Nick Cave’s archive

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There’s a moment the Nick Cave documentary, 20 000 Days on Earth (2014, dir. Iain Forsyth & Jane Pollard) when he finishes lunch with his collaborator Warren Ellis and announces that he’s got to be off, he’s going to the archive. Just the thing for the Brighton-dwelling rockstar to do after lunch.

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[from 20,000 Days on Earth: Nick Cave looks through the archive]

It turns into one of the most engaging sequences of an engaging documentary. It skirts the territory between fiction and nonfiction with scenes played for the camera. Among various conversations on location places like a therapist’s office, Ellis’s kitchen, the rehearsal space, Cave also talks to various people from his past as drives around: Kylie Minogue, Ray Winstone, former Bad Seed Blixa Bargeld. There’s no motivation for it; the doco just cuts to this someone else in the back of the car. Whether it’s meant to be an imaginary conversation is unclear and doesn’t really matter. It’s played straight even if it’s slightly oneiric. Cave and friends are performing deliberately for the camera, but this particular artifice is much more engaging than regular straight-to-camera interviews. And the archive is an artifice of sorts. There is one, but it’s at the Arts Centre in Melbourne, not Brighton.

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 [from 20,000 Days on Earth]

When Cave sits with the archivists, the stories are triggered by objects and pictures: A school photo, Cave in his bedroom, Cave on the couch with a girlfriend. Most of these are prints or projected onto the brick wall. For one though, a screen is pulled down to view it: a photograph of Cave’s wife Susie Bick. She’s not really seen for the rest of the film. At the beginning, when Cave is getting out of bed, she’s a figure next to him but her head is turned away. Later, when Cave is watching TV at home she is not with him and their two sons. In the archive, a screen is pulled down to show a photo of her as Cave talks about their meeting and their depth of their bond. On this screen, there is still only a quick glimpse of her. She preserves a level of anonymity, even at this emotional centre of the movie. (I hadn’t realised this before looking around for other pictures of her, but she’s the model for a famous Nick Knight fashion photo, here also with a hidden face.)

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 [from 20,000 Days on Earth: The screen is pulled down for Susie’s picture]

If we believe that the objects in the scene are the actual artefacts, then the sequence is a close examination of them as primary documents by the primary source himself. The momentary glimpses of the photographs don’t offer up the same scrutiny as being able to look over them in person, but having Nick Cave talk about their meaning is a pretty significant alternative. The 20,000 Days on Earth website twins with an online Museum of Important Shit, which allows anyone to catalogue “things that remind us of those transformative moments that make us who we are”. Artefacts aren’t just for rock stars, and as an anecdote on th Museum web page tells us, chewing gum doesn’t always need to be thrown away.

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 [from 20,000 Days on Earth]

I love that the photographs are presented as part of an archive, rather than a random pile of images. It says that there’s value in the systematic collection and that drawing from it is as vital a part of the storytelling as having Kylie show up in the back of the car.

Book Review: ‘Sanctuary’, Gregory Crewdson

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The photographs of Gregory Crewdson that we are probably most familiar with are the large-format colour tableaux from the Twilight series. Looking like stills from movies about suburban horrors or uncanny domestic settings, their construction is also on a cinematic scale. They are made by a large crew that lights up the location as thoroughly as any Hollywood movie.

Cover of Gregory Crewdson's SanctuaryI found a copy of his monograph Sanctuary (Abrams, 2010) browsing in a remainders bookstore that was closing down (a good price on the last copy, but that’s two layers of book-sadness in a place like that). The pictures look on the surface to be a project in a different direction: they’re in black & white, shot with minimal crew and set design, with barely any human figures. But the set design is already in front of him; the subject of the series is the Cinecittà studios in Rome. New York Times Film critic A.O. Scott has an introductory essay that outlines many of Crewdson’s concerns that remain in Sanctuary, among them the idea of dreaming, or of the aftermath of dreaming: “what is left behind when the movie has wrapped and the cast and crew have departed? […] What is left of the world we dreamed up after we awaken?” (10)

Plate 22 of Gregory Crewdson's Sanctuary

The large-format book has 41 subtly-toned prints of these abandoned backlots. Some of them at first look like old European streets, until, for example you see over a wall the scaffolding of another building, maybe from a different era. The photographs are full of layers. Tonally, there is a real sense of depth, with space and distance being signalled by a mix of dark and pale tones. So many of the these pictures are constructed as frames-in-frames: a doorway opening to the light on another wall, collapsed brickwork in an archway through which you see a hill of wild grass and another building in the distance, an abandoned medieval house behind which sits a block of flats. More doorways, going nowhere into other doorways and passages. As A.O. Scott notes, the work is a “foray into documentary”, but unlike the architecture that artists like Atget saw, these buildings are not real. But their “material presence” is “undeniable”.

With these pictures, in style more straight that his earlier work, Crewdson still manages to evoke an interplay between reality and fiction, artifice and naturalness. A note in the book that the pictures don’t represent the normal state of the studios, that Crewdson asked that maintenance be held over while he made the photographs, also undermines any sense that what we are looking at is the actual state of things. In using this location, Crewdson allows us to see the facades of where cinematic fantasies are made; he also allows another way to be at the border between dreaming and being awake.

Nikon-Walkey Photojournalism Awards 2013

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I went recently to the opening of the Nikon-Walkley press photo awards touring show at the Adelaide Festival Centre Artspace Gallery, on until 16 February. The event was preceded by a symposium on new media and photography. Directed mainly at tertiary media students, the discussion skirted around issues of photojournalism, education, interning, and so on. Photojournalist Nick Moir shared some of his experience shooting conflict. Picture editor Emma Brasier talked about the importance of credibility and reliability. Fivethousand editor Angela Schilling emphasised the importance of interning and cultivating experience. Greg Ackland, photography lecturer from Adelaide TAFE gave a view into his own curiosity and interests by talking about how artists like Adam Magyar and Daniel Crooks were using technology and photography to create, in his words, “innovative and quirky things”. Ackland hardly outlined a straightforward pathway into photojournalism, but he did take the discussion into the poetic. The assembled and generally enthusiastic media students responded well to both the practicalities of the journalists and the curiosity of the artists. The expansion of documentary practice into the poetic is a broader topic for another time, but it was gratifying to see it get a working out in this forum.

The main reason for the event itself, the Awards, showed us a more strictly-defined set of images. The images on the walls were mostly examples of straight photojournalism around a variety of topics in the news. There was a series on the rebellion in Syria from Ed Giles, a look at a little-known conflict in Burma by Steve Tickner, some strong news images from Australia and Hong Kong by Brian Massey. There was a combination of individual images and photographs in series, something we don’t see enough with news pictures. Most of the images are strong and striking; they and their stories deserve to be looked at more closely.

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[Flickr page for the 2013 Nikon-Walkley Photojournalism Awards]

What I found most striking was the number of images that dealt with the issue of asylum-seekers, a fraught issue in Australia made more complicated in the public imagination by the Australian Government’s stance of obfuscation about boat arrivals.

Kate Geraghty’s photograph of asylum seekers showing the camera their IDs, for example, goes a long way towards personalizing and humanizing them, not just by showing their faces, but their names on their cards. It gainsays the typical incognito position that such people are often placed in (often for claims of privacy) and makes a direct plea for them to be known and individualized.

Barat Ali-Batoor’s photo essay of a journey of a group of Hazara asylum-seekers attempting the journey to Australia by boat is striking not just because the pictures show the actual attempt (getting a call at midnight about the boat being ready, people at sea popping up from under the decking for fresh air, lifejacketed passengers calling for help in the rain as their boat takes on water), but for the fact that Ali-Batoor himself is an asylum-seeker. It’s a view from the inside of the experience. Ali-Batoor eventually made it Australia.

What is interesting about a lot of this year’s Walkley images is that they were first published in the The Global Mail, a recently established news site from Australia that provide an independent look at issues with longform and multimedia storytelling. AubreyBelford, for example, has a story about meeting Ali-Batoor. Unfortunately it looks like the philanthropic support that the Global Mail has relied on so far needs to be replaced by another source of funds. Part of the strength of the Walkleys is that a publication like The Global Mail created a space for longer stories, extended analysis, and a novel use of images. It is a fascinating and valuable experiment that ought to continue.

Alice Blanch: Landscapes in film

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It’s appropriate that my first encounter with Alice Blanch was not with the artist herself, but with some of her old darkroom supplies I picked up at a photo fair. They were sold to me by a friend of hers who also handed me a leaflet for some wet-plate workshops that Alice was running. Since then she’s continued to exhibit work widely and run more workshops.

I was lucky enough to have Alice come talk with one of my photo classes recently, and aside from the energy and commitment already evident from her many projects, she brings with her a lot of generosity. She spoke freely and enthusiastically about her technique, her work, and its progression towards what characterises much of it now: cloudy arboreal landscapes shot on film with Box Brownies. She’s called one series the ‘Box Brownie Equivalents’ making her references to Alfred Stieglitz’s work clear. One thing she has done with colour and black-and-white film in the box brownies is to wind the film on unevenly so that the frames overlap while at the same time moving the camera horizontally across the landscape she is photographing. This creates dreamlike panoramas of the same horizon, but one that is layered across itself multiple times like a giant curtain.

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[Alice Blanch, ‘Box Brownie Colour Panorama #10′ Edition of 5]

The grain in the film is palpable, and made more so by the size and quality of the final inkjet prints. The photographs don’t push for high-resolution transcription of the world; the opposite in fact. The final images retain traces of their silver-halide origins. Alice Blanch’s love of darkroom work is evident in some other approaches too: she makes images on large-format film with pinholes, tintypes, she prints the uneven edges of the film, she makes contact prints.

One of the qualities of Alice’s photographs is the openness they have to accident and chance. This is probably one of the defining characteristics of a certain thread of post-digital darkroom photography. In the way that painting was freed of the need to be realist with the emergence of photography itself, now film photography is free to accept and celebrate the imperfections when they happen. I’m not making an argument for the technical veracity of digital over film one way or the other, just observing a particular and prevalent approach.

The webby sky in this picture isn’t some new species of cloud; it’s the result of forgetting to tap the developing tank in between agitations to stop air bubbles from sticking to the film. A mistake, but an evocative and surreal one.

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[Alice Blanch, ‘You and Me #4′ 50x70cm, Ed of 3]

The subject matter of Alice Blanch’s photographs – the sky, clouds, mountains – indicate that she’s listening to the landscape. Their style indicates that she’s also listening to the film. Together they remind us that it’s not just what we look at: how we look at something can be evocative and beautiful.

Alice Blanch has just opened an exhibition of some of her work at the Queensland Centre for Photography.

What is a Rolling Stone cover for?

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The August 2013 Rolling Stone cover photograph of accused Boston Bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev looks like any of the multitude of selfies that appear on instagram every minute. A young man leans back against a wall as he looks into the camera with almost-raised eyebrows. This studied insouciance, along with his curly hair and light beard lend the image an air of glamour. The subsequent controversy around the use of the image came from the iconicity imbued by being on the cover. This cover, though, the Rolling Stone cover. The photograph wasn’t new — it had been published in May in the New York Times.

Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi’s defence of the the cover responds to two objections: that the iconic placement on the cover confers Tsarnaev a glamour he does not deserve, and that it makes him look too handsome. I agree with Taibbi’s response: that many people don’t understand the amount of quality journalism that comes from Rolling Stone, that it’s important to understand that “nice, polite, sweet-looking young kids” can perpetrate horrible crimes and that it is “Tsarnaev’s very normalcy and niceness that is the most monstrous and terrifying thing about him.”

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[left: The August 2013 Rolling Stone cover, right: Tsarnaev arrest by Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Sean Murphy, from Boston Magazine]

What Taibbi doesn’t address is the source of some of the objection: the iconic status of the Rolling Stone cover itself.  It was the conferral of iconicity and glamour that Massachusetts State Police Sgt. Sean Murphy was reacting to when he leaked on-the-scene photographs of a bloody and defeated Tsarnaev as a riposte to the Rolling Stone cover. He states clearly that “an image like this on the cover of Rolling Stone, we see it instantly as being wrong”. Ian Crouch of The New Yorker addresses the idea of the cover and reminds us that Charles Manson was on it in 1970—but this was over forty years ago. The overwhelming proportion of covers since then have been of music and screen celebrities. What I find interesting here is how specific this context is. Most of the images we consume come to us in a feed, a stream, a flood. We see pictures for fleeting moments before they sweep past. Not only that—anyone with a tumblr feed knows that it can be nearly impossible to dig up accurate attributions for individual images as they flow by if the people posting them don’t take pains to do so. Arguably the most common state of images on the web is their statelessness, their lack of context. So to have this picture generate such a reaction because it’s seen to be situated in the wrong context says something about the implicit ways we understand images.

John Berger makes the point in his documentary Ways of Seeing that the reproducibility of images has uprooted them from their contexts as, for example, religious icons (that being the original meaning of and icon) and placed them unanchored into our living rooms and TV screens. Rolling Stone shows that contexts still matter, even as images float ever more freely before us.

Update, 15 August 2013, along with other revisions:
A tweet from media scholar David Campbell alerted me to an analysis of the Rolling Stone cover from former Rolling Stone art director Andy Cowles on his coverthink blog. He makes a visual comparison between the Rolling Stone covers of Tsarnaev and Manson and points out that while Rolling Stone “are quite within their brand and remit to write this story, and perfectly entitled to put this picture on the cover”, nevertheless the glossy logo and the stylish selfie serve to reinforce the narcissistic self-styled glamour of its subject.

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