As the year swings inexorably to its close and I contemplate wrapping up my 50/50 project it is inevitably a time for reflection. Many will be writing and publishing reviews of the(ir) year and inevitably one suspects these reviews will be less than cheerful. These reviews will wonder if ever there was a year more filled with loss and desperation, and so devoid of light and hope. Me? I think perhaps, perhaps not.
What has struck me most as I have plumbed the/my past 50 years of song and arts however is that it has left me feeling oddly incomplete and frustrated. The very process of producing this series has illuminated the fact that it’s not really very much at all, is it? Fifty years and what is to show for it? Stood beside the bodies of work I have attempted to illuminate it all pales to insignificance, doesn’t it? Perhaps this sounds self-pitying as only the middle classes can sound. Perhaps not.
As I fumble around then for an artwork to slip into 2016’s slot I cannot help but come close to home. To Dawlish Warren and to an ongoing project whose evidence of existence is intentionally low key. Timid, even. It exists, for the moment, in a tiny window ‘gallery’ at the Exeter Phoenix and comprises a few collected artefacts. ‘Throw Only To Alert Catcher’ is a transient work, an ephemeral work. It is an ambivalent presentation of art that is ridiculously self-indulgent, whose connection to ‘the real world’ is tenuous at best. And yet this is exactly why I like it so much. This is not work that is artfully constructed in a studio, meticulously catalogued and perfectly presented. It is art that is raw; art that is unsure of itself; art that dares to whisper; art that doesn’t care what you think of it; art that cares passionately about what you think of it. It is a work that is collaborative and communal; art that both celebrates the individuality of place and the paradox between the uniqueness and universality of experience. It’s not everything but it is close to nothing and that is important. The value of making art that is as close to nothing as is possible, perhaps. The conflict between our urge as humans to leave a mark and an educated desire as environmentally aware individuals to leave no mark at all. This or that. This and that. Either or neither.
In ‘Throw Only To Alert Catcher’ we see a woman mimic a seal, shuffling across the sands. We watch hands wrap rocks and trace the tracks of the sea’s motions as a lark sings somewhere out of reach. We admire lines of whipped cream that mark the march of the waves which lick their lips, gently acknowledging the barriers with kisses before sweeping all before them. We listen to a detached voice as it describes stones within a circle; an act that addresses our need to connect to the natural world we gaze at yet simultaneoulsy acknowledges that the language we might have at our command to do so is essentially ineffectual.
‘Throw Only To Alert Catcher’ suggests that here is art that exists uncomfortably within its own skin. ‘Throw Only To Alert Catcher’ is art for whom that very discomfort is perhaps its most important quality. For whilst this is a work that explores relationships between the human and the non-human, its ultimate message is perhaps that any attempt to define such a relationship is doomed to at best discomfort and at worst abject (but glorious) failure. If this sounds bleak and dispiriting then perhaps such a reading of the work has been infected by the spirit of the year. Perhaps too though it clings to the notion that even within the atmosphere of loss and desperation we might make attempts at light and hope. Times are tough but we can still picnic, right? Perhaps. Perhaps not.
Those who know will know the reference in my last paragraph to Postcard records and will have smiled no doubt. Nods and winks. Secret handshakes.
Such people will see the connections on to The Goon Sax too, whose sound is suffused by the Sound of Young Scotland perhaps, and certainly by the sounds of ‘I Need Two Heads’, and yes, yes I am disappointed with myself that I felt the need to make such clumsy and obvious statements of connection. But if it is certainly unfair to talk about The Goon Sax as being the group in which Robert Forster’s son plays it is also, for those of a certain age and persuasion, inevitable. So perhaps it is best that it has been got out of the way first. Perhaps it is for the best that we start by stating the obvious; the obvious being that even if the sound of The Goon Sax’s debut record is unquestionably infected by the spirits of ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ we would doubtless make those observations regardless of genealogy. The comparisons would be meant in the same complimentary way as we might have said ‘Send Me A Lullaby’ was tender and awkward and infected by the spirits of The Seeds and Dylan, the Monkees and Beefheart, Archie comics and surfing magazines. All of which applies to The Goon Sax, but with the addition no doubt of many more contemporary reference points that I shall leave the Younger Generations to identify and shine spotlights on, mostly because in my doting age I frankly have no concept of what those reference points might be. Except that what I will say is that The Goon Sax are held close to my heart alongside other Antipodean delights of recent years such as Males, Trick Mammoth and Astro Children. Frankly it sometimes surprises me that The Goon Sax are not from New Zealand.
So certainly The Goon Sax are tender and awkward. Certainly The Goon Sax are Pop that has been taken apart and put back together with intentional disregard for expectations. Or, rather, it has been put back together entirely in line with the expectations of those who like their Pop brittle, twisted, bleakly hilarious. The Goon Sax are sharp and sexy, clumsy and coy. All at once. As if there were any other way.
‘Up To Anything’ then is the sound of excellent haircuts and studied stances. It is the sound of struggles against nature, the sound of 'Against Nature’ even, perhaps. Geometric, angular and amusingly angst-ridden, ‘Up To Anything’ is the sound of teenagers growing up and inwards, simultaneously celebrating and knowingly mocking the very essence of What It All Means. Which means that ‘Up To Anything’ is Richard Hell and Lester Bangs arguing against each other around the same core of being the awkward outsider. No-one wins. We are all losers.
Except: ‘Up To Anything’ is also the sound of little lisps and lips lifting on lips; is the touch of finger tips and profiles traced in soft sand. ‘Up To Anything’ is the sound of tender, hesitant footsteps on the stairs; is the flick of eyelashes on nape of neck and the glimpse of pale pink morning through the softness of night. ‘Up To Anything’ is hope amongst desperation, indeed is desperation as a positive force. Ultimately, should we wish for anything more? Perhaps, perhaps not.
There are people who feel nothing when they read. There are people who do not see images in their minds’ eye; people for whom the very notion of ‘the minds’ eye’ is baffling. I load no judgement in those statements, but more than two decades of teaching have taught me that they are true. Instead I share the observation mainly to point out the difficulty, and, some might say, pointlessness of trying to explain the (for me) essential experience of listening to records. There is a distinct probability that if you are reading this at all then of course you are on broadly the same wavelength. You are in my (very, very small) echo chamber. For those who may not be, well, I can think of few ways of explaining the reasons for my record listening than by listening to this record:
It’s all there. Minor details are different (I was never remotely dumpy and was never a Goth), but essentially, this is it. This is how it feels. This is why it is important to me.
Now I have long felt Jof Owen, who leads the grandly (and sweetly, knowingly ironic) titled Legends of Country, to be a kindred spirit. When I was running my Tangents webzine (remember when we used that word? Remember when it felt like a word that was a harbinger of a bright, positive new age of enlightenment?) Jof sent me his first 7” singles as The Boy Least Likely To and they simply thrilled me with their infectious, sublimely sweet Pop instincts wrapped in a DIY suburban aesthetic. Later he wore one of my record labels’ Pipettes badges in a Boy Least Likely To video and that warmed my heart no end. Connections are what counts. Later still I heard Terry Wogan play one of his songs on the morning radio as my friend Emma gave me a lift into school. It was a delicious conflation of memory and moment, of then and now and forever, for Wogan was the voice of mornings in our house as we got ready for school and here he was again as I drifted through my own forties and he was playing my kind of music. Our kind of music. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry when I listen to The Legends of Country either, so inevitably I do both. This is probably as it should be, for Country at its core is heart and soul. Country at its core is magnificently manipulative and transparently opaque. Country at its core knows the essential myth of authenticity and gleefully plays the myth for all it is worth. The Legends of Country know this. So do The Legends of Country. Of course they do. Of course they do.
To turn back on ourselves then, ‘Turn To Dolly’ then is the song that explains the appeal of songs; is the song that conjures the magic held inside the act of listening to records and of reading (comic) books. Of watching films both on screen and inside your head. ‘Turn To Dolly’ is the song that explains how it feels to be lonely; that explains the value of the connections we make to soothe ourselves and to make the days bearable. ‘Turn To Dolly’ is the song that acknowledges the essential value of those self-curated and created connections to our youthful years, and the way in which we revisit that centre at vital points throughout our lives. The energy held at that core may dwindle over time, but it can still surprise us with the its power to move. It can still make tears twinkle in the corners of our eyes.
We ‘Turn To Dolly’. Of course we do. Of course we do.
I turn to Rachel Duckhouse’s 'St Lawrence Flow 2' daily. Sometimes it is a glimpse in passing. At other times it is a prolonged pause, a feet-apart, leaning-in stare of intensity. Always it brings pleasure. It helps, of course, that the etching happens to hang in our dining room, above the array of Speyside whiskies and beside the chair from which my morning coffee is consumed.
Of course this is a terribly privileged middle-class thing to be saying, and this makes me sad mostly because really Art should be something we can all afford and enjoy. It ought not to be an investment opportunity or a luxury afforded to those who need not worry about where their next meal is coming from. Indeed there are arguments to be made that say the qualities provided by art (in its myriad forms and mediums) are as important to us in the ‘pyramid of need’ as shelter. That the reality of our society is so far removed from this ideal would be depressing if it were not so laughable.
There is a flicker of guilt in my daily enjoyment of ‘St Lawrence Flow 2’ then, but only the faintest, for whilst our purchases may perpetuate the capitalist structures our society is built on (or more accurately that it increasingly feels it is collapsing in on) then there is too the determination to operate as far outside of those systems as is feasibly possible (or, at least, as is physically comfortable, for which see the 2016 Unpopular Advent entry for day 11). Which means supporting artists as directly as possible, through systems as independent of corporate meddling as can be achieved. Conflict. Guilt. Contradictions. Wouldn’t life be dull without them?
There is conflict in ‘St Lawrence Flow 2’ too and this is surely one of the reasons I love it. In the ’St Lawrence Flow’ work Duckhouse takes the notion of organic wave forms and water flows and wraps them in a container that is forcibly, unflinchingly geometric. It is this contrast that makes the work so appealing. Indeed it is what appeals to me most about landscapes in general, for I admit that on the whole I am largely unmoved by the supposed grandeur and magnificence of nature. Often it is only when human intervention enters the picture that my interest is really piqued. Think electricity pylons marching down the Culm valley. Think concrete dams holding back Alpine rivers to create vast reservoirs. Think china-clay pits as photographed by Jem Southam and the attendant brutalist containers that once lined the road into Kingsteington. They no doubt line the road still, but, tragically, progress has since led to this industrial complex being by-passed and I admit I miss seeing those mounds of clay dust contained by angular forms and shadows in summer sun as I cycled past (not to mention the brilliant contrast of tanned legs against the white dusted road surface, but that’s another matter entirely).
‘St Lawrence Flow’ then puts me in mind of our ultimately vain yet magnificently vainglorious attempts to contain nature. It puts me in mind of harbour walls and managed water ways and this is all to the good. It reminds me too of experiments in Physics class with shallow plastic bowls of water. Refraction, reflection, interference and something or other. The magic of science laboriously hacked away to the mind-numbing facts. It looks beautiful, so who cares how it’s made? Who cares about understanding it? Can’t we just enjoy it? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Perhaps it is the same for art. Perhaps it is the same for ‘St Lawrence Flow 2’. As an Art teacher of course I understand how Duckhouse has made this etching. I even feign an understanding of the creative processes that may have led to the form the work has taken. But does this matter? Does this increase my enjoyment when looking into its depths? Of course not. Of course not.
Anastasia Taylor-Lind - 'Maidan - Portraits from the Black Square'
Withered Hand - ‘Fall Apart'
Was it Soul aficionado Dave Godin who was fond of saying that context is everything? I’m sure he wouldn’t have been the first to say as much and he certainly won’t be the last, but was he correct? Is it really? Is it always?
Does one need an understanding of the specific context underpinning the photographs of Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s ‘Maidan - Portraits from the Black Square’ to appreciate them? Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly in as much as these photographs were made within a specific time and place, surrounded and informed by specific events, then that context is vital. Now I admit that my mind was largely elsewhere as 2013 ended and 2014 began, so the news of the protests in Ukraine largely passed me by. Conflict between protestors and police in Kiev during February 2014 registered only fleetingly on my mind; the political and social reasons behind the conflict vaguer still. Taylor-Lind’s photographs then were certainly the catalyst for my finding out more about recent history, but even so I admit that it was the aesthetic qualities of the images that had the biggest impact. It remains so, for they are intriguing and elegant photographs.
Each of the individual ‘Portraits from the Black Square’ give the illusion of being studio portraits, yet in reality they were shot in a street close to the centre of violent upheaval. By visually isolating her subjects from the immediate physical context Taylor-Lind lends the work a tension between what is suggested and what is real, between what is Political and what is human. So are Taylor-Lind’s photographs Political photographs? Is there sympathy with the subjects’ stances? If there is a Political line drawn in the sand, which side of it does Taylor-Lind choose to stand? Is she with us or against us? And who is ‘us’ anyway?
Certainly if Taylor-Lind does make a stance through her photography then you would surely argue that it is from a humanist perspective. A common thread throughout her work is an empathy with the subject that is powerful enough to reach out from the image. It is an empathy rooted in the very simple desire to know people, however fleetingly, and to make connections. A desire to seek the threads that bind us, perhaps. This empathy is difficult to achieve and is, I think, one of the reasons I admire Taylor-Lind's work so much. I know I could not do it myself.
Empathy with a subject is one of the most difficult things to teach when you teach photography. Indeed, unlike the technical aspects of the art form, I think it is something that cannot be taught. I am not even sure it can be learned. Not really. Not beyond a conceptual understanding and acknowledgement. For I believe you either have it or you do not. Me, I think I am too much of a misanthropist at heart, but there you are.
So Taylor-Lind reaches out to people and makes photographs that allow them to give something of themselves to her, and hence to us. It is an act that subverts the ancient fear of the camera stealing one’s soul; is an act that turns fear into love, that turns science into magic. And ultimately it is an act that, for me, makes me crucially question the value of context. Is it always everything? Perhaps not.
In recent years it has been my habit to compile an Unpopular advent series, documenting my favourite records of the year. Perhaps you are reading this in the midst of the 2016 version. Perhaps not. Whatever, the advent activity helps fulfil my need to organise and categorise; to tabulate and to rationalise. Some might suggest that this kind of activity place me ‘on the spectrum’ and I have no problem acknowledging that. I acknowledge too that the temptation has been great to simply recycle the top record from each of these past few years for this series, but the truth is that would be too easy, and anyway the world of records and songs and memories and preferences does not work that way. Except for 2014, where it certainly does work that way, for my favourite record of that year cannot fail to offer up the song of choice.
You may wish to follow the connections and the links and read what I wrote about Withered Hand’s glorious ’New Gods’ LP back in 2014 or you may not. In the depths of those words I suggest that in the record "we glimpsed the ghosts of Gene Clark and Gram Parsons sharing a bourbon in an LA Airport lounge whilst daydreaming of peat fires and Sauchiehall Street.” I suggest too that it was "an echo of James Hackett sidling up to Van Dyke Parks and suggesting they make a record about airplane rides, fading photographs and missing heartbeats.” Those are words that I stand by. They are words and allusions that I still rather like, and they are allusions that are assuredly there in ‘Fall Apart’, touched lightly as it is with a dusting of translucent Pop magic. For ‘Fall Apart’ is nothing if not Pop; is nothing if not magic. It forces you to believe. There is no other option. Come on, come on.
‘Fall Apart’ soars and aches in equal measure. The salve it offers is to the wounds it opens; its heart is on its sleeve and its sleeve is tattered from its own oscillating perpetual assault of self-doubt and self-belief. ‘Fall Apart’ is, like many of the songs in this series of articles, one that simultaneously does this and does that. It is a song that underpins its epic simplicity with a complexity that rewards multiple listens. Just as well then it is also a song that insists on repetition. Come on, come on.
Those who know know the value of repetition. Those who know know the key.
‘Fall Apart’ falls in and over itself, wraps itself in its arms and devours its heart to keep itself warm. Nostalgia gives way to regret; regret gives way to salvation; salvation softly returns to nostalgia and we start all over again. Loops and harmonies intertwined. Words masquerading as ghosts and ghosts slinking away to kiss under the mistletoe. Well why not?
‘Fall Apart’ does this and it does that. It is a song about everything and nothing. It is a song that recognises futility whilst celebrating hope. It is a song that knows its heritage and it is a song that knows that heritage counts for nothing in the long run. Everyone knows this is nowhere, after all, don’t they? Well don’t they? Come on, come on.
“You and I dancing by the light of every dead star”? Of course. Of course. Always. Forever. Come on, come on.
John Maher - 'Bedroom and Chapel' from ‘Nobody's Home'
There is inevitably a degree of indulgence in this 50/50 series. Perhaps this is is at it ought to be, for Pop is a personal experience and if you cannot be self-indulgent with it then frankly what is the point? On the other hand is the self-indulgence of Pop and of writing about it merely a symptom of our disconnected society and as much a part of the problem as part of the solution? Perhaps, perhaps not. Certainly there is a creeping feeling unfurling in my fiftieth year that so much frivolity is misplaced energy.
That said, there is of course a rich seam in Pop’s history wherein artists have used the medium as a vehicle for political (and indeed Political) and social commentary and critique. And if the power of Popular culture as an agent of change has been eroded and erased since its heyday (arguably in the '70s and '80s), partly thanks to increasingly complex commodification and partly thanks to the unravelling of the threads that bound the culture together, then perhaps this is just the nature of history and of art forms within society’s machine. Perhaps though (and this is highly probable) I am just old and of touch.
I am vaguely aware of those in younger generations who still fiercely value the possibilities of Pop as a means of communication and as a medium through which to express frustrations and proclaim allegiances. Colour Me Wednesday would be one such group and if I love them dearly for their progressive, left-leaning idealism I admit I love them more simply for the infectious power-punk-idiepopping noise they invest their songs with.
‘Shut’, it might be argued, is the singular theme for Colour Me Wednesday; the thematic essence that runs through the centre of their explosive candy-coloured rock of Pop. They are young but getting older; they recognise their shyness but are passively aggressive in their need to have a voice; they look so weak but feel so strong (and maybe they get laughed at); they know what’s wrong and what’s right; they dance in their bedrooms and THEY BURN INSIDE. Yes, it is perhaps a white middle-class luxury to care about such things and yes, it is perhaps a white middle-class luxury to make art about it. And yes, yes of course ’Shut' is knowingly naive (it is Pop music), but that does not mean it cannot also understand the complexity of contradiction (it does and they do).
‘Shut’ is a song about the essence of growing up, apart and away from adolescence into adulthood whilst being the very essence of simultaneously acknowledging and rejecting both the adulthood and the adolescence. It is a song that spins on the axes of certainty/uncertainty; of fear/exhilaration; of intoxication/sobriety. ‘Shut’ knows that it is both timeless and immediately pointless; knows it is intensely, personally poignant and laughably irrelevant in the same stuttering bubblegum-flavoured breath. ‘Shut’ knows it is, when all is said and done, just Pop!. It’s enough.
It strikes me that a common thread of recent entries in this series has been one of loss and absence. Tempting as it might be to suggest this is tied to recent personal experience, it would only ever be one part of the reason, for in truth there has always been something appealing about the deserted, the derelict, the forgotten. I am certainly not alone in this, and one could find any number of artists who have built significant bodies of work around the theme, not least of whom might be Nikolaus Geyrhalter with his recent ‘Homo Sapiens’ ‘documentary’. Intriguingly, and at risk of coming over all gender stereotyping, it appears to be largely a male obsession. This has struck me particularly in recent years when, in various photography GCSE classes, it is boys who are by far the most likely to be drawn to the exploration of derelict factories and abandoned cottages in their work. Perhaps there is a gender study to be done here? Perhaps not.
John Maher’s photographs of abandoned crofts on the Isles of Lewis and Harris are certainly ones which concern themselves with questions of abandonment and displacement. Some may recognise the name in connection with music, specifically as the drummer for Buzzocks and more recently with the reformed Penetration (whose 2015 ‘Resolution’ set was a magnificent return), but Maher has also built something of a reputation as a photographer and rightly so. The photographs of abandoned crofts were made between 2010 and 2016 as part of the ‘Nobody's Home’ body of work and each have a distinct painterly quality to them. This quality lends the photographs a mediated, knowing romanticism that is at odds with the subject matter and excuses them from accusations of middle class voyeurism or artistic tourism. Maher may be an incomer, making art from what remains of lost souls, but his photographs are filled with a barren delicacy; a tenderness of touch that suggests a real depth of understanding, familiarity and connection with the subject and the stories they may hold within.
In the photographs of 'Nobody's Home' Maher inevitably, unavoidably asks questions about community, continuity and cohesion. He asks questions about the relationship between cause and effect, between progress and entropy, between outside(r) and inside(r). Of course any answers to these questions are by default fleeting and fractured. They are as textured and nuanced as the peeling wallpaper or the damp stained mattress in the photographs themselves. Stories, after all, are rarely black and white.
If Jem Southam’s photographs carry with them a sense of the hidden, then Thom and Beth Atkinson’s photographs of London’s ‘Missing Buildings’ carry with them a sense of the obviously lost. Given that the apparent thrust of the work is the ‘documentation’ of Blitz bomb sites, this may sound like stating the bleedin’ obvious, yet as ever the ‘reailty’ is so much more complex and intriguing than it might appear.
So whilst these photographs, "made on a series of walks through London between 2009 and 2015” (as the single line of text states in the frontispiece of Hwaet Books’ 2015 publication) may have begun as a means of exploring a specific historical connection (the Blitz) through the fabric of a city, they also inevitably touch on wider questions of loss, remembrance and intervention. In other words, Thom and Beth Atkinson’s photographs may be rooted in the personal (where family history is directly affected by the Blitz), but they use these roots to grow vessels that address the universal.
David Chandler’s excellent afterward in the published collection of photographs naturally makes reference to the “historical rupture” wrought by the Blitz but he also hints at the way in which war may be just one (admittedly cataclysmic) means by which cities change. Certainly Thom and Beth Atkinson’s photographs explore this in a subtle and perhaps intentionally, casually underhand manner. For these photographs are not all of Blitz sites at all, or at the very least not necessarily of the absence that remains. The absence in these photographs may be traced directly to 1940s Nazi ordinance but equally they may not. Fact and fiction intertwine to weave a narrative that is real, not real. Meaning becomes lost in the fog of decaying communal memory and new versions are re-written and distributed.
What is crucial too about these photographs is that they are beautifully made images. They may be as different from Jem Southam’s as you could imagine in terms of subject, yet they are filled with a similar elegance of light and subtle vibrancy. One of my very favourites is 'Kiffen Street, Shoreditch’. Here the ghost of a building is left staining the brickwork of its remaining gable, whose pink vibrates deliciously against the pale ice of a flat sky. Shining glass and steel rises behind and above it, yet there, just glimpsed, are the windows, doors and balconies of the ghost building’s brethren. They nestle in the shadow, looking out onto the void, turning their backs to the present and the future. You cannot help but look at this photograph and see, not a remembrance of the Blitz, but a nod towards the conflation of what has gone before and what might be inevitably yet to come. You see old and new, established and incoming. Perhaps there is conflict but there is also understanding and acceptance. There is loss and absence but there is also growth and presence.
Thom and Beth Atkinson's photographs then are inevitably a commentary on the way in which our landscapes are moulded and sometimes maltreated. By bombs, by war, by individual, government or corporate intervention (where intervention is a proxy for greed, perhaps). But equally they are photographs that recognise that nothing is as simplistic as we might at first assume.
Depending on your reference points and personal context, CUFF’s ‘Private View’ may just be the most obscure entry in this entire 50/50 series. If it is a song that is new to you then I envy you the pleasure of listening for the first time. Should you come away from that experience anything less than exhilarated and with the determination to spin the song again, then you have no soul that yearns to dance. Either that or you have a distaste for Pop that goes ba-ba-ba-ba at regular intervals and is hooked around a discordant disco grooviness of mangled guitars. Which, frankly, is your loss.
However, for lovers of Pop that goes ba-ba-ba-ba at regular intervals and is hooked around a discordant disco grooviness of mangled guitars then ‘Private View’ is surely one of the finest hidden treasures out there. Released on a 7” black vinyl record with a hand-screened and folded card cover in a plastic bag, it is everything that Pop ought to be in its most awkward, head tilted just-so and eyes coyly but fiercely proclaiming love and hate essence. It is a record with clear Pop lineage, casting back to the brevity of '50s rock’n’roll explosive rawness via ‘60s POW! Pop Art, ‘70s Punk HOWL of DIY independence, ‘80s lets-celebrate-awkwardness indiepop and ‘90s chuck-it-all-together-and-see-what-sticks melodic melange (was that even a ’thing’? Probably not and assuredly WHO CARES?). ‘Private View’ is FUN. ‘Private View’ is FRENZY. ‘Private View’ is CAPS LOCK ON and heartbeats up love. AGAIN. Until the razor cuts, after the Razorcuts. Nods, winks, snogs and furtive fumblings. Pop in the bedroom. A private view. Naturally.
Speaking of lineage, you probably do not need to know that CUFFS was Andrew Churchman, previously of Pants Yell! fame, to enjoy ‘Private View’, but maybe it helps. For Pants Yell! were surely one of the great lost groups of the naughties. Once I said they reminded me of Jesse Garon & The Desperadoes and really that ought to be enough for anyone to sit up and take note. The reality probably was that everyone who recognised the value in that comparison at the time did sit up and notice. All ten of you. Cue self-deprecatory laughs. It’s funny because it’s true and all that.
Pants Yell! also had the good taste to call their debut album ‘Alison Statton’ (we’re preaching to the converted here, right? You don’t need to be told why calling a record ‘Alison Statton’ is a sign of sophistication do you?) and to record a sublime version of Jens Lekman’s ‘Tram no. 7’.
Is it irony then that CUFFS’ single is much more of a YELL than Pants Yell!? Perhaps, perhaps not. Connections are there to be made, broken, taken apart and reassembled in new ways after all. Didn’t Wire say something about that in the ‘70s? Nothing is New but everything can be new. This is the beauty of Pop after all. Pop that goes ba-ba-ba-ba at regular intervals and is hooked around a discordant disco grooviness of mangled guitars. As though there were any other kind.
Jem Southam ‘River Exe at Brampford Speke, 21st January 2011’
When talking about Pop and Rock it is easy to use ‘epic’ in the pejorative sense. Usually the word acts as a signifier of the overblown, the overdone and the over long. Often it is a signpost that points a direction that the listener is advised not to take.
To call Wild Swans records epic then is potentially hazardous, yet essentially true. It is to use the word in the decidedly non-pejorative sense; is to signpost a direction that the listener is most assuredly advised to explore. It is also to redefine the essence of what we mean by epic, for Wild Swans records are certainly never overblown, overdone or overlong (and of course there is a distinction between time elapsed and perceived length). ‘The Revolutionary Spirit’ is the Wild Swans' song that perhaps reset those definitions way back in 1982, but that same spirit can be found in every one of their myriad incarnations and re-incarnations in the years since. It is a spirit that touches the heart with piercing intensity; that speaks with genuine warmth and compassionate ferocity.
‘When Time Stood Still’, from their ‘Coldest Winter of 100 Years’ album sneaks in at under two and a half minutes yet every moment in it causes heart and soul to stir and swell. If last week we spoke of how difficult it is to include explicit reference to songs and records in one’s own art and make it feel natural, then in ‘When Time Stood Still’ Paul Simpson offers a masterclass on how to carry it off with aplomb. In some ways like ‘Tallulah’, ‘When Time Stood Still’ is a song about the transformative power of song; about the way in which our roots can be found in the artefacts that touched us at our most impressionable and vulnerable moments. For Simpson these centre on two verses of connected records, starting with ‘Raw Power’, ‘Sunburst Finish’, ‘Transformer’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ before moving into ‘Live At The Witch Trials’, ‘Armalite Rifles’, ‘Horses’ and ‘Little Johnny Jewel’. These are references unapologetically collected and celebrated. Like my own 50 songs and artworks they may not tell the whole story but they capture the essence. They are the core of discovery, for better or worse.
‘When Time Stood Still’ is also a song about age and the pull of home; the return to the centre (physical and symbolic) that our lives spin around. For Simpson this is Liverpool, but instead of romanticising the city in idealised terms he deals in realist details. The “M58 is slick with rain”; “the river runs the colour of mud”; his car’s “tyres are bald” with “a brake light out”. This is no tale of the triumphant return of a prodigal son and it is all the better for it.
‘When Time Stood Still’ then celebrates beginnings and acknowledges age and endings in a remarkably succinct, poetically realist style. It is, frankly and simply, epic.
If ‘When Time Stood Still’ is in part a song about the nature of Home then Jem Southam’s photographs around the Exe valley are certainly, for me, a reverberation of that same theme.
On a recent visit to the island of Arran in the Firth of Clyde I met up with friends with whom I last shared a cycling adventure on the island some 32 years previously. What struck me, apart from the lasting value of connections rooted in that adolescent maelstrom of moment and emotion, were our conversations about sense of place and notions of home. For some, the pull of Scotland as a geographical and physiological place was compelling, for others it was the realisation that the vision of somewhere ‘other’ was what had most meaning. In other words, perhaps notions of ‘home’ are transitory and illusory, for better or for worse. Personally though, from the moment I first visited Devon some 30 years ago, it immediately felt more like home than anywhere else had ever done. It still does.
Jem Southam’s photographs start to make sense of the reasons for this, and much of that is to do with the fact that his work carries with it a sense of the hidden. “Keep the mystery caged” is a favourite phrase of my friend Kevin Pearce and it is a great idea to carry with you. Certainly there are secrets about why I feel at home in Devon that I do not fully understand. And if that sounds tantalisingly close to being Totnes bunkum or Hippy hocus pocus then so be it. Southam’s photographs do not obviously tap into the weary Hippy claptrap you can find in Devon yet they are assuredly spiritual and certainly filled with earthy mystic magic. Normally this would be enough to make me recoil in horror, and the fact that I do not do so with Southam’s photographs is rooted, I believe, in the quietness of their execution. The photographs feel like gentle evocations of private rumination; a communion with the Earth that does not feel the need to make a song and a dance.
Landscape photographs, or at the very least photographs of landscape, are perhaps the most difficult to make successful. Perhaps this is just me, but I have seen innumerable landscape images that are by turns banal, cliched and/or over-poweringly post-processed to the point of being fanciful fantasy illustrations. Jem Southam’s photographs are none of these things. Even (especially?) when his choice of subject matter is apparently devoid of interest (a china clay open cast mine, anyone?) his photograph instills it with a otherworldly sense of presence and the suggestion of deeper meaning.
The photographs in 'The River: Winter' carry the deeper meanings that are tied up in the whole notion of the passing of a season, with the multiple metaphors of climatic cycles that might come to mind. Richard Hamblyn writes about this eloquently in his accompanying essay, placing Southam’s work expertly within the wider historical context. But whilst this cultural contextualisation is valuable I cannot help but think it misses one crucial element that makes the photographs so wonderful, and that is that they are simply (and so by implication anything but) beautiful images that capture the essence of place. I say this because I know where almost all of these photographs were made and remember the rare abundant snowfall that came in December of 2010. Many of the places in the photographs are within a ten minute walk from my front door. Some are places I pass on a daily basis. I have been in these places on similar days; have seen them in similar lights. The closing photograph in the work (River Exe near Brampford Speke, 28th March 2011) is a spot on the river where I have stood and watched swans drift past; where I have skimmed stones and where I have hurt my knee ducking under branches. Southam's photograph certainly makes me think of all these things, and in doing so fulfils the key need of being a vessel for personal memory and meaning. More than this though, the photograph, like all of those in the body of work, contains within its tones and textures a quality that makes it both simultaneously hyper-real and magically illusory.
Simply (and so by implication anything but) it is Home.
Stephen Gill first came on my radar with his 'Field Studies' collection back in 2004. His work immediately resonated with me in part through the way in which it blurred the boundaries between the photograph as a tool of documentation and as means of exploring the experimental and conceptual. Gill’s 2010 ‘B Sides’ work appeals for similar reasons, but mostly, I admit, simply for the title and the things it implies.
There is a distinct possibility that the notion of ‘B Sides’ is entirely anathema to anyone grown up in the age of digital consumption of music or, indeed, for anyone to whom the mystical appeal of a 7” sliver of vinyl was always frankly unfathomable. My guess however is that the few people reading this are not amongst that target audience. My guess is that the few people reading this could gleefully reel of an extended list of wonderful songs that appeared as B sides. My friend Daniel Williams even wrote an extended blog project doing just that. Needless to say it is one the most enjoyable blogs I have read.
As Daniel would perhaps agree, the loss of the B side in terms of music has been something of a shame for the listener and the musician alike. Digital mediation of music has meant both the narrowing of the experience to individual tracks and simultaneously a widening of opportunity such that everything and anything can be ‘released’. Often inadvisedly. In the analogue era an economic necessity meant that although the B side offered artists the chance to experiment and take risks (or alternatively to play safe with an instrumental version of the A side) it did so within a strict structure. You could just chuck anything at all on there, but many didn’t. Many artists treated the B side with as much love and attention as the A side. Sometimes it was every bit as fine a song; sometimes it was even better.
Stephen Gill’s photographs play with this notion too, for his ‘B Sides’ are the flipside to ‘Coming Up For Air’. Photographs that did not quite fit with the body of the A side collection, they nevertheless deserved to be seen. No more or less experimental than the images that appear in ‘Coming Up For Air’, ‘B Sides’ is instead a body of work that tells a slightly different tale; that shines the light in subtly different ways, perhaps both metaphorically and physically. My favourite this morning is the shot of bicycles suspended from a ceiling; partly simply because it is a photograph of bicycles but mostly because of the way the shapes of the wheels are composed within the shot. They make me think of a Hannah Hoch collage and that is always a fine connection to be making.
Of course highlighting a single photograph from the body of work is akin to talking only about the strummed guitar in the first three seconds of ‘Velocity Girl’ and thankfully the truth is that there are many more treats to be found both within ‘B Sides’ and across Gill’s numerous other projects.
For a group who became one of my very favourites of recent years, my listening relationship with Allo Darlin’ had a decidedly inauspicious start. I wrote about it in my Unpopular advent series for 2010. The words ‘Identikit Twee Indie Shit’ were used to describe those early ungainly fumblings together, and whilst I kind of know where I was coming from when I said that, I also like to think I am big enough to admit when I get things wrong.
'Tallulah' was the song I wrote about in that advent series and it was certainly the song that challenged my perception. Of course it helped that the recording of the song that changed my mind was on a 10” record; perhaps my very favourite format even ahead of the 7” single and the 3” CD. It helped that the record had a lovely letterpress illustration slotted on the front of the brown card cover like an old photograph album. It helped that Allo Darlin’ shared that 10” record with the likes of The Claim, Amor De Dias and Hacia Dos Veranos (whose wonderful earlier recordings had graced my own ‘I Wish I Was Unpopular’ label on one of those adorable 3” CDRs). Finally it helped that the record was passed to me on a delicious summer afternoon over a beer or two by an old friend who has always reminded me of one of those Paninari on the Pet Shop Boys record: Someone with a richly and keenly defined sense of Love and Hate; someone who would speak passionately enough about things you thought you disliked enough to at least give it a second chance. And so it was that I gave Allo Darlin’ that second chance. So it was that ‘Tallulah’ became one of those songs that burrowed so deeply into my soul that to imagine a life without it is to imagine a life without a bicycle. Which is to say no life at all.
Naturally it helps the song enormously that it is titled after perhaps my very favourite Go-Betweens album (you can only ever write ‘perhaps’ in this context because surely one’s favourite Go-Betweens album changes depending on which Go-Betweens album one happens to be listening to when one writes that phrase). Naturally it helps that the song manages to pull off the explicit reference to other records and artists without coming over forced and awkward. And if that sounds like a throwaway line just stop and think about how many novels, for example, can do that without coming over horribly dated and vilely smug. The ease with which Elizabeth Morris slips reference to ‘Tallulah’ and The Maytals (good to hear Toots And The Maytals, huh?) in to her lines then is surely the result of careful crafting and more crucially due to the way in which these details support the narrative rather than appearing as clever-clogs name drops.
‘Tallulah’ is a song about movement and distance; about pasts and futures; about the slow unravelling of connections. It is a song that both captures the sense of slow decay that comes with age and the beautiful glimmers of revitalisation that punctuate that very process. Tellingly, Morris sings that she is “wondering if I’ve already met all the people that will mean something”, and whilst there is a certain sorrow in both these words and the almost cracking manner in which they are delivered there is also an undercurrent of hope and faith. Hope for the feelings generated by those connections to be revisited; faith in enough of humanity that it will occur. It is no surprise that this question is an echo of the line that precedes it; a line where songs replace people in a sweet acknowledgement of the strength of sounds and words. There is acknowledgement of the symbiosis between people, art and emotion. Awareness of the value of the moment to memory and attachment.
Having announced their dissolution as a band this year, it makes me sad to think that there may be no more Allo Darlin’ songs that might mean something special to me. But then again, I have ‘Tallulah’ to both remind me of what special qualities they had and that those qualities will resurface in another time, from another artist. Hope and faith. Important values now more than ever before.
Thomas Demand Hal Foster - Daily #9 from ‘The Dailies'
There are few records that have ever hit me with more unexpected delight and excitement than Brakes’ ‘Give Blood’ set. Unexpected, for I had been far from a fan of Tom and Alex White’s group Electric Soft Parade, but sometimes expectations are there to be exploded.
Brakes were certainly explosive, especially on that incendiary debut, and especially as a live act. In 2005 I called them a great Soul act and I stand by that, especially since as they progressed through the gorgeous ‘Beatific Visions’ album and onto 2009’s swansong ‘Touchdown’ they tempered their yelps and howls and gave more free reign to a fascination with Country and Backwoods darkness. Their songs were never less than marvellous, from the splenetic ‘Heard About Your Band’ through the frankly haunting and beautiful ‘No Return’ to the jaunty ‘Worry About It Later’. Perhaps strange then for me to choose a cover version as my song of choice from ‘Touchdown’ to document 2009 (the only cover version in this entire 50/50 series), but here is my simple reasoning: From when I first span ‘Touchdown’ to this day, ‘Ancient Mysteries’ is the song I immediately want to hear again as soon as it has finished. What more basic criteria can there be for judging the success of a Pop song after all?
Brakes’ take on ‘Ancient Mysteries’ is also one of those occasions when the cover is better than the original, although it must be said that Charles Douglas’ take from his 2001 ‘Statecraft’ set is a proper peach and certainly worth tracking down. At a shade under two minutes ‘Ancient Mysteries' is over before you know it, winking as it ends as if to encourage you to hit ‘repeat’ or to lift the needle to the start again. Indeed brevity could be the touchstone for Brakes’ entire recorded output. You could line up their three studio albums and be done in the time it used to take to watch a classic movie. Forty songs in a shade over an hour and a half. That’s Pop.
But Pop, like brevity, needs a tune to make a success of a song, and like ‘Velocity Girl’ ‘Ancient Mysteries’ knows just where to place the killer melody such that it sticks in your head forever. It’s remarkable too just how much of a narrative ‘Ancient Mysteries’ squeezes into it’s one minute fifty seven seconds (one second longer than the original, which Brakes magically manage whilst making the song faster). Douglas’ writing opens by cleverly shortcutting the story of ‘little Julia’ from her inception to an abusive relationship with her “future husband Michael”, simultaneously highlighting and using the age difference between the protagonists. The story is itself a neat nod to recurring threads of Rock’n’Roll history of course, and surely the reference to Julia being 13 is no randomly chosen age but rather a wink at Big Star. I mean, to repeat the recurring theme of this series, perhaps, perhaps not, but the tapestry of Rock’s mythology is rich and this is one tiny thread that I like to play with. So Douglas’ protagonists zip forwards in time, drenched in the seedy underbelly of America’s underclass. These are like characters from an Emmett Grogan or a Jim Dodge novel, which prehaps is entirely apt since Douglas went on to write successfully under the name of Alex McAulay. Douglas even finds the time to slip some delicious details into the narrative, notably Michael’s tattoo of “a little panda bear escaping from the zoo”. It’s that chorus that really binds and drives the song though: “Sitting in an ashram in the Poconos” is a great line and a great hook. It suggests a writer for whom words are important for their sounds as much as anything, and Brakes’ singer Eamon Hamilton clearly relishes the poetry as he sings them over guitars that jab, stab, shimmy and shake.
‘Ancient Mysteries’ is a song that gleefully subverts Pop by aligning melodic sweetness with the deviant and the dubious and as such it is like Linda Scott on ‘Mulholland Drive’. And when Hamilton sings Douglas’ words about how “The swami explains ancient mysteries that no-one knows but everyone wants to” you cannot help but think about the mediated, consciously constructed nature of the whole scenario: We wrap these experiences in narratives and seek out mysteries but perhaps, just perhaps, there is no mystery at all. Perhaps it really all is as easy as a feeling. “Did you like it? Do you want to do it again?”
To which the answer here assuredly is Yes. Yes I do.
I first saw a couple of Thomas Demand’s ‘The Dailies’ photographs whilst researching artists who do work based on ‘series’ or time constrained projects. Given the nature of this very 50/50 series and of some of my own artistic endeavours over the years this should come as no surprise. It did take me some time however to grasp the fact that what I was looking at in Demand’s photographs was not what I at first thought. For whilst the work is rooted in photographs of everyday details and asides it is also transformational, process-driven and wittily illusory. Demand’s ‘Dailies’ are in fact card and paper (re)constructions that are photographed such that they look like the original references. Not that we ever see these references, which leads us to ask perhaps if Demand is playing on the very nature of the ‘found’ as opposed to the ‘constructed’. Nothing, he may be saying, is entirely accidental. It’s a fair point.
Time, effort and expertise as a model maker may be key to the success of the constructions themsleves but they are only a part of the work. What is inescapable is that ‘The Dailies’ are exquisitely constructed, composed and illuminated photographs. The time, effort and expertise taken to (re)construct the fleeting moment of simple magic that passes us by seems to insist that we question that very simplicity. Are these things are simple and forgettable as they appear? Perhaps, perhaps not.
It is certainly worth tracking down Hal Foster’s ‘Dailiness’ text that accompanies and punctuates MACK's 2015 publication of ‘The Dailies’. As a text it is equally informative and provocative. Perhaps it is one of those texts which you read and which prompts you to say “you think too much”, or perhaps not. Your response may depend upon your age, your interest, your shared frame of reference and the amount of time you might have at your disposal. Me, I think it is worth making the time.
One key point in Foster’s text picks up on Demand’s own description of ‘The Dailies’ as being like haikus. Foster goes on to reference William Carlos Williams and his red wheelbarrow before immediately going on to name drop Baudelaire. “Can everyday things still prompt epiphanic insights in an administered world?” asks Foster. It’s a great questions. Does the answer depend upon the individual’s ability to break from that mediated or administered world? Or is even that an illusory freedom based simply on a macro-level of administered reference? It brings us back to the illusion of authenticity (you may recognise this as another theme that threads through this series) and the way in which all feeling might be mediated through the connections we make or choose not to make. How ‘real’ is this? Does it matter?
Perhaps in the end it really all is as easy and as complex as a feeling. “Did you like it? Do you want to do it again?”
And do I like ‘The Dailies’? Do I want to look back on them again and again? Yes. Yes I do.
Bruce Davidson - 'Nature of Los Angeles 2008-2013'
Chris TT - ‘A Box To Hide In'
The first time I knowingly saw a photograph by Bruce Davidson was on the cover of Beth Nugent’s 1993 short story collection ‘City of Boys’. One of those spectacularly fine images from his ‘Brooklyn Gang’ project, it was the reason I picked the book off the shelf. And whilst Nugent’s stories were terrific pieces of prose, it was certainly Davidson’s photograph that had the more lasting effect on me.
If pushed to make a choice, with the proverbial gun to my head, I would likely opt for ‘Brooklyn Gang’ as my very favourite collection of photographs of all time. The 1998 re-print by Twin Palms is perhaps my most treasured book, and not just because of its rarity and selling price. Davidson’s photographs in that project are sensitive portrayals of hard lives lived bitter-sweetly; photographs of teenage years in the years of the birth of teenagers; photographs that could be Springsteen songs in black and white grain; hymns for the cigarettes, the coffee and the alcohol; hymns for the beautiful and the damned. If I had been born seven years earlier they would have kicked off this series on a high it would never have surpassed.
Davidson’s ‘Nature of Los Angeles 2008 - 2013’ work might be very different thematically to ‘Brooklyn Gangs’ but the quality of the photographs is no less wonderful. Looking at the city from an unusual perspective (a shot of the Hollywood sign from behind could be the key hinge image that captures the intent), ‘Nature of Los Angeles’ documents the interface between nature and the city. This is no half baked critique of environmental issues however, for Davidson’s photographs implicitly acknowledge the give and take that this city creates in the juxtaposition between apparent opposites. Here Davidson illuminates the illusory quality of the city, hinting at the interventionist nature of the, ahem, ‘nature’. These palms are not native; this cultivated land is as constructed as the concrete highways. Nothing is as simple as you might initially think.
My favourite image from the collection is a shot of one tree and two elevated highways. Each is separate, yet each is connected in the composition, crossing each other in illusory three dimensional space. It is a photograph of powerful form, relying on strong contrast; a contrast that allows delicate leaves to assert themselves mysteriously against the white. Look closely and those leaves could almost be photograms and in truth perhaps that kind of nod to Man Ray surrealism would be perfectly apt. It is literally a photograph of two halves, each distinctive in its self-contained way and yet each depending on the other to create something more coherent and more powerful than if they were alone. Perhaps there is something in that idea that we could learn from...
If pushed to make a choice, with the proverbial gun to my head, I would likely opt for the records of Chris T-T as being the one body of work I would choose to document the past decade or so of my life. From ‘9 Red Songs’ and a gig supporting Brakes in Brighton in October 2005 through to this year’s ‘9 Green Songs’ and a summer gig in a tiny pub in Somerset, Chris’s songs and performances have been the ones that have offered me most warmth and succour as my age has drifted from 40 to 50. Of all these songs however it is certainly ‘A Box To Hide In’ from his 2008 full-band ‘Capital’ set that continues to resonate the most.
If Bruce Davidson’s photographs of Los Angeles capture a sense of alternately conflicting yet mutually dependent elements, then ‘A Box To Hide In’ perhaps acknowledges a similar theme in song. Ostensibly a song about a distinctive kind of 21st Century loss it is in some ways a kindred song to Springsteen’s ‘Missing’. Chris’s approach may have a hint of Springsteen’s sentimentality (the thick woollen socks in verse one) but it is at heart a song that more openly acknowledges the anger which inhabits if not the loss itself then certainly the mediated form it can be turned to. ‘A Box To Hide In’ says that the context of personal pain inflicted by terror attacks is such that loss is co-opted by Government and media corporations and used as a means of control and restraint. As a song it knows this and yet is simultaneously aware that to comment as such is to be seen to be complicit in the very acts that lead to the loss. Action and reaction are inseparable and inevitable; fight and flight as appealing and yet as equally, ultimately, futile as each other. ‘A Box To Hide In’ is a song that cloaks the appeal of desolate isolation in the soaring, soulful voice of passionate resistance; is a song that wants all and nothing at all in the same breath. That it manages to achieve this is testament to Chris T-T’s gift both as a songwriter and as a sensitive observer of human nature. Long may he continue to be so.
Colin O’Brien -‘The Last Day of Smoking In The Griffin.’ Shoreditch, 30th June 2007
2014 really was a dreadful year, bookended by the death of my father on January 3rd and that of Nick Talbot on December 2nd. My father’s passing was not unexpected and if in truth I had many months to prepare myself for that moment there is another truth that says no amount of ‘preparation’ is ever enough. It is a bigger moment than you can ever imagine and it reverberates through the rest of your years, often hijacking you at the most unexpected moments.
Nick’s passing was, in contrast, utterly unexpected, yet it too has reverberated and hijacked me in the time since. Loss and the void of absence is a democratising feeling after all. I think Nick would have appreciated that concept, for what it’s worth. And for what’s it’s worth too, I think that in Gravenhurst’s body of work Nick Talbot has left us something extraordinary and beautiful.
Much of Nick’s work as/with Gravenhurst is exquisitely pared back and brutally, darkly honest (both in an autobiographical way but crucially also in its observation of and commentary on the world around us). Yet the flip side of this is the space in which noise acts as our salve and where electricity smothers us in clouds of blissful blindness. It is a blueprint perhaps laid down by My Bloody Valentine’s ‘You Made Me Realise’, to which ‘Hollow Men’ assuredly is on nodding terms. It is certainly an example of Gravenhurst at their blissed-out, blasted best.
There was always an unashamedly informed and intellectual air (in a decidedly non pejorative sense) to Gravenhurst records and certainly ‘Hollow Men’ wears its literary allusions on its sleeve. Yet it is certainly as much John Dickson Carr as it is T.S. Elliott; its dynamics echoing the violence of death and the impossibility of leaving no footprints in the snow. It strives to fill the (locked) room with sound yet simultaneously leave no lasting trace and indeed perhaps this is the very essence of song or recorded music: The magical, mystical means of making something from nothing. Alchemy, no less.
So did Nick Talbot have the alchemist’s touch? Perhaps, perhaps not. He certainly left behind something rare and special; something ravishing and spectral. For this we should continue to value and take pleasure from his memory.
Several of my photographic discoveries can be traced back to a Saturday morning near the turn of the millennium when I took up a table at a ‘zine fair in Exeter’s legendary ‘indie’ venue The Cavern. I was attempting to stir up interest in the first of my Unpopular 7” singles and the first issue of the ‘I Wish I Was Unpopular’ fanzine. Very few, if any, copies of these were sold as I recall. Alongside me on the table however was a young chap called Owen with a box full of his own wares - a lovely little folded and paper-clipped photozine which I still have tucked in a box in my Geek Lair. Turns out he was studying photography at the local Art school and he switched me onto several contemporary artists that I was not aware of. I have Owen to thank therefore for hipping me to the likes of Alec Soth and Joel Sternfeld, and for this I am hugely grateful. In some serendipitous moment of synchronicity then, Owen’s first photography commission was to shoot Gravenhurst for Plan B magazine, to accompany a piece I wrote back in 2004. As we keep saying, it all fits.
Owen did not introduce me to the work of Colin O’Brien, but I know that he was a big fan of his work and indeed it was through Owen’s Facebook feed that I heard the news of O’Brien’s passing at the end of August this year. It is probable that if you are a London dweller or one who finds the story of the English capital captivating then you know of O’Brien’s work, even if you do not know it be so. His ‘London Life’ collection is endlessly fascinating as historic documentation and immensely inspirational as brilliantly composed and executed street photography.
Colin O’Brien’s photographs are both of London and about London, and if that sounds simplistic and obvious then it perhaps needs thinking about a little longer. Capturing the essence of something so complex is certainly no simple undertaking. It requires immersion, commitment, empathy. It requires affection and honesty. It requires a deep sense of understanding and an inexhaustible openness to, and delight in, moments of surprise.
This photograph of smokers in a Shoreditch pub on 30th June 2007 is classic O’Brien. It is titled ‘The Last Day of Smoking In The Griffin’ and it both revels in the rich history of city boozers whilst simultaneously acknowledging the inevitability of change that must by default go hand in hand with that history. The two are inseparable and symbiotic, like quarrelling Siamese twins. O’Brien’s photograph knows this. It may not necessarily like it, but it knows it.
O’Brien’s photograph is simultaneously celebratory and mournful; it anticipates the act of false emotional attachment to photographic artefacts as historical truths. This photograph knows that in years hence people will look back and remember ‘a better time’, ‘a more carefree time’ when people were free to smoke in public places. This photograph knows that as they do so they will conveniently forget the way our clothes became permeated with the indelible stench of cigarettes and how we felt the need to shower and wash our hair before we crawled into bed after a night out. This is how mediated memory and history works after all.
If we say that O’Brien's photograph anticipates the tension between personal liberty and collective responsibility that will develop in the decade to follow then perhaps we overstate the case or over-interpret the meaning. Perhaps if we were to suggest this the photograph would wink an eye and say “you think too much” before inviting us to to draw up a stool and have a glass of wine. “Perhaps", it might say, “I am just a great photograph of people enjoying a drink and a fag."