Archives for category: Photography

This film (2011) tells the story of the impact of the recovery of three boxes of photographs, the ‘Mexican Suitcase’ of the title, that had been lost during WWII and only reappeared in 2007.

The boxes contained negatives of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), as taken by the war photographers Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David “Chim” Seymour.

The negatives are fascinating, and essential, because of the amazing story of war that they reveal, at the frontline and with the immediacy and urgency and authenticity that photographers who were actually there at the moment of action could witness and share. Thus, the images allow us, today, to gain an unique insight into war, with all its attendant brutality and destruction and tragedy.

I had not realised that the Spanish Civil War is one of the most unspoken events in the nation’s history. It is shrouded in silence, or has been until relatively recently, and few who lived through it have chosen to speak publicly. This culture is changing, as younger generations begin to question and to demand answers on their national inheritance – one commented that the Spanish Civil War, of which he personally played no part being born many years later, was the single greatest influence on his life and upbringing.

Photographs play a unique role in both our personal and national archives. They serve to corroborate the truth of the existence of place, and of people. For many of those who died during the Spanish Civil War – over half a million people in total – no bodies have been found, and relatives, reminiscent of Pinochet’s legacy as depicted in Nostalgia for the Light, continue to search for their remains. In the meantime, the only tangible legacy they have are photographs, and the contents of the ‘Mexican Suitcase’ significantly contributes to the reality of their remembering.

All three photographers, Capa, Taro and Seymour, died during combat. Taro was killed during the Spanish Civil War, and the other two later, in the 1950s. It is now extraordinary to see the extent to which all three were involved in frontline action, willingly risking their lives for representations of the reality of war.

And thus, long after the event, we can witness, as we should, the horror of it all.


… not a title, or description, that I usually subscribe to (I have some idea of what a ‘bad death’ might mean, but a good one feels much more difficult to qualify, although it seems to appears frequently, and often glibly, in both the lay and medical press), but this is an interesting piece that I recently came across in The New York Times:

The New York Times photographer Joshua Bright visited and photographed a dying man, John R. Hawkins, for more than a year. He seems to have decided on his topic first, and then sourced his subject through the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care.

Hawkins was ‘being ushered’ from this life by his long-term friend, Robert Chodo Campbell, who is a Zen priest and co-founder of the Zen center.

At the outset, Bright states that he ‘went in search of both a photo project and a profound experience.’

He appears to have found both: ‘ We could use news of a good death. Not a tragic death or a famous death, just a good one, the kind that might happen to any of us if we are lucky.’

Check out the slide show particularly. I remain unsure as to what constitutes a ‘good death’, but I was moved by the images and the intimacy shared.
I defer to Kafka: ‘The meaning of life is that it stops.’ We surround ourselves with living, often ignoring the fact that dying is an intrinsic and inevitable part of it all.
Thus I welcome a redress of the imbalance with portrayals of death and dying as delivered by Bright, but even more so, I applaud John R. Hawkins’ generosity and sharing.

July 11, 2012

The Timothy Taylor Gallery in London is currently hosting an exhibition of 32 of Diane Arbus’s photographs, many of which have never been seen in the UK before. The title, Affinities, alludes to Arbus’s continual exploration throughout her life and through her work of what it is that people share, or do not, and what may or may not connect them.

Diane Arbus was born in New York City in 1923, and rarely left her home city throughout her relatively short life. Whenever she did, she yearned to return. She discovered photography in the 1940s, which became her all-consuming passion. She believed that photography was ‘born perfect’ (Patricia Bosworth, Diane Arbus: A Biography, London: Vintage, 2005, p.189), and she was tenacious, and often reckless, in her pursuit of the ultimate image. Everything she saw, and captured through her lens, was extraordinary to her. Photographs allowed choices, and an exploration of aspects of life, and lives, that were usually considered taboo, forbidden, distasteful: ‘I want to photograph what is evil.’ (Bosworth, p.130). Reprimanded as a child for staring at those who were different, ‘freaks’, as an artist she chose to unscrupulously focus on those on the periphery of society, demanding in turn that we also bear witness.

Arbus too was on the periphery, continually feeling alone and separate, and terrified by an unshakeable sense of aloneness. She suffered from recurring bouts of depression, as did her mother and brother. She committed suicide in 1971, at the age of 48. A year after her death, her work was selected for the Venice Biennale, the first American photographer to have been so honoured.

I have seen Arbus’s work before, but this current exhibition encapsulates an intriguing thematic approach to a significant body of her work. The accompanying notes quote Arbus:

‘…Every difference is a likeness too.’

Thus, affinities here means not just what is shared or similar, but also that which differentiates.

Take for example, Triplets in their bedroom, N.J. (1963), which shows identical sisters sitting in a row. At first glance, they look ‘the same’, but on closer viewing, the photograph subtly differentiates the girls, so that the image we see challenges the notion of identical. Arbus herself described this image as both ‘flat and extraordinary’, the sisters reminding her of her own adolescence – daughter, sister and bad girl (Bosworth, p.217).

Arbus’s great skill was that of creating something real in her photographic representations. Of A blind couple in their bedroom, Queens, N.Y . (1971), Arbus spoke of the relative ease when photographing the blind – there is no mask (Bosworth, p.164). Many of her photographs, not just that of the blind couple, do seem to unmask the subject, to present an image of something authentic. This was not an accident.  Arbus was known for her dogged persistence, her perfectionism when it came to her art, as she relentlessly and tirelessly pursued and froze each image just as it really was.

The exhibition includes photographs of ‘look-alikes’, for example Winston Churchill and Elizabeth Taylor, two girls in matching bathing suits, two girls in identical raincoats…we are told that they are look-alikes, yet the photographs leave you with the sense that the same can also be very different.

The exhibition also includes Russian midget friends in a living room on 100th Street, N.Y.C. (1963), part of her ‘freaks’ series, which was much inspired by Tod Browning’s film of the same name.

There are moments of sublime tenderness, as portrayed in Girl sitting in bed with her boyfriend, N.Y.C. (1966). The series of photographs where Arbus captured her subjects through their mirror reflections are also very moving. I have wondered since why this is. Perhaps, as I looked at the subject looking at the subject, it felt as if Arbus had somehow positioned me where she had been, so that I had an acute sense of her original perspective being frozen in time.

In Arbus’s own personal life, there was an extraordinary symbiotic closeness, and affinity, between the artist and her husband Allan, who she met as a teenager. The couple were often described as resembling a sister and brother, even twins, even in physical appearance: ‘same mournful, watchful expression.’ (Bosworth, p.158). For Allan, the connection did not last, and although they continued to be friends throughout her life, Arbus never appeared to recover from the failure of the marriage and its consequent loneliness.

This exhibition coincides with a major touring exhibition of Arbus’s work, which has been in Paris, is currently in Berlin, and will end in Amsterdam in the autumn, where I hope to see it. I will report back…

Diane Arbus: Affinities

Timothy Taylor Gallery

15 Carlos Place

London W1K 2EX

26 June – 17 August 2012