Friday, 13 February 2015

Talking About Talking in Seeing 

The Quiet Man Pub (aka The Cop Shop) Midtown Manhattan 1985

In a recent correspondence with a fellow Brodovitch student from the early 60’s, talking about applying one’s opinion and personality in one’s imagery, I was quickly reminded by him of what Dorothea Lange had tacked to her darkroom door: “To contemplate things as they are without error or confusion, without substitution or imposture, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of invention".

I can only suppose he felt that my kind of approach was an intervention that tampered with reality. In response to that, I can only say that what I know, think and feel is no less important than what I see, so I work to reveal something of that in the moments I take from time’s stream. Some might think that projecting my own voice in my visual responses is simply swapping the truth for my truth, and that imposing something of my visual vocabulary is nothing more than imitating. I openly admit to borrowing from a multitude of talents from this glorious history, being that it enhances my understanding and appreciation of the past, while working in the present for the future. It also reminds me and the viewer that visual communication began with man’s earliest scratchings on the walls of caves, so I feel free, even compelled, to allow something of that to work its additional magic on my imagination and the public's.   

My intention here is to articulate and show something of this outlook and its outcomes, as when more than just the eye is open to experience, an abundance of new possibilities become available to explore and capture. Dorothea's reminder to herself “to contemplate” is to think about what you're trying to say and to whom. In my case, it helps me to make the necessary adjustments in terms of inclusions, exclusions, distance, angle of view and timing. It has also helped me to expand my input and output while speeding up my reflexes.

This kind of manoeuvring around the subject clarifies not only my message but hopefully the reading enjoyment of others, while getting me closer to the truth as I see it. This is not tampering with reality. It's clarifying personal meaning while guaranteeing viewer attention and response. My overall goal is to show something of how mindedness and borrowings on my part helped aid me in ways that continue to surprise and inspire me. The first two images, from my ongoing investigation of St Patrick's People, started in March of 1978, were partly triggered by Dorothea Lange - see “Migrant Mother (4)" Nipomo California 1936 and “White Angel Bread Line”, San Francisco 1933. These images of mine were from this large and still ongoing project.

Papal Mass - LimerickIreland - Sept 1979

 “Something for the Boys" Dublin Ireland - 17 March 1979

The first of the second two images have to do with looking at the starting points of this great annual Irish parade. The first of them came about while I was in the process of searching New York's midtown side streets looking to see where my father’s county were forming up to join the march up 5th Avenue. I found them outside the Roosevelt Hotel, a few city blocks east of 5th. What I discovered immediately dictated both the composition and timing of this amazing moment, starting with the significance I gave the crosswalk in the forefront of this image. To my mind's eye, it was also the crossroad between Irish-America and Ireland, and the damaged stripes which I read as my shadow between those worlds. The father holding the hands of his two children (who represented both Irelands) was also a dead ringer for Eamon de Valera, an early president of Ireland, but more mind blowing than that was the portrait on my father’s county banner - to my amazement it was the spitting image of my father when he himself arrived in America from the Old Country in 1931.

The second of these images was taken at the start of the Denver, Colorado parade in 2001. Now although I was half prepared for the absurdity of this moment being that I’m always on the look out, to capture interesting images of people in the process of pointing at this greenest event on the Irish calendar. However I never imagined that a pointing man would descend into the centre of my picture frame (in a bucket) into a group of Parade Marshals involved discussing the parade route. Surely, St Patrick himself had to have a hand in this small miracle.      

My imagery is, admittedly, about me but only very indirectly. Firstly, they are all about my knowledge, understanding, and in this case the influence of my family and extended family history. But most importantly they are about the story I choose to tell, and the reaction I am working towards from the public - they should be astonished, entertained and informed. This would not be possible if this or any other book I choose to do was simply all about me. 

County Leitrim Contingent - New York March 1991

 Starting Point. St Patrick's Day - Denver Colorado - March 2001

This is what is mostly missing from books that attempt to converse with images without a subject and story plan, and/or because the photographer is willing to surrender authorship to an editor. What brought these last two images into being was a very personal reaction to a voice behind me in the first instance and a response to what was before me in the second. This first image came about as I turned around to respond to what sounded like my father’s voice saying, "OK boys, it's time to march up the avenue."

This was the way my father would push my friends out of our family’s living space in the South Bronx at the end of the day. He would say,"OK boys it’s time to hit the hay, tomorrow's another day and another dollar". It’s a saying that I always found remarkably funny since I was only one of a dozen kids in our family and a dollar a day would never cover it. But editors believe, like fathers, that they know best, possibly because Robert Delpire managed to salvage Robert Frank’s view of “The Americans” from oblivion by lending it something of his personal angst. It gave Robert's view a greater degree of lucidity, but really the truth in this kind of personal insightful story telling is that the photographer’s voice is king.

Naturally I remain at the forefront of this communication process, which may explain my modest celebrity. It’s my understanding, intellect, opinion, and attitude and experience that powers my motor and delivers this kind of achievement. Only the informed author is able to recognise the significant pieces of life’s puzzle when they are revealed, and is able to put them in an appropriate alignment to lucidly enhance meaning.  Here then is the second in this pairing that I was so excited to capture. It was to my mind, heart and eye as if "The King of the Green Himself" was garnishing this Dubliner with shamrocks. 

"OK Boys, its time to march up the avenue" NYC 2000
Being garnished with shamrocks by The King of the Green Himself NYC 2002

Since I started out reminiscing with another Brodovitch Boy from my past, I'm kind of surprised that "The Brod" liked me, since I gave him more of a hard time than he gave me. When I gate-crashed his class looking for some really tough criticism, he mostly had only nice things to say about my seeing by stating on that first contact and as next in the queue to show my work: "Now he understood the assignment".

Brodovitch himself admitted that he could not say what good photojournalistic photography is, partly because he actually believed that what is regarded to be good today may very well be considered a cliché tomorrow. This is not all that surprising being he was first and foremost a graphic designer primarily in the commercial packaging business. I remember he would simply apply two pieces of L-shaped black cardboard to a photographer’s finished prints to guide him to what he found to be the most interesting composition. However, I've always understood that the minded photographer uses the desired message and the camera viewfinder as a guide to reflect and capture the relevant moment.

For the first 28 years of this investigation I thought the Irish were colourful enough without resorting to additional colouring, but in 2006 I decided to add yet another dimension to this unique exploration. So over the last 8 years I've starting applying rainbow that everyone knows emanates form the Leprechaun's pot of gold at it's end, and applying it to telling of this quest for understanding on both sides of the Atlantic divide.   

Mother and Child - Long Beach, Long Island, New York - 3 October 2009
Giant Leprechaun being measured by a Small Pirate Woman - Seattle Washington -15 March 2013
Irish Ballerina - Trafalgar SquareLondon - 16 March 2014

"John Patrick Gerald Aloysious Benton-Harris himself"
Pearl River, NY 19 March 2006


Thursday, 27 March 2014

Philip Ray-Jones and Edward Mackenzie

Media Space at the Science Museum London 7th March 2014

Talk by Edward Mackenzie on



My thanks to Fiona Parry, curator of Media Space here at the Science Museum;     Thank you to the audience.  I am delighted to talk about my late friend Tony Ray-Jones and enthuse over his photographs.

I am Edward Mackenzie artist, recently moved from America and I now live and have a studio in Stoke-on-Trent.


We met in New York City in 1966 and hit it off - we spoke the same language if you will, two different personalities – he akin to Prince Hal, myself leaning towards Richard III.  We shared two important influences as artists: firstly, as living outside our countries for an extended period of time, we were better able to observe our native lands.  Without his time in America, I doubt Tony would have made such potent statements about the English.  The second influence was Alexey Brodovitch, the iconic Russian designer and mentor of photographers. Enough of history, I don’t just want to trip down memory lane.  I’m here to talk about and ponder the work of Tony Ray-Jones artist to artist, not letting personal history skew my view.  

I markedly say artist.  I admit that I do not consider most photography as art - it not being more than a wonderful recording device.  Unlike say painting, or sculpture, photography leaves little room for creativity – a small aperture through which a photographer becomes an artist taking photographs. Consequently more power to photographers recognized as artists.  Tony was one of these.

As to Tony’s product - these Exhibited photos:  I’ve seen these photos again and again - so many times - in all formats, from contact sheets to prints to posters etc.  But, you know what? I keep coming back for more.  Entertained, informed and   inspired yes, but more so intrigued by the mystery of why this work works and continues to captivate and move me.


As an artist myself, I’m fascinated by process, including my own, of how to get from A to B (I don’t mean how to mix egg tempera or the application of gesso).  Tony achieved worthy results via a process more of the mind than the Leica and darkroom.  Not to dismiss his technical process, but unlike some other photographers, he did not get stuck with apparatus and the mechanics of photography - rather, having done that apprenticeship, it acted as a primer to the ‘real stuff’.  Tony’s real process as an artist was mental – not how to photograph, but of what, and why.

These exhibited photos are collectively the point of departure for us seeking an understanding of what lay behind the eyes behind the camera; which begs the question – What was this man all about?  The metaphysician would say – we don’t really see with these (eyes) – we see what we want to see determined by what is in our head – what was in Tony’s?  What is it that makes Tony worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of revered English photographers? 

Edward Mackenzie’s Personal Take

My personal take on what these images represent and what Tony was about I see as theatre – English theatre!  The photos are filled with enticing theatrical content: happenings and ‘business’, not to mention a splendid cast of characters large and small (in both senses of large and small).  I include the dogs; if you saw the film Billy Elliot you might remember the dog running up the incline behind the miners’ terrace.  In the accompanying text of this exhibition, someone alluded to the viewer being drawn beyond left and right of frame - curious to know what is happening there – stage left and stage right if you will, pre and post the moment recorded.

Ray-Jones photos tell a story – a drama, but incompletely, leaving the audience (us) wondering what we missed in Act I, Scene 2, or what is going to happen in Act III. What about that silent figure tucked in to the side of the caravan in Morecambe 1967 - what is he up to?  We want to know - and what about the dog?  We are talking ENGLAND as seen by an English photographer – perhaps an artistic cousin of Harold Pinter, or Arnold Wesker, or dare I suggest Arnold Bennett (a favourite son of Stoke where EM lives).  It’s a drama - leaving us to our own devices this side of the footlights– no going back stage to see the actors of this very English drama taking their make-up off.

We are drawn in, only so far.  The mystery and speculation are the enticing stuff of art.  In the incompleteness of this drama the observers (audience) are free to speculate and thus join in, making a contribution – becoming participants in the play.  No less than as participants at the National, MOMA or Tate Galleries.  The photos are as stills in a moving picture rich enough to stand alone.  See Ramsgate 1968 – Walls Ice-cream! Evocative of sticky fingers on leatherette cinema seats – there’s another dog!

I have no definite answer for what makes Tony’s work worthy and esteemed.  I like not knowing.  I want the R. C. Sheriff play not to end.  It is something to do with a kind of power inherent in the incompleteness of story, encouraging query and wonder, the more meaningful minus completeness and closure, as was the life of Tony Ray-Jones, tragically snuffed out at the age of 30.


So, try it on – have another look see at Tony’s evocative photographs.  We are left to question and ponder – no glib explanation will do.  I like the question ‘What was this man about?’  Again, I offer no clear answer, except to say whatever Tony was about it is good enough for us to return again and again for another sip at the fountain of his mind.  Here’s to you Tony, wherever your spirit resides, thanks for the black and white memories.

[Ed Mackenzie and Tony Ray-Jones were fellow students at Alexey Brodovitch's now-famous Design Laboratory some time after me, Tony at Yale the year following me and Ed later. The two met when Tony went to work in New York.  My thanks to Ed Mackenzie for letting me post his talk here. J B-H]


Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Only Baloney

I suppose the best way to start off this criticism of "ONLY IN ENGLAND" (a show that attempts to explore the relationships between the works of Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr) is to challenge Greg Hobson's opening remark in the pamphlet that accompanies this show - Tony Ray-Jones was the first British Photographer to successfully combine documentary photography traditions with a fine-art sensibility, making work that would change the face of British photography.

While I agree that Tony, like Bill Brandt before him, worked mightily and succeeded in marrying those qualities within their different approaches and subject matter, their efforts never really altered the face of photography in Britain. If they had done so, this nation would be awash with more such talents and a vastly improved institutional sensibility towards photography, which would have in turn created a multitude of new possibilities and opportunities for this medium and photographers. And we all know that has not yet come to pass - any more then a Britain free of division by class and tradition.

I would say, as would many others that it is Mr Parr who has altered the face and the substance of British photography, along others like him who think that the art of photography is purely in the approach not the result, and that what you think takes precedence over what you capture. It is unfair to blame the dead for the sins of the living, whose ambitions are far more for personal notoriety then the greater good of photography in Britain.

It would have been far more exciting, motivating, satisfying, and alluring, as well as astute, to have approached this celebration of Tony's influence in an appropriate way, instead of just using his short significant life in photography as a way of celebrating someone with no real connection to Tony and his understanding and his methodology which only makes less of Tony's contribution.

If we are to believe Greg Hobson's words, the most suitable way for him, Mr Parr and The National Media Museum to have approached this celebration would have been to exhibit the work of 10 or more photographers from over the last 40 years who claim Tony as an influence and would be willing to articulate that influence. This approach would go some way towards proving that Tony did influence British photography, and that the National Media Museum are committed to supporting and encouraging new talent and advancing this medium as an art form.

Alternatively, another sound way to celebrate Tony achievement would have been to explain and illustrate something of the "Who, What, When and Where" bulk of Tony's true influences, by showing firstly something of the key photographic ones, talents like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, the notables who triggered Tony's need for decisiveness, social commitment and visual perplexity, mixed in with a further assortment of other key cultural and painterly influences, both American and mainland European. This celebration should have also made it clear that Tony's creative engine for recording life was started by Alexey Brodovitch (1900-1971) and his "Design Laboratory" as a design student at Yale, well before Hank, Roberto and Garry made their influence felt, and that after that while working with Brodovitch in the Big Apple, where he was also infected by "The New York School".

I myself got the best of Brodovitch a year earlier outside Avedon's studio where he then held his sessions late at night in an off Broadway Automat. "The Brod" regularly reminded us all that he was only as good as his students, and stressed the importance of self discovery and not to imitate, which kind of came to mind again while looking at this current Media Space Presentation.

All these above mentioned particulars would have given a real picture of Tony's creative make up, while delivering an astute opening show, worthy of this new space and new centre. It would have done what shows of this kind are meant to deal with, making this experience a delight to the mind, eye and imagination of its audience, one that would also fire a new generation to both value and commit to Photography.

Instead we were given a lot of phoney baloney (Tony's polite way of saying bullshit) about how a friendship that never was, and a methodology that has nothing to do with Tony's way of approaching and commentating on existence by a photographer who claims so much respect and appreciation for Tony and his seeing, yet deliberately ignores the information and other evidence he left us and that is also clearly present in Tony's prints. The intention seems to be to convince us that Tony was primarily a forerunner of Mr Parr's more advanced thinking. The responsible way for the curators to proceed would have been to use that relevant information especially since neither of them knew Tony, or his mind-set.

If they had, they might have come to understand what Tony's prints clearly tell us, that Tony was in the doorway of new understanding that told him "The Negative" was simply the score and "The Print" was the performance" (see Time-Life Book "The Print" -1972) for he had came to understand, in my words "Just as a dance was a measured space, a verse a measured speech, an image was a measured observation". Tony chose to democratise the tonal values and other elements in his observations to give equal status to all the elements, and if Mr Parr and Mr Hobson had bothered to read Tony's prints and trust his judgements, or bothered to talk with me, his closest friend, they would have given us a true measure of the Man. Sadly, as I and many others see it, this was never the intension of this celebration, it was to celebrate Mr Parr as more then equal to Tony, confuse acquaintances with influences, while also making less of any facts that challenge existing institutional prejudice.

A third, easier and most relevant way to proceed to celebrate both Tony and influence, would have been to compare his and my own work as we not only shared a very similar interest in the English, but were also moulded by multitude of experiences, influences and professional friendships that are indisputable. This and the fact that I also played an active role in looking after Tony's interests and printing for many years, guided me some years ago to suggest to the Bradford Museum the validity of doing a show on theme of "England Perceived by Britain's Brodovitch Boys" (which would also included work by others including some of the key notables previously mentioned) giving the public a clear and honest view of how those influences impacted on both a Limey from Wells, Somerset and also a runaway Bronx Yankee. A show that would also be considerably less expensive then attempting to show the multitude of undeniable influences that helped to shape Tony's vision, with the added bonus that would come out of comparing Tony with another locally active talent forearmed with the same unique external influences, committed to the same subject at approximately the same time, with a similar intent and outcome in mind. Such a twinning as this would provide a logical reason for some real comparison, as well as be educational and extremely entertaining.

I can only conclude that all in power at Bradford could not see the value of such a blend and also disliked any references to external influence and thus did not want such truths mentioned. I assume that to them, keeping photography in Britain British was more important then presenting a fully informed, interesting and challenging experience. As I see it, none of that mattered, for Mr. Parr’s celebrity profile ticked all their boxes, and would do more to put this new Media Space and Media Museum on the map, then a showing of two fraternal twins, triggered externally to catch and project images of relevant substance.

Instead we got, aside from Tony's originals in room one, an irrelevant new selection of Tony's already rejected snaps and a larger but poorer printing of Tony's classics that clearly lacked any attempt to take on board his printing philosophy. They put their trust in Mr. Parr's belief in himself and his stated vast experience as a photographer and curator. Subsequently what we actually experienced was a simplistic pairing of a voiced observer with an unchallenging eye, which never came together as a relevant or meaningful experience for me and many knowledgeable others.

I knew Tony well enough to say that he would never had agreed to this ridiculous pairing, that it only come to pass because he wasn't here to stop it. As a fiercely Independent and outspoken individual Tony had no time for the partial truths and clap-trap that was voiced and written to garnish his imagery, that I believe was used to create a bridge that does not support the weight of its proposal.

If this Media Space and the National Media Museum is hoping to gain a growing minded audience as well as some external legitimacy, it had better follow up this fiasco with something more worthy in terms of complete, relevant and coherent content, because as the world shrinks in terms quicker and easier access to information, it will get harder and harder to survive this kind of indignation from both serious photographers and a informed photographic public.

Mr Parr must think of the public as cattle, that will go where he herds them, and that they will accept his twaddle as fact and so disregard what their eyes comprehend, a clear lack of attention to relevant information and evidential detail which tells us that the respect he claims to have for Tony is a sham, and he is merely attempting to claim Tony as an early apostle of the banal, the understated, the irrelevant, and the accidental.

As I see it, the only similarities that exist between Tony's English seeing and Mr Parr's early seeing is that both these bodies of work represented their beginnings. However Tony's early influences, unlike Mr Parr's, was trans-Atlantic in nature, excited by some European and American masters, like Bruegel, Baltus, Bunuel, Goya, and Hopper, as well as the beginnings of other aspects of the cultural ethos of the land of plenty, all mixed in with photographers, again predominately European and American, all rushing to gain a place within his seeing. But as we all can see, nothing of this kind is visible in Mr Parr's early work (or his current work), which is probably why he is looking to claim Tony as an influence.

We can only speculate about what and where Tony would have gone on to achieve. Had he lived, I personally believe he would have returned to America yet again, because he had no patience for the restrictive nepotistic practices that still plague these islands. Mr Parr, as we know, did go on to develop an interest in the seaside, colouring those at the waters’ edge with a bolder, blunter, harsher vision, before moving on to poke his camera at his own rank, with richer colour, that spoilt himself even more then his subjects.

Tony, like me, may not have always had an image approach in mind when he first sighted something interesting developing before him, but he did have a kindness towards people and a rich vocabulary to call on in order to help him define what he was thinking and feeling. I don't get that looking at a Parr moment, and his humour, if we can call it that seems, to my eye to be at the subject’s expense. With Tony, there's was also concern for where the edges fell, most especially in busy observations, which Mr Parr lacks.

The only similarities that can be seen to exist between Mr Parr's early work and the English aspect of Tony's early work, is that they both worked using available light, employing a rangefinder camera loaded with monochrome film, with a preference for wide angle lens. Since that time Mr Parr has moved up to using larger cameras and colour film stock, but still today, as I and others see it, there is no evidence of attitude or substance similarity existing between them.

Tony had a clearly defined motivation behind the moments he chased, and always precisely positioning all the elements in his framing towards that end, and he instantly knew when to take a moment from time, which was, incidentally only when all those elements and his mind-set coalesced to reflect his intent and personality, and no one element or aspect in that selected instant, was regarded or projected as more important then the rest, and all those quality's were visible in his finished prints.
Mr Parr's, imagery on the other hand, as I attempt to seek meaning reflects nothing like that, but they do reveal a negativity towards people and a since of timing that reinforces that. So for me and many others there is no warmth or generosity within them, and as for message its written or spoken before or afterwards, and that's the fundamental difference that distinguishes his snappings from Tony's art, and seeing him twinned with Tony is like attempting to mix oil and water.

I've come to understand all that I know about Tony and his approach to seeing, first and foremost came from our many lengthy conversations throughout our relatively short friendship and secondly thought personally attempting (with marginal success) to reflect his values, via several major printings of his imagery after his demise. Now I must say, even though we were so close, it was still difficulty for me to replicate his outlook. But for someone guided only by what he read and lacking the familiarity of firsthand knowledge of Tony and his aspiration, this marriage was never going to be read as one of mutual love and respect, but simply one of convenience for Mr Parr's publicity plan. The clincher for me and for most came when Mr Parr decided to proceed without regard for Tony's thinking in both his selection and translation on this nation’s inheritance.

The most worrying things to come out of this fairytale presentation, was that Mr. Parr was actually allowed to ignore Tony's notes and evaluation markings, and giving the opportunity also to give us his non-existing insight into a person he never knew, and to my knowledge never even met, simply because of his celebrity and his claimed vast experience as a photographer, collector and curator. This surely tells us that this will not be the last we see of this kind of "Play School" tampering activity emanating from this new Bradford centre for media. This in turn makes this museum archive the last place I, or for that matter any other seriously committed photographer would want to see his or her archive wind up. It also gets me wondering whose body of work will be the next victim, and who will be their next "Kindergarten Cop"? And for the Science Museum to openly associate itself with this kind of disrespectful and dangerous tom-foolery is almost like saying they've decided to join "The Flat Earth Society".

As it is, the National Media Museum has already attempted to create yet another distortion, by telling us that these 50 new images chosen by Mr Parr were taken from 2,500 contact sheets and the 90,000 thousand images in the museums collection, signifying that firstly Tony was prolific, and secondly that they actually had 90,000 images that Tony valued in there collection.

Where these numbers may be true, the facts are quite different, for if these figures did represented the real nature of Tony contribution, just think what a wonderful catch it would be for the National Media Museum to have my archive. Using the same basic fact-math to calculate my contribution regarding my activity behind my camera from 1960-2006, I almost exactly shot 64,000 rolls of film, which would translate to 2,304,000 exposures (which by the way relates only to the amount of negatives I shot, not to transparencies or prints I or anyone may have made). But I still have to account for the 7 years working digitally after that, to bring this exact figure up to date. So I added another 5 % to that figure, and came out with a total figure of 2,419,600 images. Now although these figures are also true, they are also bullshit, for they do not represent the reality of Tony's achievement or mine, and any individual or institution using them in that way has no idea of the wastage incurred in the process of attempting to capture a distilled moment that reflects excellence, or they are also part of this deception. In fact it is generally accepted that if one could just manage to capture one such moment per every roll of film shot, one would be considered a genius. I've got to tell you now that Tony was no genius, and neither am I.

Reading the lines before, between, and after the images in this flawed presentation, some might be convinced that Tony was just an early prophet of Mr. Parr's methodology, but most that I talked with thought there was little reason to move beyond the first room displaying Tony's original prints (and this, for me was the most hopeful sign that I retrieved from this attempted hood-winking exercise.) I myself, entering room 3, felt these additional cold and mostly irrelevant prints (selected by Parr, and printed by whoever) were only the shell of someone who was alive only moments before. Putting it yet another way, it was like being offered tasteless fast food after having just experienced a Master Chef’s exquisitely prepared three course meal, so not surprisingly I had no appetite for this poorly chosen irrelevant excess.

Mr Parr may have been amongst the first to project himself as an "Independent Photographer", but I'm still waiting to see some sign of it. I suspect he equates his self employed freelance status with independence. I recall him on more then one occasion, voicing his disregard for the English photographic establishment, while it was clearly obvious, and not just to me, that he was seeking membership. So today, as a consequence of this that effort, he is more connected to the establishment then a bicycle wheel has spokes to its centre. Tony on the other-hand always said exactly what he thought, and that's just another reason why we quickly became such good close friends, and also why he only began to be regarded after death denied him his voice.

Tony's newly found commitment to photography in America is made us almost immediately fraternal intellectual twins, because he discovered the idealism that American photographers grew up with, which despite the everyday commercial abuses of practices in all camps of photographic activity, still exists today in American photography.

However on his return to England, he was shocked to discover that this idealism was not present here, and our common perception of this made us understand and value each other despite our different cultural backgrounds. Especially after he had taken his first good look at the way photographers who stood their ground were treated in this much more conservative and less informed culture, where the minimalist practices of photojournalism, advertising and fashion photography were even narrower and more restrictive than in the Big Apple. His strong criticism was condemned by the photographic establishment who felt that he had views above his station.

If Tony hadn't been taken from us, he would today be regarded by the establishment here as even less relevant then me, as I was and still remain kinder in my criticisms. Yet being the friend he was, when he left England for the second time, he was concerned about me staying on, and tried to encourage me to return with him, knowing what was also going to be my fate. For some time afterwards he dropped me the occasional post cards telling me to come to California because he had some teaching and was also putting forward assignment ideas and getting some regular work. But I had a young family to support and to tell the truth, I could already see the handwriting on the wall for that kind of working, even before I came to Britain in 1965.

Getting back to the forced pairing in this show, the only winners to come out of this fiasco are Mr Parr, who managed to make less of more, and get himself a free history make-over in the process, as well as to come away looking like a caring patron of the arts, and Greg Hobson who also gets what he believes to be some good publicity for the museum, and possibly another chance to de-value yet another of its archives.

In closing, it doesn't require the input of a Rhodes Scholar to discern that Mr Parr's images have nothing to do with Tony's approach to recording in general or observing the English more specifically, except for the camera and film stock that they both once used. I also know that this arranged marriage of personal convenience would never have been consented to by Tony, and he would have left both Mr Hobson & Mr Parr at the altar of this mischievous invention had he lived. My concern now is that this imagined connection is irrelevant to Tony's achievement, and in no way related to Mr Parr's effort, so it should be annulled by the museum, citing "irreconcilable differences". The quickest way to achieve that would be to immediately remove Mr Parr's insensitive extra pick of Tony's already rejected saplings, and all references spoken or written by Mr Parr regarding Tony's state of mind, being that they have no foundation in fact.

This needs to be done, if this new museum wants its photographic archive to be seriously regarded, not just by its immediate public but in the national and international art community, who as far as I'm aware won't take very kindly to "Inaccurate and/or incomplete information". This is the type of bad news that travels extremely fast in today's world of quick easy access to full and accurate detail. It would also be a good move to add some more sensitive, knowledgeable and interested personnel to its existing staff.

John Benton-Harris © 1/29/14

Author's Footnote Images

John Benton-Harris photographed the 1970 Bath Festival with & Tony Ray-Jones

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

This is War & The Subject of War

A Dear John letter to colleague about - “This is War” & “The Subject of War”
@t the Barbican Art Gallery (16 October - 25 January 2009)

Dear John,

It was nice running into you at the Barbican, and good to see that you are keeping well. It was also good that the Barbican has retained something of my improved thinking on exhibition design and traffic flow in that very peculiar and difficult space. For as you I am sure have noticed, this gallery resembles something more akin to the dining room of the TITANIC, then any appropriate space for hanging art. It was also swell to socialize with some of the artists who make up the gallery’s hanging crew. I must tell you however that I was very disappointed with both the upstairs presentation - Robert Capa’s “This is War” (AKA - Endre Erno Friedmann) and a much smaller presentation by his non-notable girlfriend Greta Toro (also previously named - Gerda Pohorylle). Anyway, looking around this presentation, I would be forgiven for thinking that these small, toneless, grubby un-spotted prints came out of that same long lost valise, which housed those negatives. It may have been sufficient to represent Greta’s contribution to photography, but not Robert’s, for this staging reveals more of the weaknesses of his seeing then its strengths. So if I were forced to come to a decision about Robert’s ability based on this presentation of his work, he would fail spiritually, emotionally and intellectually. And about any question of him being an artist, he would fail there as well.

I realize these are harsh words, but looking at these repetitive rows of small, shapeless and thoughtless moments (although beautifully over matted, framed, lit, and presented) this poor limited selection tells me he was only physically present. And that, in my book, denies him the title of the “greatest anything”, for greatness is a privilege reserved for those who consistently find themselves in the right place at the right time, just for starters. These images for the most part have no real clear readable central drama, and no edge concern either, and both are required to make a message taut, to maximize viewer response, and to clarify one’s intent, to go beyond showing that one was merely present. The majority of these out-takes from time suggest that most likely he was holding the camera away from his eye and possibly even above his head, while running. The bottom line, from this credible reading of them is that Robert failed to adhere to his first principal of seeing, which is, in his own words - "If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough”.

This selection of weak, loose and wanting moments, taken from wherever Robert was, rather then from where he should have been, along with their tortuous repetition and unimaginative juxtapositionings further diminished by slow shutter speeds which resulted in camera shake. All taken together tells us looking at what we got away from the written blurb, that Robert was simply a very nervous adventurer, with poor technical skills, there for the buzz - and didn’t even have the sense to keep his bit of skirt out of harm’s way.

So in order to reassure myself about him and his dedication, I needed to revisit my library to remind myself afresh that there was more to him then met my eye at the Barbican. Although there were those few classic historical moments in this poor portrait, such as “Death of A Loyalist Soldier – 1936” and “D-Day Normandy Beachhead -1944”, their shock was considerably lessened, indeed almost lost, among so many "SO WHAT" images, denying us his humanity or his reason for being a man at war.

This show also attempted to prove that Greta Taro was Capa's equal, or possible his superior, simply because her two rooms worth of shaky out-of-focus snaps that filled her viewfinder slightly better than those of Robert’s on display. Hence Greta’s importance to photography (as seen by the Barbican and possibly ICP - the New York International Center of Photography - originator of this show) has more to do positive discrimination and a feminist agenda then it does with any sighted humanism or commitment to minded seeing.

I do hate it when market forces and distortions of this or any other kind, work to devalue this history. It’s simply much too high a price to pay for her inclusion.

Returning to that Omaha Beach image of a soldier seeking protection behind tank traps from the onslaught of bullets and mortars ricocheting and exploding all around him in on that Normandy shoreline, littered with the floating dead, in the cold early morning light of the 6th of June 1944. This D-Day image was the image that started my modest print collection, back in 1961 although I had to part with it when hard times struck 33 years later. On a more pertinent and optimistic note, my print of this moment was given extended significance by it's new custodian - Steven Spielberg, and it’s influence on him helped to create the opening sequences to his film "Saving Private Ryan", so giving the world a greater dramatized reflection of the events of that horrific morning. To my mind, this was a price worth paying for my personal loss of this historic moment.

The title of this show was lifted from Davis Douglas Duncan’s Korean book, of the same name, published in the early 1950’s. And unlike this show this was a presentation about several things, firstly one man’s dedication to fallen colleagues, secondly about a clearly defined subject and chapter structure, delivered in three parts (1) The Hill, (2) The City and (3) Retreat Hell. As such it had a planned and executed focus, unlike this show, which was plainly based on the contents of a long lost suitcase. So let’s not delude ourselves, into thinking this Barbican offering was about WAR or Robert Capa, it’s simply a cheap, off the peg merchandising opportunity of a known name.

If the Barbican truly wanted to show us war, they would have commissioned someone with the knowledge, commitment and overall sensitivity they lack, so the public could experience the best by those that described its horrors. Someone who would know it needed to include people like - Bernard, Brady, Brandt, Burrows, Capa, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, Duncan, Eisenstaedt, Engel, Fenton, Frith, Gardner, Jones-Griffiths, Jackson, Nicholls, Mc Cullin, Robertson, Rodger, Sander, Smith and Steichen. And if they wanted to do a show about Capa, almost any other published or exhibited view of Robert would have given us a more complete, accurate and complementary view of this man who successfully invented himself.

Now moving on briefly to the downstairs show “The Subject of War”, it was immediately better in several ways. To start with new advances in camera technology make it almost impossible to take an un-sharp image, unless it's ones intent, as today’s new advances in camera technology have given us light, easy to use, cameras with fast zoom lenses and anti shake devices to reach out and get closer to the subject, without getting closer to the action. We also have the ability to alter our ASA (ISO) up and down, and from shot to shot, to guarantee the sharpness and the depth of field needed to tailor a moment to ones intent. This show amply illustrates that so much can now be done in the camera (and or one’s lap-top.)

So we can produce, or more correctly have others produce for us (as with Capa and these photographers), clearer grit free moments that are more complete and compelling to the eye, emotionally, aesthetically and technically, while now also possibly eliminating what isn’t wanted. And all of this technical excellence is present in abundance in this larger gallery space, which also has the added genuflections to current gallery installation thinking. In the case of this presentation this included introducing video screens, positioned (bumper to bumper) to tell two separate stories simultaneously, neither of which were digestible, and both seemingly influenced by morning soap-opera TV. One enormously large wall at the back the gallery has the appearance of a chequer-board, viewed from above, with a multitude of large images running down and across it, without giving us clue as to how to decipher its message.

However, at the opening the staircase between both these offerings seemed to offer me some momentary sanctuary from the past that valued the presence of a camera, more then the mind of the person behind it, and from the now, that seems to value the originality of the observer, more then the content of the message. Maybe I’m being super-sensitive hear, but I kind of feel the designers of this poor donation to photographic understanding also felt that the base of this staircase was an ideal place to offer alcoholic refreshment, for it served as a kind of “Oasis Point” in this desert of deprived expression.

Copyright © 2009 John Benton-Harris

Friday, 28 November 2008

Where We Live

Bronx Boy - John Benton-Harris - examines the validity of
Frank Gohlke’s - “Where We Live”

@t New York’s - Howard Greenberg Gallery 27 June - 22 August 2008

As someone as long in the tooth as Mr Gohlke, and as involved just as long as he in communication through seeing, I feel I have both the right and the obligation to speak of this show, and what I feel are its merits and failings. And since its overall merits are few, and its failings great, I’ll deal with the former first.

The 40 plus prints exhibited (mostly horizontal) are large and very large, by the standards of a documentary photographer of his age and type, and far too big for the smallness of their content, so why he would want to draw our attention to this view of Queens is beyond my comprehension, especially after the gallery handout, stated - “Queens is both a destination and a way station, where ethnic diversity first undergoes the turbulent process of Americanization.”.

Well, looking at this show, I would have to challenge that remark, for there is no sign of habitation, let alone a piling up of people awaiting to be assimilated, neither is there anything chaotic, untidy, or frenzied about these images that would suggest that singularly or en masse. Indeed for Mr Gohlke to capture anything of that, he would have had to take a risk to gain a chance, in a less affluent, more borderline neighbourhood. That way, he could easily show us these same nice tidy homes, adjacent to, or juxtaposed against - Failing Light Industry, Foreign Greengrocers, New Irish Pubs, Indian News Agents, Graffiti, Abandoned Cars, and possible even Sneakers dangling from tied shoelaces from a spaghetti of overhead cable. And all manner of other signs of change and cultural clash, that are easily and abundantly available, if one chooses the right locality, and focuses an appropriate mindset to illustrate transition.

These images are more like advertisements, then anything to do with social commentary, or the art of thoughtful seeing, that having been said, I believe they would be better placed in an Estate Agents window, then on a gallery wall.

So I’m thinking, whoever wrote the PR for this show, was doing it without access to the images, while Mr Gohlke was out doing some simple stock-taking, with his camera in a part of Queens, that looks more like the place that we would find “Stepford Wives” residing then any area in the process of great social and ethnic turmoil. The only kind of reading these observations project is the neutrality and economy of a quantity surveyors list. A list of different types and kinds of required bricks, railings, fences, doors, sidings, windows, awnings, bushes, trees, shrubs, and flower beds. All that seemed to be missing here, was the costings of all these different home and garden accessories, so if they celebrate anything at all, it seems to be “HOME DEPOT”, or some such other like place.

As someone who is a veteran walker of this city, I know where to look for those things that were
promised in "Where We Live" but not delivered, because I've explored a number of such confused and contrasting areas of this borough, and the other four. So I know from experience that all that was mentioned above as indicative of the kind of turbulence is very get-able, as long as one commits the necessary thought, time and effort.

But I suspect he’s a contented one way approach person, and will carry on snapping stylistically as he always has, leaving any sign of personal reading in or across his imagery to others, as well as any accompanying text. And that will always get him into deep-shit with people who can read image-text and text-image, for his promises remain undelivered.

However, on the plus side, as this kind of graphic wall furniture goes, they are beautifully finished and presented, as is the standard of Howard’s gallery. But Mr Gohlke commitment here is merely to shape-up on this dull neighbourhood, that at best reveals an abundance of poor taste, made taut through simple juxtaposition. And to think it took him two years to bring into being this small graphic exercise. Even more astonishing to me, that it should get an outing off campus, let alone at a major New York Gallery.

But to be kind, and to also to encourage the photographer to go back and give the subject suggested in the text, another try, I did happen to notice here and there, a few barred windows and the occasional front door that resembled a small town bank vault. So maybe his mind was beginning to kick in with a little, but too late. From his CV, he seems like a guy who knows how to get access to funding, so if he doesn't feel "he’s already done it" and there is a next time this could be a start point. He might consider trying to let us know something about those who lives there, as I listed earlier. Such as what the inhabitants drive, where they eat and shop, anything like that would help to warm up Mr. Gohlke’s precision and economy, so we are motivated to look again.

At this juncture, he simply gives us access to what we can easily see for ourselves if we venture past those houses, and down those streets. So I must pose the question - "Does this view of Queens really deserves great praise". Yes indeed it does, but only if we were tragically all born blind, and these observations were printed in Braille, then we could all feel our way around the gallery walls, and be amazed.

© John Benton-Harris - August 2008

The Author's Queens

Queens, 2006

Queens, 2009

Kings of the Street

John Benton-Harris looks at:
Henri Cartier-Bresson & Helen Levitt Side By Side
Laurence Miller Gallery (From 5 June to 14 August)

All things being equal (which they never are) we who use photography to communicate should be encourages to be courageous, minded and to speak from the heart, even while working to fill our pockets, as it once was in America. But the commercial world has become smaller, narrower, dumber, as well as much greedier, particularly in recent years. And as an American, who has resided here in England as long as I have, I pine the loss of more mature and optimistic times, in a place when anything was possible, as we made the effort to work towards it. And that’s the most honest declarations I can provide others with, as to why I still return to New York once or twice a yearly, but continuing to speak frankly, it’s to protect and fan that flame that still is in me, to stay alight and grow. And also because here in “Never Never Land”, the UK, there is no home-grown history of serious individual expression or mature leadership, that could spark such a light. Here we merely continue to produce a glut of ambitious photographers, but not a surplus of talented ones. This will continue to be the case, as long as photography is controlled by a disconnected leadership at the very conservative centre of English life.

That is why New York and Paris more particularly today are regarded jointly and deservedly as the Home Offices of this medium. In fact the French have overtaken us Yanks in their celebration of visual expression, through and with photography. Through doing so much more to expand interest, understanding, opportunity and access, with its introduction of major city and regional festivals that are given over to this discipline

Now you might be wondering what has all this to do with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Helen Levitt. Well they are the two significant talents that immediately come to mind, signifying that personal commitment in these twin visual cultures on a personal level. And although very different people with very different outlooks, overviews, approach modes, and subjects, but none the less they are both committed to their personal understanding of excellence. One travelled the world to catch views of people and life that concentrated more on defining his sense of timing, sensitivity, and eloquence. The others eyes being motherly ones, mostly watched over neighbourhood life, with a particular fondness for children at play and the elderly with time on their hands. And speaking of Time, they were both equally obsessed with shaping it, catching it, saving it, and presenting it, all together in ways that capture our attention, our appreciation, and our wonderment.

Helen and Hank (excuse the familiarity) are not just good friends to my eye; they are in their very different ways, life long influences, for her emotional warmth and sensitivity is as important as his structuring and timing. Helen in her later years moved a little further out from her immediate neighbourhood, and added information of another colour to her New York visual symphony, that gained her an even larger and more appreciative audience. While Hank, hankering to be what he already was, “An Artist” in his own right and place, took himself out from behind his camera. But quite apart from these late life alterations, both still remain; put simply “Kings of the Street”

In closing I feel no need to attempt to describe in words, what is meant for eyes to digest; all I will say to those who know nothing of them, they are in for a very special treat, and for them that do, this presentation is chock full of premium works.

© John Benton-Harris - 30 July 2008

Author's Footnote Images: An appreciation of Hank and Helen

Derby Day, Epsom, Surrey, 1986

Notting Hill, London, 1976

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Larry Fink’s “The Democrats”

@t the PACE/MACGILL Gallery, New York (July 4 -15 August)

A Review by John Benton-Harris

I told myself, being that I’m a socially and politically minded observer, that I couldn’t leave town without taking this one in. I suppose I was hopeful that Mr. Fink would reveal some degree of criticism, understanding and feeling for these candidates, their entourages, the press, and possibly even the political process, that would further enlighten and motivate me, simply because that’s what I aspire to do when looking in on “My America”.
Sadly I was disappointed, but equally not surprised; for it takes a kind of distance from the everydayness of American life, and new American Photography, to begin to see and catch this nation, its people and its problems, with a minded timing, and from a perspective that has relevance. It also takes a certain kind of freshness, deceptiveness and tenaciousness, that no stay at home American photographer ever gets to develop. That is why no one since Robert Frank in the mid to late 50’s has managed to articulate a more lucid and complete visual account of the growing complexities of today’s America, for my fellow American photographers are all much to obsessed now with establishment career objectives (obtaining their “Pulitzers” or their “One Person Show at MOMA”) to truly focus on this subject and a meaningful chronicling of it.
I believe that Frank’s stab at this kind of (here hinted at) critical analysis only failed because Robert committed too little, in terms of thinking, analyzing, researching, and seminally never questioned his actions and motives, before during and after his road-running across my native land. He also relied too much on momentary feelings and his innate bitterness towards cold war America, to achieve the exceptional goal that could have been his. If he had only spent more energy and a greater period extending the unique story dialoguing that “The Americans” intermittently revealed, he would be even more regarded the he is today.
Now, if I can say that about Frank, you can guess what’s coming after looking at Fink’s big scale small offering. Let me start by saying, if someone wants to win my vote for being an artist they are going to have to offer up something more then a casual snapping of these candidates and covering all the angles at what is essentially a staged event, especially if they are attempting to market there results as “Art”. Now I do realise it’s not easy to work within a limited time frame and with limited access, but from the look of these 29 large well finished images displayed over two rooms at New York’s PACE/MACGILL Gallery located at 32 E 57th Street, Mr. Fink (to my eyes) made no attempt to use this small opportunity to bring anything interesting or remarkable to our attention, as an able journalist or as a significant artist; he merely looked, shaped and shot when he had line of sight. Then he selected, ordered, finished and presented these outtakes from this wasted opportunity, to conform to his art world signature.
It’s difficult enough to seize on a meaningful moment, when one presents itself, even when you’re regarded, as I am, as a constant pricker of the human condition. But if one hasn’t the quintessential qualities for satirical commentary or something even better to aid and guide one in their expression, then one should steer clear of a explosive subject like this, especially in today’s political climate. But if you’re going to stand up and ask to counted, you had better have something worthy and relevant to offer. Otherwise you and those who represent you will rightly be seen just as opportunists, trying to hop a ride on the political bandwagon, for some quick personal profit. In closing, Mr. Fink’s view of the Democrats may declare his support of this party and candidate, but it offers up nothing in the way of commentary, criticism or optimism, for it poses no questions, offers no answers, and also does nothing to entertain us.

Copyright © John Benton-Harris - 2008

The author's eye-alogue

Manhattan, New York, 2009

Stroudsburg PA, USA, 2010