Friday, 16 October 2009

The extraordinary story of Vivian Maier

I have just been pointed in the direction of this extraordinary story. Photographer John Maloof purchased some 30,000-40,000 negatives at an estate sale. They were the contents of a safe deposit locker on which rental payments were in arrears. The negs turned out to be the life's work of a woman called Vivian Maier, a Jewish refugee from France who settled in Chicago and from the 1950s into the 1970s photographed the streets of her adopted city.

Working through the mass of negatives and undeveloped roll film took a long time. Maloof found Maier's name written in pencil on a lab envelope and ran an internet search. He found an obituary had been placed just a day earlier in the Chicago Tribune.

Maloof is processing film and posting images on a blog devoted to Maier -- a labour of love to resurrect the work of a life lived in obscurity.

There's also a good piece in the Chicagoist.

There is something about this that has the melancholy beauty of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story...but with marvellous, forgotten -- and almost lost -- photographs.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

After the dance

I love everything about this photograph. It's one of those shots where I think all of the elements fall into place.

Almost every inch of the lower half of the frame has a face in it. If only my timing -- and luck -- were always as good.

It was taken as the crowds milled about after a recent (successful) attempt on the world bhangra dancing record in Birmingham.

At the Synagogue

Recently, Singers Hill Synagogue, Birmingham, opened its doors as part of Heritage Weekend. Built in 1856, Singers Hill is an imposing redbrick Victorian building, designed by Henry Yeoville Thomason, who later designed Birmingham Council House. I spent a Sunday morning there, trying to capture the atmosphere of the place.

The message on the streets...

Sometimes the streets seem to hold a multitude of messages. Thats what struck me about this moment.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009


I've been looking at a lot of Don McCullin's work recently. It has reminded me that McCullin was probably one of my first photographic heroes -- a photographer who really made me look at and think about photographs, almost before I had the vocabulary to do so. A formative figure.

I remember first becoming aware of his work when it was published in the Sunday Times magazine. I can still remember those stark, grainy full-page bleeds of pictures from Northern Ireland, from Cyprus, from Biafra, Lebanon.

It now seems extraordinary but at that time, the very late-60s and the early-70s, I suppose, I knew virtually nothing about McCullin the man. I knew only what I saw in the papers. And yet somehow I still formed the impression of a haunted man with an extraordinary presence.

Now, there's a vast amount of stuff about McCullin on the internet – free for the finding: there's a a great interview with BBC's John Tusa; a splendid 1987 transcript – with photos – from Frank Horvat's series of interviews with photographers, Between Views; and a four-part video interview with Fred Ritchin on the Aperture Foundation website. To name just a few things.

And of course, in the early 1990s he published his autobiography, Unreasonable Behaviour.

Revisiting McCullin has made me very aware of how the internet has transformed the way we can research and pursue private passions. But more than that, it has reminded me that McCullin remains uncompromised and uncompromising. His interviews are incisive, articulate self-analyses of his own worst guilts and fears; his stark, iconic black-and-white images of suffering, of real hells on earth, undimmed in their impact.

What prompted this? Ah, yes, I remember. McCullin has just donated 100 pictures to Reporters Sans Frontieres, the organisation that campaigns for press freedom and defends the rights of journalists around the world. This means that RSF has been able to add a McCullin collection to its list of photography 'albums'. RSF's albums look great, are well printed, and help raise funds for RSF's work.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Family pictures

My family understand that by and large a photography blog is no place for family pictures. And in any case, most of my family hate being photographed. But I – and they – made an exception during my daughter's graduation ceremony last week at Bangor University.

I tried to photograph it with a loose, documentary style, mixing the obligatory set-pieces with more coincidental "this is what it was like to be there" pictures…


I'll be honest, I'm no great fan of summer. Give me the autumn any day, even early winter... I love September, I love the chill that comes in with the dusk. In the deep of winter, I even love the feel of my camera almost frozen to my clawed hands... No, perhaps that's going just a bit too far.

But the summer, it must be said, does offer a wealth of opportunities: strange sights seem to surprise one at every turn – strange anomalies, curious moments, weird juxtapositions that may (or may not) mean something…

And finally, this one, which I like because they look like nuns in an allegorical painting…

Monday, 8 June 2009

Street theatre

I am fascinated by the way that public events – such as Pride, St Patrick's Day, recent additions to the calendar such as St George's Day, and even Remembrance Day – have become big cross-cultural events in which everyone can take part.

But as well as being collective occasions these events are also assertions of self-identity, a kind street of theatre in which everyone – participant and observer alike – is on-stage.

Raghu Rai

The great Indian photographer – and Magnum member – Raghu Rai has a new book out, Raghu Rai's India: Reflections in Colour (Haus Books, London 2009). This is a huge, sumptuously printed landscape volume of full-page images and even, in some cases, double-page images (presumably from an XPan double-frame camera).

Anyone unfamiliar with Rai's work can find a large selection on his Magnum pages here.

In the introduction to his new book Rai writes:
"I believe the photographer’s job is to cut a frame-sized slice out of the world around him, so faithfully and honestly that if he were to put it back again, life and the world would begin to move again without a stumble."

What an extraordinary idea – even as I read it I found it inducing a kind of mental vertigo...

This is the cover image of his new book. I love the repetition of colour, and the slashes of blue diagonals (echoed by the tooth-cleaning sticks in the figures' mouths).

Maybe it's only my imagination, but Rai's earlier black & white work seems substantially different to his later colour – more sombre, of course, but also more monumental, less serendipitous, less given to chance. His colour work, though, has all these things – monumentality but also fleetness, chance, serendipity, a joyous sense of fun, of immersion in the crowd. In fact it seems to have much more in common with the street photography of that other great Indian photographer, with Raghubir Singh, who died tragically early in 1999, aged only 56.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Unite for Jobs

Two weeks ago Birmingham saw one of the largest trade union demonstrations for many years. Here are some moments that caught my eye...

Monday, 4 May 2009

Perrott's Folly

Perrott's Folly is an extraordinary thing -- a 94-foot sheer-sided tower built in the late eighteenth century. It stands in one of the poorest parts of Birmingham. A little way away from the folly stands a second tower -- actually part of the nearby waterworks and reservoir.

Perrott's Folly was built by a wealthy landowner, apparently for use as a hunting lodge -- a retreat for him and his friends. It is extraordinarily easy to imagine its decaying interior lit by flickering candles and each of its five circular rooms warmed by a small struggling wood fire.

It was recently open to the public, showing Sofia Hultén's art installation, DRAWN ONWARD.

Just a little way from Perrott's is Stirling Road where JRR Tolkein lived as a young boy. Perrott's Folly and the waterworks tower are said to be the inspiration for the second part of LORD OF THE RINGS -- "The Two Towers".

Reclaiming St George?

There has been talk in recent months -- both by politicians and media -- that a new shared sense of 'Britishness' is needed and that reclaiming St George's Day as national celebration might help in this.

Is this what lies behind Birmingham's decison to hold an official St George's Day celebration just a couple of weekends back? I'm not sure, but there was one, and here are some scenes that caught my eye...