In praise of St Paul’s
It’s a quiet week in terms of jobs booked, after a very busy spell. One of the things I’ve learnt over many years of freelancing is that there are two responses (or maybe three) to that. One is just to worry. Despite there being more jobs on the way, and actually needing a little space to sort out some of the backlog, this is an easy place to end up. Another is to be virtuous (or sensible) and get on with showing your work to new clients, keeping in touch with old ones, looking at what you’re doing and if there are ways of improving that. And the third (so there are three) is to go and be inspired.
So I spent the day in London yesterday, triggered by Foto8 holding an evening at Host Gallery with Alex Webb and his wife Rebecca Norris Webb. More on that later. While I was down, I took in the wonderful Tate Modern, which is having a bit of a photography thing going on at the moment, so here’s some thoughts on what I saw, interspersed with some test shots I made, combining my D3s with my (very old) Nikon 35mm f2. I’ve been playing with my Leica M6 again after a long break, and enjoying the restraint that a fixed 35mm lens gives to shooting, how you have to work with that limitation to make your pictures happen. Unfortunately, the Leica lens has some slight internal damage, so is going to have to go back to Leica for a proper service and clean before, probably, selling it – but hard to do, given that it’s such an incredibly beautiful thing. I digress.
The Nikon 35mm f2 is a great lens, or it was – I’m also rather attached to it, as I bought it from hospital, while I was having my appendix out (long story), and I’ve got a strong emotional attachment to it for that and many other reasons. It’s certainly small, light and fast, and I’ve got a couple of jobs coming up that would really lend themselves to shooting with a 35 f2. The new Nikon 35mm f1.4 is huge and expensive (but very very lovely…) – I’ve also been wondering about the Carl Zeiss Distagon 35mm f2 (there’s also an f1.4 version, but it’s already a pretty big lens…), which is more affordable, and is earning itself a very impressive reputation. So, lots of reasons to try shooting a day on a 35 again.
To round the day out, I made it a photographer’s day, mainly spent at Tate Modern. Fantastic engagement with photography going on there at the moment. There’s the Burke + Norfolk exhibition, which is from the Afghan war (both the 1870s one and the current one, though in Simon Norfolk’s reading of that they’re just a continuation of each other). Simon Norfolk’s video commentary is here – it’s a great idea, looking at the historical images and seeing where they take us today. If you watch the video, Simon Norfolk’s politics are clear and centre-stage, and that’s a good thing – he’s always been very articulate and strong about how he sees his photography fitting into the world of politics. Where the exhibition may suffer a little is that sometimes that leaves the images a little soul-less (though that is perhaps inevitably, the point). What is clear in the scale of the prints, is the colossal waste and lost opportunities of the war.
Through the rest of the Tate Modern there’s a load of interesting things to see: three rooms of Diane Arbus’ work, one of the great (and disturbing) 20th century New York photographers.
Taryn Simon’s extraordinary art work ‘A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII’ – mesmeric in its apparent simplicity and incredibly complex execution. Definitely worth seeing on a wall, as it’s hard to imagine how it would work as well in book form (though it may be more digestible that way).
[update: this work keeps coming back to me – from all I saw in the day, it’s the one with the most staying power perhaps – watch the video…]
And there’s a series of rooms of ‘New Documentary Forms’, again, well worth seeing. Not to mention the Miro and Surrealists and all the rest, if you’ve got the whole day…
It’s also just a great building to spend time in – great light and shade, and still a wonderful re-imagining of the space.
There was enough time to wander too – I walked over the bridge to St Paul’s which is recently unclad from years of scaffold, and is looking great – I was trying to see Marcus Perkins’ exhibition ‘Being Untouchable – Indian Dalits’ which is on show there until the 6th July, but missed it as there was a service just beginning.
And then on to HoSt Gallery. Alex Webb (Magnum Photos) is one of the people whose work has inspired me in the search for a distinct voice and way of seeing the world. His view is constantly surprising and moving – he talked (and I paraphrase) about photographing how something feels rather than how it looks, and he’s managed to build a whole career on pursuing that. He, like many American photojournalists, spoke with grace and generosity, and genuine humility and humour about his work. His commitment to colour and its complexity is compelling, and his ability to make sense of apparent chaos, and his technical mastery of exposure, which is at times enormously unsettling (in that it often leaves large areas of his images exposed to black, and therefore both literally and metaphorically challenging to read) is wonderful.
He has a recent ‘survey’ book out, ‘The Suffering of Light’ and a lot of the evening was based around talking through some of this work, and approaches to his subjects – wonderfully, ‘curiosity’ is one of the stand-out words to me in what he was talking about, and that interest and questioning really defines his images.
He and Rebecca have produced a joint work on Cuba (drawing on some of Rebecca’s animal/zoo work [as seen in her monograph ‘The Glass Between Us’] as well as Alex’s street/reflective style, and Rebecca talked very powerfully about her brother, and her photographs of South Dakota which almost form a public mourning for him.
For me, a great and inspiring evening (day too).
Richard Hanson :: photographer :: Sheffield