Saturday, June 30, 2007

Travelling light in the Digital Age (I wish...)

Let me get slightly personal for once, by showing you the inside of my photo bag as I set out for Italy on my summer holiday. Having decided to go digital, in order to shoot more of a series of infrared landscapes, I had to rethink my travelling gear. Typically I would take a SWC Hasselblad with two 120 film holders and a Leica M4 or a Leica III, either one with three lenses (35-50-90) on holiday. This would also entail carrying enough films for both formats, color and black and white.

This time I am leaving with a Fujifilm S3 and one wide angle zoom lens, 10-20mm.
I should have thought this to be fairly equivalent to the SWC in terms of weight and volume and that I would have enough spare room for the usual Leica kit to fit in. But digital cameras need batteries, ideally rechargeable, and these need a charger. Now why are most chargers and power supplies much larger and heavier than the items they feed?

Then you have the memory cards issue. Either you carry enough flash cards to last you the entire trip, or you bring some device to empty them and store the images. Not wanting to bring a lap top computer, I settled for a primitive Photo Bank box, that should cover the problem albeit with no preview capability. This of course also needs power, ie its own dedicated power cable.

Slowly but surely I began to realize that going digital didn’t mean travelling light. Once caught by the gadgetry bug I felt it a good idea to complement the expedition with a car navigation system (do I need to mention that this also needs a cumbersome power cable?) and of course the feeder for the mobile phone.

To make matters even worse, I need a reasonably good tripod this time (infrared requires long exposures) and I am partial to a Manfrotto geared head that adds considerably to the weight.
The rucksack has ended up feeling as if it had been filled with stones.

So the Leica won’t come along this time, and I will have to make do with a Minox 35 as film back up for black and white and an Olympus XA for colour negs. They both take about the same amont of space as a packet of cigarettes, and luckily I haven’t been needing them for many years now. As for the back up films, I guess I will have to sprinkle them among my underwear in the family suitcase and fish what I need for the day out of it, each morning.

If this doesn’t sound like holidays to you, I must admit that you are absolutely right. In fact, more than having taken some leave from work, it would appear that I have taken leave from my senses, driven mad by modern technology and the compulsion always to take photographs.

Let this be a warning, my friends.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Das Leben der Anderen

This film is an unlikely but extremely well made tale of redemption by music. Set in the German Democratic Republic at the beginning of the eighties, still in full pre perestroika era, it gives a convincing account of life in a small police state, where at least three hundred thousand were employed to spy on each citizen and indeed each other. A chilling convincing insight in the secret police methods of interrogation, of the corruption of the ruling classes, and the difficult balancing act of being an idealist and an artist subject to pressure and exposed to the detrimental action of compromise.

It is a deeply moral story. The corruption of the system is still a background against which the characters need to define themselves clearly and are forced to stand out, either good or bad. These people had to make choices, and face the consequences. Those who couldn’t take it were either trying to defect or ended up drinking or committing suicide. Now that the cold war is over, and the iron curtain has crumbled, it is important not to forget that it has been in many ways a shallow victory. Neither due to ideals strength nor moral superiority, but rather a continuous attrition that brought the eastern economies to collapse, starting from the Soviet’s Union inability to keep financing the arms race. We still could have made something of the situation if we had crossed the borders in friendship with some kind of West European Marshall plan to help them rebuild, but we didn’t. They were left to fend for themselves, prey to criminals and bullies, often the same people who had been leaders in the old regime and found ways to appropriate state funds and resources in the new era. Some freedom they got!

Let’s meet the characters: the policeman, the policeman’s boss, the powerful minister, the successful playwright, the talented actress, the playwrights friend, a western journalist. The plot in short: the playwright comes under investigation because the minister is out to seduce his girlfriend – the talented actress-. The policeman eagerly takes the task of prying into the life of this seemingly innocent subject (with typical police mentality, the absence of suspicion is in itself suspect), the minister forces the actress to have a sex with him, while one of the playwrights best friends hangs himself. They all come under pressure: the author decides to oppose the regime by writing an article for a western magazine, denouncing GDR’s suicide rate. The policeman has a change of heart, brought about by hearing a piano sonata through the headphones of his spying equipment, plaid by the writer, and decides to protect him. It will cost him his career. The actress chooses not to sleep with the minister any more, is arrested and forced to betray her man, and ends up committing suicide herself to escape the shame. Strong powerful stuff, a Greek tragedy in fact.

In the new order things need not get so dramatic. There is little need for secrecy in private life or indeed little to oppose. It’s a market place of casual commitments, pragmatic choices, retail deals, light entertainment, and nobody needs to get hurt. I suspect ministers can get laid so often as to get bored by it, actresses sleep around quite matter of factly and policemen are hired more often to cover up secrets than to pry them open. It’s the appearances that matter, the PR. We actually and gladly give away our civil rights to whatever agency asks for them in exchange for the illusion of safety and piece and the trimmings of a comfortable life.

So, as this good film plays some deep chords of our emotions and almost forgotten sensibilities, there is a subtle commotion that rises from the ashes at this historical reconstruction: could it be some kind of nostalgia?

Spencer in the Open Field, naked.

When pop group Queen came out with an album cover displaying a photograph of a crowd of naked women on bicycles it was quite sensational. Fifteen years later or so we were looking at the by then slightly discoloured record sleeve wondering, my boss and I, what it would take to produce a shot like that again. It was in the late eighties by then, and model rights and nudity fees were really quite a concern making the proposition commercially hardly feasible. Not to mention the inhibitions of those called upon to strip in public.

Now it’s 2007 and it seems things really have moved on a bit, since it has been possible for the American photographer Spencer Tunick to travel the world and shoot crowds of people in the nude in open settings for no other reward than a copy of the resulting photograph.
This is roughly how I could make out it works from newspaper articles:
You get the news on the internet and invite all would be photo-nudists to some location, apparently they turn up by the hundreds, and then transport them by buses into the actual secret spot where you want to take the photograph. This to try at least to limit the amount of curious bystanders and possibly parasite shooters that may want to crowd in on the happening, uninvited.
Then proceed as usual with large groups of people, directing and so on, and get the shots.

Now there are a few factors that make the production somewhat easier than in the Queen album days: first of all Spencer’s people aren’t photo models but a mixed blend of both sexes of any age and size. Good looks obviously not being a requirement he is in any way concerned about: he goes for sheer nudity and numbers plus unusual setting for effect.
Secondly the internet makes it a lot easier to recruit, spread the news around and collect volunteers from every walk of life for any project you can think of. In fact some maniac even found somebody who agreed to be brutally murdered and eaten through this medium. Whatever one gets a kick out of, I guess.

What really leaves me puzzled is why on earth should we be in the least interested in the photographs. They are not artistic, they do not mean anything, they are just slightly weird and thus amusing. It seems to me all the buzz really is more about the happening itself, the posing of so many in public, than anything else. As a news photo it has all the impact and value it will ever have. Just a curiosity, a trite PR gimmick to attract the attention of the media.
I leave it to the psychologists to explore why we keep finding nudity so intriguing - even though it has become to a large extent quite commonplace on any beach resort or health club - even in a display as totally devoid of sensuality or beauty as that of Tunick’s work. As a photographer, I am at a loss here.

While everyone on the set is in the nude, it’s Spencer Tunick himself, like the emperor in the well known tale, who stands out: talentless and naked.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Brainless in Paris

Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell, gives us an eye opening insight into the lives of those at the bottom of the social ladder, whilst making a convincing case for changing some to the rules that made their life needlessly hard in his time. It is a concerned and journalistic autobiographic essay, but also artistic in the way it makes us feel what it must be like to fall on hard times as strongly as any book could.

Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs adds another dimension to our literary understanding of hard times, albeit a much lesser work in any other respect: that of being not only down and out but also half witted. I don’t mean this as an offence to Jeremy Mercer, the author. It’s just a fact so blatantly obvious that ignoring it would be an act of reading in denial. And now the good news: once acknowledged this, it makes for interesting reading, a real ‘page turner’ in fact. Jeremy’s effort is saved by his sincerity, telling the story of his time in Paris and at Shakespeare & co the way he saw it, truthfully, and even hitting on some deeper “truths” occasionally that really sound revealing if not intellectually challenging. So, Mercer is not a genius, but then: are we? Being honest will bring about the echo of recognition and ring true to our ears more than spectacular wit, for aren’t all humans by and large the same? I think so.

You might have noticed by now how I have omitted to dig into the meat of the book in any way, being extremely judgemental without supporting my opinions with facts and examples taken from its pages. I didn’t want to give any of the story away, somebody even gets killed…
Read it and you will find out how charmingly familiar the utopian blend of righteousness and self indulgence can be by yourself. You will rediscover what it feels like to be young maybe, or remember your hard times if you had any. The filth, the stench, the numbing sleeplessness. Maybe you also met your own ‘George’: the unlikely hero, an older man that pops up when you seem most to need him and deliver you from your predicament by giving you shelter and soup in exchange for listening to life lessons and showing a little deferential respect. Or more, occasionally.

After a while the volunteer bums of the upper classes like most of the guests at Shake. & co grow tired of being bohemien and reclaim their respectability and comfort by rejoining society: they get a job, move in with a rich girl or boy friend or simply go home to mum and dad. Not ground to pieces by a relentless and unjust system like the Orwellian characters, they inevitably fall back into place as it were, in the larger scheme of things, due to the gravitational forces that push us on from birth and whose dynamics are so hard to break free of.

If it is fair to judge a society on the basis of how the lower classes fare, it must be seen as some credit to France - if but a very meagre consolation to the unfortunate who have to endure it- that being homeless in Paris is reputedly better than in any other capital of the world.