PhotoBlog: ‘Beginning’ Diane Arbus at The Hayward Gallery

At the Diane Arbus Exhibition, ‘Beginning’, at the Hayward Gallery (https://www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/hayward-gallery-art/diane-arbus-beginning) till May 6, they encourage you to find your own path through. Inevitably I found myself facing the ten photos I knew so well, the boy holding a toy grenade and 9 iconic others. The journey is a revelation. I ‘got’ the simple engaged street photos, or the movie moments shot off a local screen, or performers in moments of not performing, I ‘got’ her ability to see a picture and take it. Her finding a frame before the camera was lifted, and how that frame has persisted time and fashion. In each picture there is a stillness, a breath is lightly held, the subject recognises the process, and she engages with the subject. The hesitation is still there, frame after held frame, pulling me in. It is a wonderful exhibition.

There is a space created in front of a movie camera where an actor works. It is an agreement about truth in that time and that space - the agreement is held there. In photographing a stranger In ‘the street’ a similar contract is created. An understanding develops between me and the stranger, we both know why we are there. We don’t necessarily share the same reason, but, for me, it is where the interest lies. 1+1 equalling more than 2. There is tension between my intention and theirs, mine to see and theirs to be seen.

I bought a Fuji X100T about 2 years ago. It has one beautiful lens, a 23mm (it is equivalent of a 35mm). I take it most places with me, and I try to take an interesting picture every day. Encountering a new place I see it with the clear and simple 3x2 fuji frame. This camera has forced me to understand commitment, for a shot to work I need to be inside the situation looking out, not outside looking in. The difficulty is usually in overcoming shyness, the gaining permission thing. The anxiety that, in asking, I’ll loose the shot. Experience shows me if I do loose it, it wasn’t mine to take, and, when it is agreed, it’s always different and often better than I had hoped for.

This little unassuming camera, does not intimidate… me or the subject. It has been a liberation. Looking at Diane Arbus’s pictures I can see this camera has taught me how to recognise the flashes of imagination turned into frames that have a shared truthfulness and curiosity, as fresh now as they were 60 years ago.

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Profiting together

So, in Aleppo, before the civil war, there was fourteen kilometres of covered souk.  There was a street of spice merchants, a street of carpet sellers, a street of silversmiths, and on and on, providing everything. They were presumably happy to be rubbing shoulders with their competitors.  Which seems bizarre to me.  This market structure was ancient and the stall holders were all pretty ancient too... they had been doing this for a long time.  They must have thought they were in the best place for business.  One spice merchant only provided a very small part of the overall demand for spices in Aleppo, the street as a whole catered for all of the local (?) demand.  As a co-op it worked;  each merchant able to cater for a certain number of clients.  Each person received just the attention they wanted, they could haggle each week with the same person to buy something they needed.

None of it is based upon scarcity, and a community supports itself.  

It's a balanced exchange to do with subsistence, not profit.  Balanced things are vulnerable.

It all falls apart when Tescos opens up outside the souk, buying in vast bulk at low low prices & undercutting the individual traders.  Or the president starts to drop barrel bombs on it.

In another part of Aleppo was a whole area dedicated to the making of spare parts for the very large number of pre 1948 American cars.  The city was full of these leviathan vehicles, stranded like glittering whales, after independence.  There was no trade agreement with the US.  All the parts were made in small open workshops in one area of the town.  There was also a particular sideline, the manufacture of jewelled wheel hubs and multi coloured lighting, mainly for massive kahki painted Buicks which were the taxis. Matt low key colour on the outside, totally mad light-show inside. Again all the 'rival' businesses were next to each other.

In the middle of Nairobi next to Kibera slum, is the noisiest place I have ever been.  Lots and lots (hundreds maybe) of open air workshops beating aluminium into cooking pots. Businesses choosing to be next door to the same business. 

Capitalism is based upon scarcity.  If there is too little of something to go round it appeals to the individual who can afford to pay for it, they remain an individual, and the profit increase creates more money for fewer people.

Aleppo and Kibera were not interested in individuals profiting.  Survival and subsistence were mutual supports.  When we can stop creating shortage to produce profit, then we stand the possibility of surviving.

 

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Baffle 150117

Reinvention.  The prospect of reinventing myself is… knackering.  Why would I want to do that?  Because, it feels like I have become invisible… ‘feels like’ is important, hang onto it.  It feels like all the people who used to employ me have all gone on a long sabbatical taking my contact details with them.  They have retired, moved on, found they had to reinvent themselves too.  I am not sure if I was ever a young Turk, but I had a good go at it.  There doesn’t appear to have been an interregnum between that and transparency.  (On that: the best reason to get Amazon Prime on trial is to watch all of Transparent in one hit & straight after…cancel your trial – it is totally wonderful… the rest of APrime isn’t half so good… yet).  Like I had thought there would be a hiatus, a brief moment between acne and grey hair… that didn’t happen either.  A stream drying up doesn’t happen as you watch it, but all of a sudden: dust devils where there where mayflies.  It is difficult not to sound bitter, and I’m not… really;  baffled not bitter.  Baffled and beginning to understand the power & importance of the baffle.  Not knowing WTF is going on:  I do get it about Brexit, Trump and globalisation – it’s all about Certainty… more later.  This particular WTF is how… why… did the work stop coming? First off,  I asked it to.  I was in need of a break.  A rest.  A new breathe.  I wanted my work to change me.  Not some posse of young heartless producers, they didn’t decide not to employ me… how could they?  They never saw me, I am invisible to them.  Victim of ageism?  Probably.  My cranky left knee certainly is.  But… here’s the tricky bit.  No work becomes space, a gap to use, wiggle room plus.

So, what have I done with my gap? 

Built a kiln...

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...  and a website.

And started a photographic project which seems to be growing in exponential directions… fphucknose where… but nowhere I’d expected.  I return to “I don’t know” again & again, & it is not a get out, oh no, it’s the way in. If I get lost?  What’s to loose?  I’m so fucking old I know that I can find a way, even when it’s foggy.  And it’s opposite of Certainty.  My father had a couple of simple phrases… he was an actor who was ordained a C of E priest.  He had a brilliant sense of humour, about most things.  I asked him once, ”what’s the opposite of compassion?”, he didn’t even break stride, “indifference” bounced straight back.  Very cool, that’s why he became a priest.  Ok, clever clogs, “what’s the opposite of faith?” (slam-dunk) “Certainty!!”.  Being this age at this moment, or, being me at this moment, I see scared and insecure folk being blamed for wrecking the NHS with non-emergencies blocking up A&E.  If the normal channels of uncertainty and inquiry, like “what do you think might be the reason for this pain in my arm?”, have dried up… like a dust devilled stream… you take your uncertainty to the certain people – paramedics, hospitals.  I have worked with paramedics, they are truly amazing, if I could be that sure about one single thing in my life… they know stuff.  They save lives… so of course they are the ones people turn to when they don’t know what’s wrong with them.  They used to take uncertainty and fear to all the boarded up, failed community resources… but they failed. 

Who else offers certainty?   Farage May Trump Brexit.  Good list! They all pretend to be certain of the truth, it’s bollocks.  The flip side of certainty is Faith.  Difficult word, Faith, tricky idea, but at core it’s not a thing, it’s a process.  Faith demands questioning everything every moment, and then asking it again.  It is a process of living, based upon investigating everything that comes at you.  It demands engagement, intimacy and commitment.  It demands compassion and kindness and it can create meaning.

The science of knowing is called epistemology (I’m impressed too), it is the studying of how knowing stuff works and why it is works.  About how decisions & choices are made.

 

How are choices made?  They are made in the Gap… a character enters a scene:  they bring with them a set of expectations and wants.  The heart of drama is conflict, so expectations and wants are always thwarted, and the character has to choose what to do next.  This is the Gap, the space that opens up between expectation and reality, between fantasy and truth.  And the Gap is where we all live, all the time, choosing what to do next.  It is a difficult place to live, constantly ‘in the moment’, constantly awake.  Avoidence strategies develop, the ability to live ‘as if’ certain circumstances were true, as if we were rich, beautiful, loveable, acne free, anything but normal, ordinary, always here in this moment.

 

‘Feels like’:  there are all those visceral sensations my body creates in response to any number of stimulae.  The conclusion I am coming to is that my body has a reaction to fear, desire, rage, excitement… etc etc… except that the physical reaction is pretty much the same whatever is going on, a bottomless pit of gaping, yawning oof! somewhere near my belly button.  It’s not that discriminating, as sensations go, and yet I go to enormous lengths to either supress or satisfy this need, granting detailed diagnosis.  For years it was cigarettes, that has gone thank god, but the sensations stick around.  It would be handy if it was a range of perceptive, useful reactions.  It’s not.  It’s a pretty standard, across-the-board single reaction to most stuff that happens.  A kind of ‘flump-flumpety-flump’ feeling, somewhere low down.  So, the lesson is not to invest it with enormous perceptivity or accuracy – it’s just that reaction thing-that-happens when other stuff happens.  Deal with it.  The other way lies addiction:  becoming addicted to suppressing or indulging feelings.  After a point the feelings become the crutch, the reason, the quest.  What can I do that creates ‘that’ feeling? And then the next sensation is ‘feeling’ invisible and worthless if the feelings can’t be conjured up.  And you‘re in… slam dunkeroo… dealing with addiction as tight to your skin as a leapordskin onesie. It seems impossible to share, discuss, put out there.  So, round it goes.  Invisibility sanctions pushing feelings to higher extremes, because you can do anything when no one sees you. Numbness & insubstantialness hold hands.  All for a feeling.

 

Two days running last week I ran into two contemporary directors.  Both men I had shared open plan offices with.  Both men I respect and felt threatened by in the past.  Both of them, independently of each other, told me how invisible they felt they had become.  It’s sad we are all the same predicament, and a MASSIVE relief.  Sharing invisibility.