And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 24 September 2011


Group portraits
 “I can't belong to groups. I've tried. I behave normally, but people don't look at me normally.”
Jeanne Moreau

Behavioural psychologists used to love studying the group. Between the 1950s and the 1980s people like Solomon Asch and Stanley Milgram made their names constructing experiments that examined the way the group behaved. Milgram definitely wanted to consider the question in the light of the Holocaust and how easy it was for individuals to sacrifice their ethics to the group. Asch, who was born in Warsaw but migrated to the US in the 1920s probably had the same set of issues on his mind when he set up his conformity experiment in the 1950s, but he was also witness to the unedifying spectacle of Americans freely betraying one another to the House Un-American Activities Commission; proof, if he needed it, that culture was irrelevant. The behavioural psychologists were ultimately most interested in that moment the group turned into something else, it fell apart or became a mob, and how easily it could be manipulated to reach that state. You also get the impression that Asch, Milgram and the others already knew the answers to their questions and the experiments were needed to provide evidence to formally justify their worst fears.

There are literally millions of photographs of groups floating around. Most don’t hold our attention for very long and if they do it is usually because of the incongruities; someone is behaving out of synch with everyone else, the people form a shape or there is some other graphic detail that makes the image work. Occasionally you come across something else. Everyone has come together for a common purpose, they maintain their essential individuality but the strongest personality belongs to the group itself. Beyond the obvious reasons for the group’s existence, the image represents something more abstract, subtle and interesting, an attitude or character that reveals how groups work. 

In a properly functioning group everyone understands its objectives and their role, whether they’re happy with that or not. The success of the group also depends on each member sustaining their individual identity. In some of these photos the leader stands out though the clues might not be immediately apparent. It is something in their expression or a gesture that tells us they bear the weight of responsibility or in some way they define the essential nature of the group. We can also find people who have been given licence to behave in certain ways, others who have tried to keep some distance from everyone else and sometimes people who don’t really belong. It isn’t entirely paradoxical that people secure their sense of self by belonging to a group. One thing Asch discovered was that some people, or personality types, can be easily persuaded to change their ideas to fit the group but even more independent minded people tended to express doubt rather than outright disagreement, as if they too wanted to be a part of it though on their terms. Unfortunately Asch nor other behavioural psychologists never pursued the further question of whether people who didn’t fit in were genuinely alienated or more simply hadn’t found the group they could fit into. Not feeling a part of the group doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t want to belong. 

Current thinking has it that the group as we knew it is a dying organism. Computer technology has given people more rights to individuality but also isolated them o whether we are sitting on a bus listening to an MP3 player or at home on the Internet we don’t need the tangible group anymore. Neither do groups and collective action require that previously necessary element that everyone knew each other. This is a somewhat overheated argument. Firstly, we can be sceptical about how much of a role social network sites play in spontaneous collective action; you only have to look back 20 years to the collapse of Communism to see that you don’t need Twitter or Facebook to galvanise protests. Secondly, the traditional group is still going strong in families and workplaces, which have always been foundations of social activity. We haven’t replaced them, just enhanced our means of communication. Maybe there are contemporary Milgrams and Aschs conducting experiments on Web based social networks. The suspicion is that they would quickly discover those groups are far less cohesive, more open to suggestion and easily fragmented than a genuinely structured group should be.


Friday, 16 September 2011


Postcards from Nevada – 1940s to ‘50s

“Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.”
Charles Kuralt.

Ever since the 1930s when the Farm Security Administration photographers set out to document America’s hinterland, the west has been defined by a narrow range of iconography; the gas station, the run down motel, the empty highway vanishing into the horizon and neon. Everyone who followed in the footsteps of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange understood that if they wanted to locate their image for the benefit of the viewer they only needed to refer to one of these and all was understood. The west was always more surreal than gothic and what could capture the strangeness more than a petrol bowser or a neon sign out in the middle of nowhere? In the 1950s a photographer (possibly more than one) covered a relatively short stretch of the journey, along Route 40 between Lovelock Nevada and Utah’s salt lakes. The mission was straightforward; take photographs that could be turned into postcards for tourists, but what he, she or they found was pretty much identical to what the more existential wanderers were looking for.

 "Devolite Peerless” in the stamp box dates the photographs to the 1950s and ‘Wendover Will’ as the neon cowboy is officially known was erected in 1952. The photographs therefore were taken about the same time Robert Frank was undertaking his epic journey, about midway between that point at the beginning, when the structures Evans found were relatively new and the late ‘70s, when Stephen Shore and others were documenting their decay. Not far from where these photos were taken the US was conducting atomic tests and the territory would henceforth be cloaked in mystery and conspiracy. It was a part of the country people travelled through without really stopping except to fill up the tank or if they were really pushed pull into a small motel for the night. Unlike the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley, this wasn’t a stretch where people were encouraged to stop and ponder. That would be left to photographers.  

It is striking how easily, maybe the word is immediately, these photographs fit in with that tradition of documentary photography that began with people like Evans and still survives. An unwritten rule for all these photographers was that the west was not a wilderness but a place of human occupation. Our presence was to be explicit in every frame. This photographer (In the interests of fairness, hereon sometimes referred to as ‘he’, sometimes as ‘she’.) abided by that basic rule. That didn’t have to be. In the 1950s the Nevada Utah stretch of Route 40 was still desolate, with plenty of opportunities to photograph the landscape of cacti and desert scrub pretty much as it had been for millennia. The suspicion is that, like most people travelling through, our photographer found the desert to be quite monotonous. What impressed her was the idea of space and emptiness, meaning the distance between people. A photograph of a barren landscape doesn’t capture that but put some human evidence in the picture and you get it at once. The road with the car in “Great Salt Lake West on US 40 -80” tells you more about the remoteness than the photo would if it were just the bleached landscape and sky. 

That is part of the reason why gas stations and neon signs became as emblematic of the American west as tumbleweed or saguaro. They are reference points to help us appreciate how isolated we are out there. Think of the number of films or books where someone crossing the desert sees a roadhouse in the distance and (usually mistakenly) imagines it is a place of refuge. In fiction anyway roadhouses are always places where a character’s life takes a sudden turn, usually for the worst. These are places where a man or woman is alone and vulnerable, and the locals are an odd lot. Border towns also have their unique American mythology, partly because of the country’s long tradition of states rights. Nothing much physically changes between Utah and Nevada but on one side we have Mormon territory with its theoretically drug free and puritan ethos and on the other casino land where people are encouraged to indulge their every vice. In American culture the border town is an ambiguous place, where the law is easily thwarted and freedom is always just a few steps away.

 At least two photographers from the documentary tradition, Evans and Shore, admitted to a strong influence from commercial postcards. They liked the simplicity of the approach, knowing that a minimum of information was enough to say exactly what needed to be said. Some of these photos stand up against the best of their work in the sense that they get the same atmosphere of strangeness and desolation they aspired to. A Google search uncovered a few more photographs from the same area with similar inscriptions. One was dated 1947, another 1954. The photographer was unidentified. Presumably he worked out of a studio in one of the small towns on the highway, Lovelock, Winnemucca or Wendover, and used the postcards as a way to boost business. I suspect that if the name behind ‘State Line Service’ or ‘Nevada Desert Road’ were known they would have been thoroughly dissected for their meaning and significance by now.


Saturday, 10 September 2011


 Modernist German Architecture

“Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space.”
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

 There are two paradoxes to think about when looking at photographs of modernist architecture. The first is that the early modernists, the disciples of the International Style especially, were authoritarian in their demand that the only angle that could be used was 90˚. That was partly a reaction against the florid excesses of Art Nouveau and the unnecessary adornments of neo-classicism; clean, rigid lines were a proper response in the age of the engineered machine. But to capture that idea on film photographers had to look for dramatic angles. The flat perspective of a façade shot front on revealed nothing of the architect’s intentions. The second is that this generation of architects was the first to consider buildings as spaces utilized by people. This was an era when architects like Wells Coates believed an apartment was a place of refuge and it ought to be white with minimal, preferably no opportunity for the resident to decorate it with furniture or objects. Similarly, an office cluttered with distractions was no place to think. Photographs of buildings that included too many people proved the point. You couldn’t see how a train station was supposed to work if the photograph showed a crowded platform at peak hour. Deserted it suggested a transit place of rapid and convenient movement.

 Around the turn of the century a significant break occurred in the way architecture was photographed. In the 19th century photographers tended to choose the point of view that best explained the building. Monuments tended to be photographed straight on, from the point of view that they were supposed to be approached from, If a more imaginative photographer wanted to highlight the emotional importance of the structure it could be shot low down from an angle and made to dominate everything around it. The change in the 1910s came about partly because architects began to think of space as a mutable concept; their finished drawings didn’t have to reflect reality and they made much more use of dramatic perspective. Around the same time German camera companies like Leitz and Voigtlander were experimenting with small, hand held cameras with wide angles and apertures. They allowed photographers to get into positions denied to their predecessors who had to be able to mount a heavy box on a tripod. It’s no surprise that some of the most dramatic architectural photographs of the early modernist era come out of Germany and Austria, the birthplaces of Alfred Loos, Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius. Even before the Bauhaus began articulating theories on what photography should visualize, photographers were taking a cue from architects.

 German modernism of the 1920s and ‘30s can’t be disassociated from Nazism. For one, the Nazis embraced modernist architecture more than any other government – the only possible rival being fascist Italy. German modernist architecture reached its high point with something that was never built; Albert Speer’s reconstruction of Berlin. Had that happened all the principles regarding function, space and human usage would have crystallised. As it was, some of the best German architects were Jewish but even for those who weren’t yet were opposed to the regime, the ways in which modernism could be easily adapted to suit dictatorships exposed a critical flaw in the thinking. Fundamentally, the rigid and tightly controlled designs suited fascism. Where an architect imagined pace allowing flow of movement, a fascist could see the same as a means of control.

 Another connection to consider is the number of buildings destroyed or so badly damaged during the war they were either lost or substantially reconstructed. It is easy to forget that the lost heritage of cities like Dresden or Berlin went beyond the medieval and Renaissance eras and included what, just a couple of decades earlier, had been some of the most contemporary designs in the world. One of the most idiosyncratic was the Tannenberg War Memorial, designed by Walter and Johannes Kruger. At first glance it looks like a medieval fortress but it was built between 1924 and ‘27 as a tomb of unknown soldiers from the First World War. Hitler later authorised it as the mausoleum of his predecessor, von Hindenburg. The Krugers were originally inspired by Stonehenge but also by two decisive battles that took place on the site, one in the First World War, the other 500 years earlier, when Polish and Lithuanian soldiers had defeated the Teutonic Knights. Modernism didn’t always mean a determined severance with the past. National identity and heritage being symbiotic, architects across Europe turned to historical evidence in the landscape for inspiration. In 1945 retreating German soldiers mined the monument, destroying most of it. The Polish government finished off the job in 1950 and only foundations remain.

 All of the images in this post are real photo postcards from the mid 1930s. the photographers most likely had studios in the cities and though unknown and forgotten today were sufficiently aware of contemporary aesthetics to know how modern buildings should be photographed. To a certain extent that involved fictionalizing them, using wide angles to give unreal perspectives and removing as many people as possible from the scene.