“Farewell to Shuffleboat River,
I’ve been here a while too long.
And that well-known leaving feeling,
It’s coming on so strong.”
- Michael Chapman, Shuffleboat River Farewell
A channel of water zig-zags across the beach and leaves the shore, just as photographer Vanessa Winship left it. Like the songwriter Michael Chapman, Winship once lived by this river but moved away. But in 2010, she revisited this place from which she sprang and made some photographs.
Irrespective of where she has made them, from the Near East to the USA, Winship’s pictures never shout. They generally whisper, they quietly insist. But her Humber photographs are different: they are all stony silence.
Like Chapman, Winship used to ride on the boats which crossed the Humber before the bridge was built. But in her 2010 photographs the bridge stands silent, as if disused. It’s almost elegiac, with humans apparently erased from the landscape. There is little here but rocks and churned-up concrete amidst the weeds. It’s as if some apocalypse has occurred.
It has been said that all good photographs are self-portraits. If Vanessa Winship's Humber pictures are in any way self-portraits, perhaps they say that whatever there was here for her has now gone. Perhaps it’s been destroyed. Or perhaps it’s just moved on, just as she’s moved on.
From the words of his song, Michael Chapman isn’t coming back to live here. And judging by these pictures, Vanessa Winship isn’t coming back either. But perhaps this is as it should be. After all, none of us can truly go back, can we?
Words and snaps by Simon Bowcock
Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds was exhibited at the Barbican Art Gallery over summer 2018.
The accompanying book is published by Mack.
“The camera never lies.”
- Buck’s Fizz, My Camera Never Lies, 1982.
As we all know, Buck’s Fizz were telling a big fat lie. The reasons it is a lie are legion.
Choices or accidents in making a picture – framing, timing, lighting, and so on – can transform the final result. In a portrait, these are the things that make the the same sitter look intelligent or stupid, evil or heroic, happy or sad, beautiful or ugly. Add to this scenic interference by the photographer – say, annoying the sitter by snatching his cigar away – and we increase the potential for fibs to be told and viewers misled, right at the moment the shutter is clicked.
And all this is before the infinite manipulations possible ‘post production’. Trotsky was disappeared completely from the famous photograph of Lenin rousing the rabble. A curvy Kate Winslet was rendered stick thin on the cover of GQ. These are just two of probably billions of examples across the past one and a half centuries.
But there’s so much more. The single most important determinant of how a photograph is interpreted has little to do with the photograph itself. Usually, it is the context in which a photograph is presented which carries the most weight. In photography as in speech: it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it. A Spanish woman looking up at a speaker on a platform in peacetime has become a woman scanning the sky in fear of bomber aircraft. This is just one of innumerable examples since the medium's invention of photographic recontextualization transforming a picture's meaning.
And it seems we’re constantly introducing new variables. Both of the above pictures were taken of the same scene from the same angle at almost exactly the same time, with the same camera with the same settings in the same light by the same person with same intentions. Neither has been subjected to post production. As far as the hapless photographer is concerned, the differences are purely accidental, a result of decisions made by the camera in his smartphone even before it captured the image.
Photographs have always been approximations, fictions, or – if you like – damned lies. But in making life easier for the photographer and entrusting more and more decisions to technology, we are not helping matters. Perhaps in our quest to make things better, we’re actually making them worse.
- Simon Bowcock
The book in the picture is by Stefanie Moshammer and is published by Spector Books. Simon reviewed it for 1000 Words.
It’s there on the cover, and in many of the pictures inside. On the horizon, in the background. Grey, brutal and ugly, it’s coming. And it’s not going to stop.
It’s coming, the smoke and the steel and concrete, but it’s not quite here yet. Here, we still have the makeshift, the ramshackle: make-do-and-mend constructions, ingeniously put together at low cost, created from what’s available. Some look like they have been built entirely from pre-used materials, the architectural equivalent of arte povera. All weathered wood, they fit with the environment, complement it, and look like a natural part of it. These improvised structures have a dilapidated beauty, compounded by a look of triumph over adversity. And each one is idiosyncratic, unique.
The noble, stoic and sombre men in this beautiful but harsh place are weatherbeaten. But they also look beaten, like they know the game is up. Only the boys raise a naïve smile. A community of fishermen still active, but now only just about scraping by.
This is the last outpost. Large-scale industry can be seen creeping into the background. It’s in our field of vision, and it’s advancing relentlessly. Big business will swallow small enterprise, and it will shatter the natural beauty of this place.
They don't peddle any nostalgia, harking back to any mythical golden past. And they may look calm and quiet, neutral and detached. But these are passionate pictures. Ian Macdonald’s lovingly-crafted photographs of almost fifty years ago might be of Greatham Creek – a small marshy area near where the Tees meets the North Sea – but they could stand for the country, the West, even the world.
Perhaps what they show is the end, when the last of the traditional makes way for the industrial, when sustainability is finally eaten by mass-scale production, consumption and environmental destruction. That pivotal moment of transition when globalised business engulfs the the small scale. When the unique is replaced by the homogenous, and the reused is supplanted by the replicated.
The very moment the individual is squeezed out by The Man.
Text and spread snaps by Simon Bowcock.
Photographs by Ian Macdonald.
Many thanks to Craig Atkinson.
Ian Macdonald's Greatham Creek 1969-1974 is published by Café Royal Books.
Phoebe Kiely’s book They Were My Landscape might be the result of intense stopping and staring, but not at some poetic rural idyll. This landscape is generally the more prosaic urban environment which most of us inhabit (she is, after all, based in Salford).
If the concept of ‘mindfulness’ applies to photography, then it applies here par excellence. Some people focus their attention on nature, such as the leaves on the trees as they walk through the park. But Kiely looks longer and harder at her everyday surroundings. She looks at what’s there now.
No snapshots these. This is is the long look. And Kiely’s contemplative metaphysical approach to picture taking is matched by her physical approach to print making: she uses medium-format film and painstakingly hand prints the photographs in a darkroom on fibre-based paper. The images in the book were made from these actual prints, not some JPEGs from a digital camera reproduction, and not even from scanned negatives. So the pictures in They Were My Landscape are the result of a thoughtful and slow process.
They may be slightly smaller and neither quite as exquisite nor as tactile, but the pages in the book are a reasonable facsimile of the prints. True, the richness and the depth of blacks and the texture of the hand-crafted art objects are not quite matched, but the same feelings and thoughts occur to the viewer.
Subtle visual correspondences occur throughout the book: the form of a branch in one picture is redrawn in another by spume on water; the small angular shape in some whitewash is subsequently retraced in a tiny functional graffito; the tattered Union flag is later mirrored by a pert tree stump. There is such delicate subtlety in the photographs that there is something new each time you look.
You hear a lot about slow food, even slow journalism. Perhaps this is slow photography. The time and care invested in making these pictures needs to be matched by time and care spent looking at them.
So stop and look. Really look.
They Were My Landscape by Phoebe Kiely is published by Mack.
Lots of people collect photographs, and many have been doing so for decades. Some great collectors have themes, or concentrate on particular periods or groups of artists. I don’t have the budget to be a great collector, but I do have a penchant for photographs which have been used on album covers.
I was at the Photo London art fair in 2015, where thousands of people come annually to buy photographs. One of the exhibitors, a leading American gallery, was offering a picture of a red ceiling. This piqued my interest, because the image had been used for the cover of an early Seventies album I like. So I asked the price. Unfortunately, at $225,000, it was way beyond my budget.
What’s going on here then? How can a simple photograph of a ceiling be worth that sort of money?
Overall, the thing to remember is what is being offered for sale. A ‘photograph’ is probably too generic and unhelpful a term. Its not just an image. It is an art object, imbued with the aura of (and validated by) the artist, often hand made to exacting standards using a particular process (in this case, something called ‘dye transfer’).
Once we’ve accepted this premise, there are then a large number of factors driving the price.
The first is the artist. The red ceiling was by New Orleans photographer William Eggleston, who is lauded as a pioneer of colour art photography and as an early postmodern artist. A big name, and a big name can translate into a big price tag.
A second reason is the image itself. It’s a renowned one, one of Eggleston’s best known pictures, a celebrated artwork in its own right. Generally, the famous photographs by established artists will command higher prices than their lesser-known works.
A third factor is the age of the print. As a rule of thumb, the smaller the interval between the photograph being taken and the print being made, the more valuable the print. This particular example was made by Eggleston in 1980, seven years after he’d taken the photograph. As such, it doesn’t qualify as a ‘vintage’ print, which generally means made no more than 3-5 years after the picture was taken (to photography collectors, a vintage print is a bit like a first edition to a rare book aficionado). So a similar ‘vintage’ Eggleston print might cost even more than this one.
Nonetheless, as an early print, this one will still command a higher price tag than, say, a 21st-century version. But even a photograph ‘printed later’ isn’t valueless. Even posthumous prints made many years after the fact by estates after the death of the artist end up in museum collections. And museums generally know what they’re doing.
A fourth consideration is the condition of the print. This one was in good order. If it’s dog-eared, torn or faded, then the price goes down.
A fifth factor is rarity. Many photographers now ‘edition’ their prints and guarantee a limited number. But note editioning is comparatively new. So while, say, Matthew Murray editions his prints, Ian Macdonald is a little more traditional, and doesn’t. Eggleston didn’t edition his ceiling picture, and in the 70s and 80s the practice of ‘editioning’ wasn’t particularly widespread. That said, there aren’t too many red ceilings of this age around.
But note the number made is all a bit less important than you might think. The laws of supply and demand apply to some extent, but just think for a minute about the art market in general and Andy Warhol in particular. There are plenty of Warhols to go around, many tens of thousands at least. They’re fairly easy to get hold of. But they’re all expensive - primarily because they’re Warhols, not because they’re particularly rare.
A sixth consideration is provenance: is our red ceiling really an Eggleston? Was it really printed by whom – and when – it purports to have been? Is there evidence to support that? In this case, there was plenty.
There are further factors which will impact the price of a photograph, such as the size of the print. If you want to look in more detail at what can drive the price of a photograph, or would like to look at some collecting options at a much more modest, entry-level price, click one of the buttons below.