Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Church of World Press Photo.

The Old Church, at the centre of Amsterdam’s notorious Red Light District, is the location of the yearly World Press Photo exhibition. A very nice building, to me the most beautiful church in town, and certainly an ideal place to visit especially when the late afternoon sun filters through the windows and adds to the already quite suggestive interior. Quite sobering in fact: apart from the nordic white washed walls, the gothic columns and arches, one is in fact walking on grave stones. The whole floor is actually an ancient grave yard, and one can’t help a slight uneasiness at the thought of being disrespectful albeit reassured by the fact that nobody seems to care. Some of these stones are engraved with family arms, or even with images, skulls and skeletons and such like. All are very worn out and can be treacherous to one’s foot hold. Quite the place to indulge in vanitas meditation, I have personally grown fond of it to the point of adopting one of the graves as my favourite and visit it every time that I happen to come. Call it piety, if you will, or hysteria, I find it soothing to be there from time to time.

Old churches have a feel of permancence about them, of unchanging eternity. So does the World Press Photo. Spectacular as they always are, the photographs leave you with a feeling of having seen them before, or at least of being vaguely familiar, or maybe it’s the feeling that they awaken that is familiar and make the experience somehow repetitive. How can it be? Can human tragedy, terrible misery and distress, extreme natural beauty, dramatic action caught at the millisecond, ever become familiar or – banish the thought – boring? It is one of those conclusions at which we do not want to come for fear of being cinical, so a form of self censorship kiks in at the bare suggestion of the feeling. Or maybe it is my age: having seen this over and over, at 45 I have lost sensitivity, while younger people will benefit from the experience therefore making it worthwhile to repeat exactly in the same way.

As it happens a row of computers makes it possible to visit the present and past years of WPP, virtually bringing to the present about forty years of news photography. Truth is, were it not for this wear of the emotions, seeing so much photographs of tragedy would be nothing short of maddening. Nothing seems to be getting better in the world. No matter how many photographs are taken nor how well, matters aren’t improving. So it is unavoidable I guess, that one explosion looks like another, scars are the same, the haunted look on the face of the victims closely related to a common destiny. I can’t decide whether this should be a reason to stop taking photographs, or for future jurors to look differently upon the material that has been sent in, so that the exhibition somehow evolves in new directions. Maybe not, maybe they are right to keep hammering at the same point, hoping ever to make an impact.

I understand the problem of the jury all too well. Next to war and death, everything else feels and is bland and shallow by comparison. So the winner has to be a violent and tragic shot, and other nominees, taken from other kinds of editorial photography, like fashion, must in comparison be regarded as futile and do come across as quite trivial, edonistic, self indulgent, silly in fact and unworthy. It really takes all the soothing that the old graves can give, the sanctity of the place, to balance the crude impact of many of the photographs and help us through and out of the exhibition somehow enriched and willing as opposed to helplessly sad or hopelessly indifferent.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

No Pictures at Magnum 60 years!

Apparently, and most of all ironically, if you are caught taking photographs at the Magnum 60 years exhibition at the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum you are likely to incur in serious sanctions, ranging from verbal abuse up to immediate expulsion from the exhibition or indeed the prohibition of ever visiting the museum again. I am of late increasingly angry at the growing photo prohibitionism that seems to be spreading out over the country. More often than ever security people of all kinds approach me and prevent me from doing my work - perfectly innocent unobtrusive architecture or city views in large format - on some legal pretence. Needless to say, such an attitude would have made most of the Magnum photos on display impossible, maybe even mean the kiss of death for all candid photography and photojournalism. You can't have it both ways: either you accept photographers and let them go about their business and get the pictures or you don't and put a blindfold on the medium. You can always punish the "bad guys" later. If you feel that some photographs shouldn't be published take the authors to court, by all means. But now there is a witch hunt atmosphere out there that I find very frustrating, worse than any censorship: we are prevented from working to start with, presumed guilty by suspicion. The camera, especially when on a tripod, is a thorn in the eye of the security man. Now I think that the very censors would be hard put to name what evil exactly could we perform with our photographs, but this doesn't seem to quench their thirst for regulations and limitations nor sooth their rampaging paranoia.

Of course I am aware that the point of the prohibition at the museum is to prevent visitors from taking unauthorized reproduction shots of the work on display, and is therefore meant as a protection of the author rights. Still there is in that respect nothing in there to reproduce, because in a way there are no pictures at the exhibition (!).There are no fine or vintage prints on display, but the all set up is more a multimedia style presentation on huge screens, with beamer projections that could be rewarding in the size of the image, were it not for the clearly visible pixels that make up the photos. Furthermore anyone can see or download every photograph on the Magnum site from his PC at home, much of the work is so well known and widely published that most of us are likely to own a copy of each photograph in some art book already. No, there is nothing to shoot in there, but maybe the visitors, or parts of the set up, or some funny combination that would be interesting and perfectly in the spirit if not at the level of the very Magum heroes that are being celebrated.

Magnum is an institution, part of the history of photography. As Martin Parr puts it, it is a temple (one that he has rocked with his work, being at the same time proud to be a part of it while allegedly himself an agent of its decadence). Problem is, temples are places of worship, and worship is by definition not critical while progress is always to be found in a challenging attitude of research and renewal. Capa and the other founding fathers were in their time adventurous, I suspect nowadays it is a form of conformism that motivates photographers to join. They want to be sacred and established, while I am convinced that young photographers should found their own new agencies and move on boldly. Do not constantly look for granddad’s approval, not even when he was called Cartier Bresson. Respect the past, and move on.