to endless weeks of quarantine. Not good for business.
There were likewise several North American galleries that were not in attendance. This I think was in part due to travel advisories (for instance in Canada) and perhaps common sense on the part of others not willing to take the risk of booking flights, hotels, and crate transport at great cost with the risk of having the whole thing cancelled. As a result, there were several new galleries that were more ‘local’, some European, several Parisian, and these did their best to fit in and bring interesting work.
Overall, it was great to see old friends and new galleries alike and it was in some ways like stepping back to a time when there were no worries and we could enjoy photography for photography’s sake.
I look forward to next year and again seeing new, old and exciting work.
On a final note; I would suggest to the organizers that they find a supplier of modular partitions for 2022. I walked by the event hall on Sunday night with my dog. Tear down was underway, and there was way too much used drywall, and other single use materials that went straight into dumpsters and no doubt from there to landfill. In today’s day and age, that is just not good enough.
15 years ago, I bought my first photograph by Chris Killip. The photograph represents a time in history, where a committed, but impressionable 30 year-old Killip witnessed the bottom of an economic cycle in Northern England, when industrial manufacturing was dying, and poverty and despair were the order of the day.
I relate to the photograph in my own personal way, as I am pretty sure that the young man in the photograph is more or less my age. It is difficult to say exactly, as Killip has not said anything about his subject, other than naming the photograph: Youth on Wall, Jarrow, Tyneside, 1976. In 1976, I was 15 years old, much the same, I think as the young man in this photograph. My father always said that I should always remember that we do not pick where we are born. The Youth on the Wall grew up at a time when things were tough, factories shutting, unions being busted, and the industrial heartland of the United Kingdom gutted.
The young man is wearing a warn jacket – half a suit, I think, that has seen much better days – with pockets appear to have held clenched fists for a very long time, and perhaps a rolled up tweed cap. We can see a couple of stripes at the bottom of a sweater, which to me looks like part of a former school uniform. We cannot see what he wears under the sweater, but I would guess a not-so-white undershirt. His trousers are black and suggest that they have been worn a lot. Long wool socks connect the trousers that look shorter than they probably should have been at the time, with the massive worn boots, that seem impossibly big, or at least several sizes larger than what this otherwise gaunt young man should need. But what really grabs me, aside from the great photographic composition, are the clenched fists pressed against the young man’s forehead, and the lines emanating from his closed eyes, and across his forehead below the very short hair, no doubt cut quickly with a machine. It is as though the youth wants to will himself to disappear. To vanish from the trials and tribulations that form his seemingly endless reality.
The composition of the photograph reminds me of Ruth Bernhard’s nudes in boxes. It is as though the young man is making himself as small as possible to fit in a tiny space identical to the photographer’s frame. His clothes remind me of the grafters that would show up every day looking for backbreaking work in the docks of Liverpool, or Belfast. Men hoping to be picked by the crew bosses for a day’s work loading, or unloading ships by hand. Colin Jones’ work comes to mind. I can imagine that the youth has a rolled up cap in his pocket and could easily fit in among the thousands of day-labourers hoping to stave off the greedy landlord for another day and buy the basics for a simple meal for himself and his family. Of course, Killip’s youth is much too thin and weak to ever get called upon by the crew bosses.
Chris Killip passed away on Tuesday. He was 74. He is best known for his work in North England in the mid-1970s. He created a body of work that was collected in one of the most important photography books of the period: In Flagrante. Killip lived among his subjects, shared their loss and their despair and understood the context of his photographs – if not yet the importance – such that he was able to vanish into the background and show the raw reality of what was happening at a time in history that was cruel, hard, and for many an endless fight to simply survive.
I look at this photograph every day when I walk into my living room. It reminds me that I should take nothing for granted and should be happy to be alive, healthy and eager to take on the day.
Chris Killip (1946 – 2020) Rest in Peace, and thank you for the daily reminder.
Note: First published on The Eye of Photography: https://loeildelaphotographie.com/en/in-memoriam-chris-killip-1946-2020-by-soren-harbel-dv/
– It is sinking in…. even among non-photographers!
Early this morning, I was walking through the Milano Centrale railway station. For the most part you could fire a cannon in the place and hit nothing. For an average Wednesday, it was a little sad. No, very sad. COVID19 is still very much in play here in Italy and people are playing it safe. Doing what they now call ‘smartwork’ which is the new term for working from home.
I passed a bookshop that was open early, maybe dreaming of selling a newspaper or two, and much to my surprise it finally happened…… The photography monographs were mixed in with the painting and sculpture monographs. First, I was irritated, because seriously, who wants to go through reams of books to find the photographers. But then, it dawned on me. This is probably the first time I have encountered an art section, and not an art section, a photography section and an architecture section. I realized that this might just be the wave of the future – finally – where books on Rembrandt sit next to books on Marc Riboud. Martine Franck next to Helen Frankenthaler. You get the idea.
It is perhaps appropriate that I discovered this in Milan and not some other city, because this month kicks off the 15th Milan Photo Festival, which runs from the 7th of September to the 15th of November. Milan has always had a great crop of artists, chief among them Gianni Berengo Gardin – my personal hero – who turns 90 this year! Galleries work hard, alongside auction houses to educate and bring great exhibitions to the citizens of Milan and those that come to visit from elsewhere.
The photograph above is one from my collection, a small vintage print from a platform at Milano Centrale in the 1950s. More people then, than now, but nice to see that Campari was still a great drink then, as it is today! Mario De Biasi was a great photographer, not well known outside Italy, but worth a look!
As a lot of us are locked up at home. The World is holding it’s breath. Life as we know it is grinding to a halt. It is time for comfort, but also for escaping for a time to another place, or another time.
I have for many years bought many, many books of photographs. Books that fill book cases and book cases,
and… well, you get the picture. At a
time, when I am sitting here in my favorite chair with a cup of tea with lemon
and honey – it is too early to add alcohol – I have pulled a couple of books
from the shelf and have spent an hour looking at great images by masters of the
Personally, I have been working on two books of my photographs for a long time. I keep changing the sequence of the images, playing with layouts and wondering about which photograph should go on the cover. I wonder about titles for the images (those that have read a few of my blogs may know that I am not a big fan of titles), and what kind of an introduction I should have.
As I wonder about these things, it gives me pleasure thinking of the experience that people will have when leafing through my books. At least the 5 people that I will give the book to! I am not expecting best sellers, but I feel that photographs in a book are different than individual photographs in a frame on a wall. Also, books of photographs are a way of leaving a message. A footprint, when I will be nothing but dust.
Books of photographs are in their own right works of art. And we all know that art is of critical importance to us all. It enriches our lives and makes for a more bearable existence, particularly in times of crisis. We all see the horror, or sci-fi movies set in the future, where the set is deliberately made to look anonymous, walls plain with no decoration and wardrobes monochrome in the black/grey/white range. This is no coincidence. This is about taking away our humanity and turning us all into just beings in a maze. Like white mice in a medical lab.
We must keep our humanity and we must do so every day. A book of photography is about us. About our lives, our world, our time, and what has come before.
One of my favorite quotes:
Instagram is like frozen pizza, exhibitions are noisy – but a photo book is an act of analogue rebellion in an obnoxiously digital world. – Teju Cole
Makes me laugh every time. So true!
Stay safe. Make some tea, or pour yourself a whisky. Get a book of photographs from the bookcase, and if you don’t have any? Get some. Order books of photographs for home delivery! Escape for a bit. Think of another time, or another place. Transport yourself there. This is what a great book of photographs can do. Innocent escapism! Calm!