"Nonstop imagery is our surround, but when it comes to remembering, the photograph has the deeper bite....
In an era of information overload, the photograph..is like a quotation, or a maxim or proverb."
(Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others 2003)

12 December, 2008

To Blog or not to Blog? Of Damaged Doctors & Procrastinating Princes or: Is Celebrity Casting bringing the Wrong Sort of Audience to the Theatre?

This image: copyright - Tristram Kenton

I have finally decided to grasp the cyber quill and scratch out a few lines about the latest dramas surrounding the RSC Hamlet at the Novello in London, mainly because several friends have asked me to and I also know many who have tickets which they have now heard will not guarantee them a performance by David “Time Lord” Tennant. I don't want to rehash the critical dingdong – if you’re interested, check out Mark Espiner’s expert knit-together from Thursday’s Grauniad.

The story so far: as an occasional reviewer, I sometimes get early dibs on hot tickets and, when the chance for six seats to see dishy Dave do the Dane popped up in the summer, I knew more than five young ladies who would gnaw my arm off for a ticket. (When not translating, copy-editing or blogging, I spend many a happy hour on the Thames towpath, trying to teach Oxford students from my old college a little about rowing - and, I hope, about life in general).

Thanks to the instant, and often über-candid, magic of Facebook, I am, sometimes blushingly, privy to all their crushes & crises & I knew there would be a scramble for the seats. I took the tickets, confirmed the first five girls to respond & booked us in for Monday, 8th December, after their hectic, inebriated term end, a few days into the London run, on the night preceding press night. By October, these very tickets were going for up to 4x face value on E-Bay.

Even I was looking forward to our night Up West: a civilised pre-theatre supper next door at One Aldwych, followed by a couple of hours at Elsinore. But when they arrived in the mezzanine restaurant, their little faces were long & lachrymose. They had already been to the theatre (taking photos to upload onto Facebook, natch) only to see the billboard announcing that, at tonight’s performance the role of Hamlet would be played by Edward Bennet. They were inconsolable. One even rang her Mum to see whether she could be picked up from an early train home.

In the end, all of us trooped into the Novello (much excitement at seeing Nigella ‘Domestic Goddess’ Lawson two rows in front) and sat down for the Tennant-less tragedy. Fast forward to the inevitable standing ovation. Young Ed did good. He was word perfect and even I jumped to my feet. I have since been troubled by Charles Spencer’s suggestion in the Torygraph that Bennet looks like a cross between Bertie Wooster and Prince Andrew but, on the night, the 29-year old stepped into some rather large hose & wore them with aplomb.

The rest of the cast was superb, most notably Patrick Stewart as a troublingly sexy Claudius and as Old Hamlet’s Ghost - almost as madly possessed as was his amazing CFT Macbeth last year. Penny Downie makes a very elegant Gertrude.

I would counsel anyone with tickets to see Bennet, rather than Tennant, NOT to return them. It is as good a Hamlet as I have ever seen: better than 2004’s Old Vic/Trevor Nunn/Ben Wishaw and up there with Peter Hall’s 1994/95 version with Stephen Dillane, Gina Bellman & Michael Pennington. (Dillane’s planned reprisal of the role, with Sam Mendes at the Old Vic, has reportedly been postponed.) Obviously, we look forward to Jude Law’s “visceral” interpretation at the Donmar/Garrick with Michael Grandage next year (tickets already up to £99 each on a well known internet auction site…)

But soft, gentle reader, what comes now? Why! ‘Tis the traditional Shakespearian theatre goer’s rant… My young friends were unanimous in their admiration of Bennet but were unable to convincingly mask their disappointment at Dr Who’s detention in the Tardis sick bay. Would they have accompanied me to Hamlet had dishy Dave not been centre stage? Alas, I think perhaps not.

In fact, the entire theatre was full of people who were patently only there to see Dr Who in the flesh. That was certainly the case with two young women directly behind us who puzzled out loud about the “weirdness” of the language & the complexities of the plot throughout the first half. They did however prick up their ears at: “To be, or not to be..” loudly furnishing us with the next sentence before young Ed up on the stage could even pause for breath and/or dramatic effect.

To cast a Sleb or not to cast a Sleb? Perhaps that is the real question? I’d like to think that my five girlfriends – super-clever, articulate, curious Oxford students all - would have accompanied me to Hamlet even if DT hadn’t been top of the bill? Yet deep down I know, that no matter how politely they applauded the understudy & warmly kissed me goodbye (I did, after all, pay for dinner..) they were there more for the Doctor than for the Bard.

Personally, I don’t feel any particular need for a “Sleb-on-Stage”. I’ve been enthralled by almost anything theatrical since my dear old Da took me to the Lee Theatre in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, aeons ago, to see the Temptations in concert. I will never forget how my six-year-old heart fluttered, as the curtain rose slowly to the insistent three beat of the bass guitar and five immaculate black guys in white suits started singing: I got sunshine…on a cloudy day -

My last amazing theatre experience was Michael Morpurgo’s Warhorse at the National where the true celebrities were life size horse marionettes and the expert, yet hidden, puppeteers manipulating them. Beg, borrow or steal a ticket!

01 December, 2008

World Aids Day - What's the Point?

If this morning’s radio news is anything to go by, the BBC is more or less ignoring World Aids Day today. Perhaps it really is not that easy a news call? The 20th anniversary of a United Nations initiative to maintain awareness of a killer global virus vs. the Damian Green row, Mumbai aftermath, British tourists in Bangkok et al.

I was, however, quietly pleased to see various TV types, including the X-Factor finalists and judges, all sporting red lapel ribbons over the weekend. It is easy to knock these annual commemorations, perhaps particularly when they are sponsored by the UN. Yet this is not National Sausage Week or Take your Dog to Work Day.

It concerns a disease which affects 33 million people worldwide – the vast majority of whom do not have access to the anti-retroviral drugs which can both prolong & enhance their lives.

Twenty years on from the first World Aids Day, I was hoping that some entrenched attitudes and prejudices might have evolved. Alas, no. All these years of raising social awareness and of technological developments in the treatment of HIV/AIDS have singularly failed to change most generally held social perceptions of the disease.

When I mentioned to a friend that Starsky actor Paul Michael Glaser was presenting a BBC Radio 2 documentary about Aids in America, the response was: “I didn’t realise Starsky was gay!” He’s not – Glaser’s first wife, Elizabeth contracted HIV in 1981 through a blood transfusion while giving birth to the couple’s first child, Ariel. Ariel died in 1988; her mother in 1994, after founding the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric Aids Foundation. Glaser himself has since worked tirelessly for the cause.

When my brother, Rory, was first diagnosed in the early 1980s, it wasn’t even called HIV. At the time, the virus was considered fatal, and so it turned out to be for so many young gay men in the U.S.A. and Europe. Now, the WHO classification is merely chronic, which is the same category as a condition such as diabetes. Then, the fear & loathing was compounded with ignorance & homophobic prejudice. I found that out for myself, as once good (and now former) friends started to shun social occasions, including my own wedding, if they suspected that my brother would be present.

Now, with life-long treatment and the regular use of medicine, HIV positive patients can enjoy a long and normal life. Nevertheless, limited access to the appropriate medication and continued high rates of transmission mean that the virus remains just as deadly for the millions already infected in much of sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

Sadly, Rory didn’t manage to hang on quite long enough. He died in London’s Middlesex Hospital on May 16th 1994, aged 29-1/2, mere months before early UK drug trials started to show a faint glimmer of hope. I think about my brother constantly, perhaps more often than usual of late, as our elderly father slips into dementia and closer to his own end. So I don’t really need to sport a red ribbon in Rory’s memory today; I will however be wearing one proudly: for my brother, for all his mates who are gone and for everyone living with HIV, in the hope of continued advances, both in diagnosis, treatment and prevention – but perhaps more importantly – in prejudice.

22 November, 2008

Dallas, TX, 22nd Nov 1963: Jackie's Pink Pill Box, JFK & Obama in 2008

The 22nd November marks 45 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas in 1963. The news of the fatal shooting was one of the first, almost instant, global headlines of the post-WWII era. To date, it remains one of the most shocking events to be broadcast internationally, immediately - or as near as damned. Was it perhaps the very first instance of every listener or viewer remembering exactly where they were & what they were doing, when they heard the news?

For reasons which, I hope, are obvious, I don’t personally share any of those memories. I do, however, remember accepting a singular reporting assignment to Dallas in the late 1980s, when I was but a youngish columnist on the FT & the capital markets I was then covering were in rather more robust health than they are today.

One of the “highlights” of the trip, laid on for us lowly hacks by the Association of International Bond Dealers was a bus trip to Dealey Plaza and the grassy knoll, the reported location of most of the eye and ear witnesses to the three shots that felled JFK at 12.30 pm CST. At the time, I remember thinking, with an involuntary shiver, that there was no irony whatsoever detectable in the chirpy commentary with which our tour guide welcomed us to our bathetic vantage point over the scene of a 20-year old, 20th century tragedy.

Every element of the image above is somehow seared into the collective consciousness: from Jackie’s pill box hat & bangs, to her husband’s dipped head and raised elbows. Another key factor? The shocking scenes from Dallas were some of the earliest colour images to reach such a huge, global audience.

Choosing a specific JFK/Dallas image was surprisingly difficult; there are even more than you might imagine. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of them feature on the most arcane blogs, some of which are devoted solely to the myriad conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination.

The events of 22nd November 1963 in Dallas signalled so many watersheds: not least in Cold War politics and in American society, but in scores of other fields, from international communications to photo-journalism. In 2008, it may be almost impossible for those of us who watched horrified, in real time, as the Twin Towers imploded on 9/11, to understand the shocking power that these last pictures of JFK commanded.

I know that many of us were also watching live only days ago, when Barack Obama won the 2008 US Presidential Election with an uncannily familiar combination of youth, energy, charm & charisma, and of course, perfectly modulated rhetoric.

Perfect dentition and a winning smile are clearly not the only features Obama shares with JFK. The president-elect has already been targetted by the white supremacist fringe. The putative plot was scuppered just days before the election.

17 November, 2008

Leibovitz, Capa & Flickr.com. The vexed Question of Celebrity Photographer vs. Photographer Celebrity

This image: copyright Daniel Griffin.
To see more of Dan's extraordinary work, click here:

If my mantelpiece is anything to go by, London galleries are not feeling the dread crunch quite yet. Every day brings a fresh crop of heavy envelopes, full of lavishly designed private view & Christmas party invitations, complimentary 2009 diaries plus the inevitable hyperbolic letter: about important new work from established artists and “thought provoking” pieces from major new talents.

The Vernissage itself is certainly not what it used to be. Even if I were still a famished art student, I am not sure I would be rushing off to Cork Street or to Hoxton on the now well-established First Thursdays for a beaker full of tannic Shiraz or tepid Viognier and a fistful of impossible-to-identify canapés.

I am, however, off to the National Portrait Gallery for the private view of Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005. If you don’t know who Leibovitz is, I’m not entirely sure why you are reading this blog. There is even a school of thought which holds Anna-Lou (b.1949) responsible for the creation of celebrity culture. She certainly does not need any more hype from me - although I am interested to take a look at some of her more personal projects, including the last pictures of her partner Susan Sontag (1933-2004).

I’m actually more enthusiastic about catching up with the Barbican’s latest tripartite show, a Robert Capa (1913-1954) retrospective and a reappraisal of the life and work of his partner Gerda Taro (1910-1937). Taro was the subject of a fascinating presentation at the Frontline Club given recently by the show’s curator, Irme Schaber. You can also read Sean O’Hagan’s measured review here:

This image: copyright Daniel Griffin.
To see more of Dan's extraordinary work, click here:

Fortunately, we have the perspective of history with which to judge Capa and Taro. Evaluating the work of contemporary, living & working, photojournalists has become increasingly fraught in our camera phone/citizen journalist/Flickr.com age.

So many questions. Which begat which? The Celebrity or the Celebrity Photographer? If the Photographer becomes a “Celebrity”, what happens to their work? What is the precise distinction between the work of Annie Leibovitz & self styled “Australian paparazzo & media personality” Darren Lyons? Perhaps, after I have been to the NPG show, I may be just that little bit clearer. Watch this space.

In the meantime, take another look at the work of a talented young photojournalist who is not yet a celebrity but who is well on the way to becoming rather celebrated by the cognoscenti.

10 November, 2008

Why I never want to forget to remember

This image: copyright Ian Britton

I seem to have been more than usually lachrymose of late. What with the Obama speech, Saturday night’s Festival of Remembrance and the Last Post at 11.02 am on Sunday morning. Even two minutes of total silence can get me started, it seems.

Yet I don’t really think I have anything to be ashamed of. There were plenty of cyber-confessions of Obama tears last week from the most unlikely members of the Bloggerati and the fast-emerging Twitterocracy.

As for Remembrance Sunday? As a student, I used to sneer at poppy wearers, declaring myself a pacifist. Thankfully, I’m a little more circumspect these days and I was actually rather touched to see how many of my young undergraduate Facebook mates replaced their profile pictures for poppies over the weekend.

When I first started this blog, I had a small column where I would record the latest British fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq. From my desk, I frequently see C-17s flying over to RAF Lyneham or Brize Norton. More often than not, they are carrying a Union Flag draped coffin. One of my stepsons is in Kandahar so I keep a pretty close eye on the news from those datelines.

I deleted the fatalities column a couple of months ago. It just became too depressing. For the same reason, I’ve pretty much stopped looking at the memorial websites. You can read about Yubraj Rai of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, shot south of Musa Qaleh on November 4th here:

I do, however, keep the small item about Turner-prize winner Steve McQueen and his “Queen and Country” project. McQueen currently has a feature film out, entitled Hunger about Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger strikers which has, predictably, been fairly controversial.

However, I don’t think there can be that much dissent about the integrity and purpose of “Queen and Country” for which project McQueen worked with more than 100 bereaved families of servicemen and women killed in Iraq. I was thrilled to see a comprehensive article by Sarah Crompton about "Queen and Country" and the Royal Mail’s continued refusal to issue the stamps in the Telegraph on Saturday 8th November. Click here to read her earlier appraisal of the work.

I would urge anyone who has an opportunity to see this project itself to go. It is difficult to describe well but it is an astonishingly powerful work. It’s on show at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh from 3rd December to 15th February 2009. To sign the ArtFund’s petition to persuade Royal Mail to issue the stamps click here:

I’ve always found it rather fitting that our November period of remembrance coincides with the gathering mists and denuded trees of approaching winter. It is certainly always a particularly poignant season for me. My husband Peter Griffin (b.1950) died on Friday, 7th November, 1997, at the very end of an absolutely glorious Indian summer and an incredibly brave two year fight with kidney cancer. It was a gloomy afternoon, less than a week after the clocks went back, that time of year when everything suddenly seems to get very dark indeed.

08 November, 2008

Top Gear - Is addiction grounds for divorce? Jeremy Clarkson, the complexities of bad taste jokes & the etiquette of eavesdropping

This image copyright BBC

First: an apology. This post is late, more than 24 hours late & it's entirely my own fault. I seriously underestimated quite how long I would actually spend trawling through the intermittently coherent posts on one particular webpage, URL something along the lines of: http:// forum.jeremyclarkson.co.uk/discussions/html...you'll find it, if you really want to. Just imagine if all the chuckling sycophants gathered in the Top Gear TV hangar suddenly decided to "contribute to the on-line debate". No, it's not an edifying read but it is somehow morbidly fascinating - as I found out for myself.

Apology out the way, here comes the confession: I don’t like Jeremy Clarkson. There, I've said it & it's quite a relief. I don't mean it in a nasty way. I’ve actually met Über-bloke a few times, professionally & socially, and he is almost perfectly personable, (but in that: “I can’t really believe she’s still married to him - but I do sort of understand why she did it in the first place?” way...)

Yet I used to be a big fan. I looked forward to his Sunday Times column, in which he distinguished himself from the rest of the contrarian rabble (Liddle, Gill et al) with his “edgy” yet perceptive humour. One JC suggestion which still makes me smile was his proposal, a few years back, to modify overhead lockers on airplanes, all the better to accommodate bawling infants.

Sadly, I fell seriously out of love with JC & his Top Gear sidekicks a couple of years ago. Did it perhaps have something to do with those long dark Sundays? When my other half sat in front of the 42” plasma, giggling and guffawing, like a school boy in the lingerie department, while I sat, at the other end of our converted barn, on the uncomfier sofa, draped in malodorous hounds, watching repeats of Midsommer Murders & Morse?

Then, I just presumed that the whole Top Gear conundrum was just another case of Mars vs Venus. Ergo: no point posting about my Sunday evening bloke time envy?

Yet, earlier this week, when the “JC, lorry drivers, tasteless joke” meme began to flitter through the blogosphere, I was heartened to note that more than a few male commentators whom I really respect had never bought into the whole Überbloke/TG thang.

Still, I resisted. Then, earlier this week, I ended up in an east London eaterie, within spitting distance of two very Grande Dames de Fleet Street. Over the Dover sole, GD1 (editor lady) asked GD2 (columnist lady) which thorny subject she was thinking about tackling in her weekend column. “Top Gear, of course. I'm sticking up for Clarkson,” announced the latter confidently, adding she felt that JC now performed a vital role as a “societal safety valve”.

OK mea maxima culpa - I was indeed, eavesdropping but, it led me, initially, to a responsible conclusion: best leave JC/TG to GD2 - with her thundering, highly rated, op-ed page, weekly column in a national newspaper. Elegantly written & rationally argued as ever, you can read her pro-TG thoughts here:

Personally, I’m still not entirely sure where I stand on JC/TG et al. Yet I do remember that in September 2006, I was in a hospital room in Yorkshire, with Fred, my father, an 86-year old D-Day veteran, who was then fighting for his life. At exactly the same time, JC acolyte & TG regular, Richard "the Hamster" Hammond (b.1969) nearly died in a 288 mph crash, a stunt filmed for & eventually shown on Top Gear.

Then at the end of last week, I entered a well-known high street store (which will remain unidentified but which recently posted a 30% drop in last half profits) and practically walked into into a gargantuan, intractable wall of Top Gear merchandise, from the Stig Remote Control Go-Kart (£15) Top Gear Stunt Carts (£15.00) Stig Bubble Bath; Stig Key Ring etc., etc. Petrol head present paradise and much of it aimed at kids of all ages. So don't forget to tune in to JC, Hamster, James May & all the usual Top Gear fun & malarkey on Sunday night now, will you?!

31 October, 2008

Just call me Cassandra: Ross, Brand, Assisted Suicide & how Auntie finally lost the plot...

This image: copyright: BBC

Regular readers are now invited to call me Cassandra. In every post over the last six to eight weeks, I have suggested that editors – picture & otherwise – would be digging out (& paying good money for) all those slightly frothier stories to leaven the now heavy old daily bread of market meltdown, R-R-recession, clocks going back, climate change & the ‘null point’ mambo which is Westminster.

Yet there has been a decidedly surreal twist to the headlines of late. Metropolitan snow in October? Nat Goldsmith fingers ex-mate Osborne for hanging with dodgy oligarch? Peter Mandelson in ermine? But in wildest dreams, could anyone seriously have conjured up the “storm in a teacup” fiasco that is the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand "Mucky Messages" saga?

To date, I have remained neutral on "Manuelgate", leaving the sticky involvement of divisive opinion to titans of media analysis, such as Gordon Brown & David Cameron.

Not that I cannot see the Vaudevillian attractions of the story: its two classic villains - lisping dandies, Wossy & Bwand; token good guy, Mark Thompson – (who should actually wear that metaphorical dog collar full time;) innocent victim, Andrew Sachs, a much-loved national treasure, familiar from a thousand reassuring voice-overs, not to mention his role in the ultimate classic comedy series. Add to this cocktail, Sachs' childhood escape from Nazi Germany. It’s a very potent formula – even before you throw in granddaughter, Georgina – (AKA Voluptua of the Satanic Sluts, now, of course, represented by PR "guru” Max Clifford). Some how, I keep expecting BBC Biz Ed. R.Peston to pop up somewhere in this headline story.

Until recently, the only winners in the entire row were Associated Newspapers, whose Mail on Sunday organ kicked up all the fuss, splashing with the story on October 26th, more than a week after the original broadcast was aired (with only two formal complaints to the BBC).

But last Wednesday, I finally allowed myself to get angry. “Manuelgate” led every single BBC News bulletin for more than 48 hours - & was also prominently flagged by many other headline media outlet programmes. On the very same day, Debbie Purdy, 45, (below) an MS sufferer from Bradford, failed in the most recent chapter of her bid to get the High Court to clarify the law on assisted suicide. Debbie remains compos mentis but is now mainly confined to a wheelchair. Not at all unreasonably, she wants clarification on whether or not her husband, Omar Puente, would be prosecuted, were he to accompany her to a Swiss euthanasia clinic.

By any reasonable criteria, Debbie Purdy’s story would have led every news bulletin that day. Our ageing population, increasingly sophisticated palliative medicine and general anxiety about facing the vexed question of how we might all eventually shuffle off this mortal coil should be far more generally discussed & debated. Instead, editors chose to focus on the Ross/Brand/BBC saga. At the same time, a human catastrophe of extraordinary proportions is unfolding in Congo. But how many papers will that sell?

27 October, 2008

Poppies, Heroes & the Kindness of Strangers

This image: copyright PA

It’s that time of year again: when no ambitious – sorry, self-respecting – news reader or other talking head would dare to be seen without a poppy proudly displayed on their lapel. Fitting then, that quite a few newspapers today ran with the equally obligatory pictures of the ecstatic return from Helmand Province of 2 Para to their anxious loved ones, back in Colchester.

In almost any other context, these happy family snaps, radiating relief, joy and love, might verge on the banal. Yet in the current climate of doom, gloom, the R-word, encroaching winter and myriad other reasons not to be cheerful, it is not difficult to sympathise with picture editors everywhere, scratching their heads about appropriate images with which to run.

Fifteen soldiers who were members of 2 Para or attached to the unit did not make it back home. The average age of the fallen was 24 years old. They included Private Daniel Gamble, a rifleman and Pashto speaker, who died, aged 22, in a suicide bombing attack on June 8th, the 100th British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan. Pictures like the one below, showing the repatriation of 19-year old Private Charles Murray, killed in the same attack, just don’t seem to make the front page quite that often. A memorial service to remember 2 Para’s fallen heroes will be held on Thursday, October 30th at St Peter’s church in Colchester.

Comrades carry Pte Murray’s coffin. This image: copyright Daily Mail

On Sunday, Defence Secretary John Hutton told BBC1's Politics Show that Afghanistan was the front line in the fight against international terror, adding it was "impossible to tell" how long troops would be deployed there, but conceded that it could well be "decades".

Click on the following link to go to a comprehensive Roll of Honour of British Troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 compiled by the team at www.britains-smallwars.com.

The troops – fallen, wounded and still serving – took centre stage on Sunday 26th October, when I joined 20,000 other runners to raise funds for charity at the Great South Run in Portsmouth. Help for Heroes (set up only last year by Bryn and Emma Parry to help servicemen wounded in Afghanistan & Iraq) had managed to assemble a veritable army of charity runners, including a bunch of young men in full yomping gear and three teams of eight who pushed a Land Rover around the entire 10-mile course in the teeming rain and wind. Just a quick glimpse of them was all the incentive I personally needed not to give up...

To be honest, I was extremely nervous, not just about running but about touting for sponsorship in the current climate. Despite being woefully ill-prepared, I actually managed to finish in around 1.44, and, thanks to the generosity of friends (both IRL and many of my just as good mates from Twitter) and the magical powers of Justgiving.com, I've raised a significant amount for the Cancer Campaign at the Royal Marsden where Nick, my brother-in-law, was treated earlier this year; his lymphoma is now, thankfully and thanks to the Marsden, in remission.

Anyone doing anything at all for charity would be mad not to set up a fund-raising page at Justgiving. When I ran the London Marathon in 2001, I spent weeks trying to get people to make good their pledges. This time, within hours of sending my link by e-mail, I had already far exceeded my original £500 target. At time of writing, I’m already up to £1500 and the donations are still coming in!

Next time, I’d like to raise funds for Help for Heroes too but I reckon the X-factor gang's take on Mariah Carey will probably bring in a fair few quid. I’d give the link here - if I didn’t feel that the enterprise smacks a little too much of Simon Cowell’s particular, high-waisted, brand of cynicism. Nevertheless, I hope they raise millions for an excellent cause & additionally, some awareness of what British troops are facing in these remote and alien theatres of war. For now, I’ll stick to proudly wearing my own poppy.

20 October, 2008

Examining the Image #22 – Palin & her Fey Doppelgänger – Harbinger of Doom?

Republican VP candidate Alaska governor Sarah Palin watches Tina Fey’s now notorious SNL impersonation alongside executive producer Lorne Michaels
This image copyright Dana Edelson/NBC

I’ve been wanting to take a look at the photo-journalistic phenomenon that is Sarah Palin since John McCain announced his shock decision to appoint her as his running mate. However, I didn’t want to choose one of the cheesy beauty pageant or scary moose-hunting shots which, compulsively, morbidly fascinating as they are, simply do not stand up to much scrutiny or analysis.

Then I saw this surreal shot of Palin watching Tina Fey doing Palin, albeit at one remove, split by a screen, but with all the heavy symmetrical resonances of the identical red jacket, curiously dated lapel brooch, serious-yet-come-hither specs & quasi-permanent Cherie Blair rictus.

The Cholmondeley Ladies Anon. 1600-1610.
Image copyright Tate Gallery

This type of close figurative symmetry, as seen in the famous 17th portrait of the Cholmondeley Twins above, has a long and complex tradition in the history of art while the theme of the lookalike or Doppelgänger is traditionally associated with issues of identity and duality.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954): The Two Fridas 1939
This image: Banco de México Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo Trust

The word Doppelgänger is also often used to describe the sensation of having glimpsed oneself peripherally, in a position where there is no chance that it could be a reflection – one of the visual tricks which help to give much of René Magritte’s precise Surrealist paintings their peculiar attraction.

René Magritte (1898-1967) La Reproduction Interdite 1937. Copyright ADAGP Paris/DACS London 2006/V&A

In many cultures, a Doppelgänger seen by a person's friends or relatives portends illness or danger, while seeing one's own Doppelgänger is often an omen of death. They are also frequently regarded as harbingers of bad luck.
While the jury is still out on the wisdom or otherwise of Palin’s decision to play along with the Saturday Night Live crew, there can be few politicians who did not ultimately rue similarly irreverent depictions or imitations.
Cartoonist Steve Bell’s decision to have John Major’s underpants on the outside of his trousers springs immediately to mind while Liberal leader David Steel reportedly blamed his squeaky pocket-sized Spitting Image puppet, cuddling up on David Owen’s shoulder, for the downturn in his career.

07 October, 2008

Reading the Runes: Damien Hirst, the new Saatchi Gallery & what Market Turmoil means for the Art Market

Yue Minjun: this image copyright Arario Gallery; all rights reserved

Not that long ago, my personal party trick to engineer sudden & stunned silence at any boring West London dinner was to announce that: “Harry Potter was derivative, simplistic, poorly written, sub-C.S. Lewis drivel”. Believe me - for many months, nay – years, even, it was completely & utterly effective.

More recently, a good way of poking the hornets’ nest, particularly at any inter-generational gathering, has been to mention the name of the particular black beast that is Damien Hirst. Please! Don’t get me wrong. Personally, I think Hirst is extremely, extraordinarily, preter-naturally, clever, a more than worthy Warhol de nos jours.

My other half, on the other hand, thinks the boy Damien is just brilliant and I now fear he might possibly kill to have even one of the most mundane spotty paintings on the wall in our downstairs loo. Together, we debated the myriad merits of the Boy Hirst, as we meandered around ArtLondon last Saturday, held this last weekend in the august confines of Sir Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital in Chelsea (London, England).

We actually queued with sundry other "art lovers" to get in at 10.55am; yet, if we hadn’t had free tickets (courtesy of a gallery from which we long ago bought a small print) would we even have bothered? All of these newish London “art fairs” have suffered in all sorts of ways lately, particularly since the initial sheen of most of the YBAs has inevitably dulled & the credit crunch has meant that £30, including catalogue, for two adults to wander round a chilly marquee, looking at poorly hung pictures, seems rather less attractive than a hearty meal at the local Italian.

Roman Black Gallery were showing one or two of Damien’s Skulls & Butterflies, but, alas, they were beyond our budget. Perhaps they were hoping to ride the tidal bore of the recent, and now notorious, Sotheby’s 15th September £111m Hirst sale which, with 20-20 hindsight, it appears, managed to pip global financial meltdown?

What may or may not be happening in the art market is well worth a look, given that ‘art’ is now – (with a CNN-estimated annual $4 billion turnover) the biggest legal global economy which is still fundamentally unregulated......

An indication of art market resilience emerged last weekend at Sotheby’s recent Hong Kong auction, the biggest art sale since the credit crisis started. Unsurprisingly, sales were far less robust than expected, with most buyers opting for cheaper artists and earlier works; many lots by top Chinese names even failed to sell.

A 1990-1991 untitled oil scene of Tiananmen Square by Yue Minjun (see above) fetched HK$6.6m - yet two works by Zhang Xiaogang and key lots by Zeng Fanzhi all went unsold. Conversely, on Saturday, Indonesian artist I Nyoman Masriadi's ‘Sorry Hero, Saya Lupa’ - featuring Superman and Batman - fetched HK$4.8m, eight times its pre-sale estimate - a record for Southeast Asian art.

Charles Saatchi has, to date, managed to remain well ahead of the art market game. It will be interesting to see whether his newest exhibition of contemporary Chinese art at the latest incarnation of the eponymous Gallery, moved from St Johns Wood, to Lambeth, and now to Chelsea SW3, catches the Zeitgeist.

The following link takes you to Waldemar Januszczak’s interesting perspective on the new gallery & the state of contemporary Chinese art -


24 September, 2008

Shouting Men in Shirtsleeves - How best to Illustrate Market News?

This image copyright AP

I have it on excellent authority that senior picture editors all over Fleet Street were whooping into their tall skinny lattes last Monday when the news broke that Lehman Brothers had finally collapsed, with thousands of job losses expected around the globe. Finally, they thought, some decent pictures we can use.

“Shots of sweaty men in shirtsleeves, shouting loudly down 'phones don’t tell the readers anything, but the same guys? Walking out of those shiny front doors, lugging the contents of their desks in boxes – nobody needs a caption to work out what that all means”.

And sure enough, last week’s papers carried all the obligatory shots of redundant bankers, trooping out of their erstwhile offices, brows furrowed, chattels aloft. It is a wonder no snappers were injured as they pushed their long lenses forward in an attempt to document this sad, shuffling exodus. Even I felt some momentary sympathy, hence my decision not to reproduce any more schadenfreude shots here.

Frankfurt Stock Exchange: Bull & Bear - copyright Thomas Richter

Adequately illustrating financial news stories has historically been an infrequent, but perennial, problem. Until relatively recently, money and market matters had the good grace to restrict themselves to the inside pages, with only the occasional High Street sales hiccup or Christmas Club collapse muscling their way into the mainstream headlines. To date, this has allowed picture desks to get away with myriad indulgences, not least the over-zealous use of images of attractive women which have little, if any, relation to the story at hand. “M&S reporting tomorrow? Run a snap of one of those models from the ads. No, not Twiggy. Use the sultry one with the curly hair. Her, or that Myleene Klass.”

Yet even before the market turmoil of recent weeks, financial news has been hitting the front page far more regularly of late – fueled by a combination of credit crunch anxieties, continuing globalization and the demands of increasingly sophisticated investors. The latter are no longer confined to canny middle class pensioners and part time stock market players; they now include the man on the Clapham omnibus who wants to know, among other things, exactly how much the price of his Victorian terraced cottage has been affected by remote and distant events, events which are still beyond his control but are now no longer beyond his ken.

Cartoon: copyright blueherald.com

If, as seems likely, the markets are to remain centre stage, perhaps it is time for imaginative picture desks to think beyond the box when it comes to illuminating financial news? It is hard to think of a single photograph that has managed to explain or convey as much as the cartoons which have flowed thick and fast from the pens of some of our best commentators, most notably Matt in the Telegraph, Nick Newman of the Sunday Times and Robert Thompson in the Spectator & elsewhere. Yet, I suppose, why bother to commission an incisive cartoon or any other perceptive illustration - when you can pretty much always find a decent shot of that Myleene Klass?

16 September, 2008

Art on Telly - Triumph or Travesty?

The image above shows the simple lines of the Uffington White Horse, scoured out centuries ago alongside the ancient Ridgeway and above the evocatively named Dragon Hill on the Oxfordshire-Wiltshire border. Not only can I actually see the old nag from our barn (well, I can if I go to the top of the garden and clamber up the young horse chestnut tree) but this White Horse, in its eponymous Vale, was one of the many works of Land Art featured in the last of Waldemar Januszczak’s three-part Channel 4 Sculpture Diaries.

I wasn’t totally sold by the first episode in the series which looked at sculptures of women, from the Venus of Willendorf to Marc Quinn’s Alison Lapper – Pregnant and so didn’t bother to catch the middle show (apparently on power). However, I am a bit of a Land Art nut, so I did tune in last Sunday.

A few critics have reportedly moaned about Waldemar’s over-jaunty delivery but perhaps they should have been listening harder to what he was saying? The Sunday Times regular is one of our most lucid writers on contemporary art. Most recently, his perceptive take on the Tate Bacon retrospective avoided so much of the hysteria written elsewhere and actually drew fresh conclusions about Bacon’s work, which I personally fear has suffered from the “Athena syndrome” of rampant reproduction.
You can read his review here:
The programme itself was a witty and insightful travelogue which illuminated several iconic pieces of the cosmic earthworks movement which started in the States, more or less in tandem with Conceptual Art in the 1960s and 1970s. I was very envious when Waldemar walked out into the Great Salt Lake in Utah, onto the vestiges of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) – a work he described as “an atrophied slurp”. I was intrigued to find out more about Smithson’s wife, Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels (1976) while his visit to James Turrell’s extraordinary Roden Crater has got me saving up for the inevitable trip to Flagstaff, AZ.

My enjoyment also got me to thinking about whether or not “Art with a capital A” actually works on television? Certainly, you need conviction and the passion for communication, first evidenced by the equally jaunty Matthew Collings, bouncing Boswell of the YBAs, and most recently exhibited by the dapper Count Francesco da Mosto. It certainly also helps to know what you are talking about, viz: Sir Kenneth Clark or Brian Sewell. For my money, the best telly art critic of our own age is Tim Marlow, regularly to be seen on Channel 5 - (or is that just “five” these days?)

Channel 4 continues the arty Sunday night theme this week with “The Mona Lisa Curse”, a documentary examining one of my own regular rants: art & money. It is also presented by a true art world leviathan, Robert Hughes, who only this week dubbed Damien Hirst’s work ‘absurd’ and ‘tacky’. Unmissable.

13 September, 2008

Arty Party of the Year - & I was invited….

Model for Gehry Pavilion at Serpentine Gallery 2008
This image copyright Gehry Associates

Yes, it’s true. The unfeasibly heavy red envelope fell through the door a few weeks ago. To be honest, I was half-expecting it. Even though the powers that be at the Serpentine Gallery scraped our names off the proper patrons’ wall a couple of years ago, why would they even dream of taking us off the mailing list? Some people are prepared to pay good money for that kind of data.

So we were invited. By Dasha herself, no less. That’s Daria Zhukova to you, Founder, the Garage, Center (sic) for Contemporary Culture, Moscow. She has pleasure in inviting us to The Summer Party on Tuesday 9 September 2008 7pm-midnight. Her generous co-hosts included: Lord Palumbo, Tim Jeffries, Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Funny that, the invitation didn’t actually mention whether or not Dasha’s bloke was going to be meeting and greeting by her side. You might have heard of him, fellow Russian, not short of a rouble or two either, name of Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea FC and a recent graduate to the hallowed circles of very serious art collectors. Abramovich was eventually revealed as the mystery buyer who snapped up Francis Bacon’s 1976 Triptych and Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping for an eyewatering, record-breaking total of £60 million in New York in May this year.

In the Times Magazine today, James Collard has penned an elegantly written but frustratingly, less than illuminating interview with the oligarch’s 27-year-old girlfriend, designer and now art mogul. It’s an engaging read although there are few revelations, most notably about Abramovich’s recent conversion to contemporary art. But, as Collard points out, he wouldn’t be the first very rich man to move on from buying yachts and houses to acquiring art. The article is illustrated by a characteristically sleek portrait by Jude Edginton. You can read the piece itself by clicking here:

Well, I can’t say I wasn’t tempted at the prospect of an evening gazing upon Frank Gehry’s small but perfectly formed urban promenade itself (see above). The fractured glass and timber amphitheatre has turned out to be one of the most successful in the recent series of temporary pavilions. It remains in situ outside the Gallery in Kensington Gardens until October 19th.

But then I read the small print. Tickets, restricted to two applications per invitation, were priced at £400 – each. That was £200 per individual ticket with a “suggested” charity donation of £200 per ticket – the donation going straight to help fund Dasha’s Moscow-based Garage Center. Now I like to think of myself as a reasonably philanthropic individual but somehow, I just couldn’t see myself donating £400, ostensibly to further the latest enthusiasm of another post-Soviet heiress. Besides the weather forecast for west London last Tuesday was really pretty dismal.

11 August, 2008

Fox Talbot, Lacock Abbey & Maggie Taylor - Curiouser & Curiouser

The Herald (2006) This image: copyright Maggie Taylor 2008

In a bid to be right up to the minute, I had hoped to post about Jude Edginton’s magnificent portraits of British Olympic and Paralympic athletes which are on show in a multi-media exhibition on the South Bank outside Tate Modern for the next few weeks. Alas, the images don’t seem to be freely available quite yet. However, as soon as I can get hold of a few, I hope to discuss them. Sponsored by Adidas and by British Olympic Campaign, London 2012, the series highlights several key points about the funding and execution of major photography projects in the 21st century.

On a rainy afternoon last week, I finally made the pilgrimage to Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire where, in 1835, photography pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877) produced the earliest known surviving photographic negative using a camera – a small drawing of the latticed window of the Abbey’s south gallery.

This image copyright/courtesy of National Museum of Photography/Science & Society Picture Library

The Abbey itself was founded in 1232 by the intriguing Countess Ela of Salisbury, as a Nunnery for Augustinian Canonesses. As far as I could work out, it functioned as a kind of refined commune for the posh daughters of gentry, who favoured education and industry over the option of being married off to a philandering or otherwise absent crusader knight. Eventually dissolved by Henry VIII’s commissioners, it was sold in 1539 to Sir William Sharrington, in whose family it remained until his descendant Matilda Talbot donated the Abbey, lands and village to the National Trust in 1946. The Abbey was used as a school for evacuee children during the Second World War and, as I wandered around the medieval Cloister, Chaplaincy and Warming Room, I saw immediately why the producers of the Harry Potter cinema franchise had elected to use these elegant stone arches to stand in for Hogwarts’ hallowed halls.

The small museum dedicated to Fox Talbot and his pioneering work at Lacock is housed in a medieval barn in the Abbey grounds. It does a workman-like job, using various items of Talbot's equipment, objects he photographed and some publications and personal items on loan from the main Collection, which has now moved to the British Library. Perhaps because the Collection - over 4,000 photographs by Talbot and his circle and more than 10,000 letters and other correspondence between Talbot, his family and friends – is now housed in London, the Lacock Museum itself feels sadly like something of an after thought with low ceilings and confusing labelling. I was personally most taken by the few vitrines set up to show the breadth of polymath Fox Talbot’s scholarship in so many other fields, including: mathematics, chemistry, classics, philosophy, botany, Assyriology and archaeology.

The upper barn galleries are used for temporary photographic exhibitions. At the moment & until 14 December 2008, American artist Maggie Taylor is presenting her own take on that perennial artists’ totem: Alice in Wonderland. Taylor works by scanning original 19th-century photographs, line drawings and book illustrations, combining them with her own landscape photographs. These are then layered using digital techniques such as Photoshop, sometimes as many as 60 times, to create a surreal image which is intended to erase the boundary between photography and illustration.
I admit it is an interesting approach and some of the images are quite beguiling but I often wish we could just leave Tenniel alone – If it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Time for Tea? Tum-ti-tum-ti-tum....

29 July, 2008

ArtLondon #5 Asia House/Afghanistan

This image - copyright Seamus Murphy
The late, great Philip Jones Griffiths (1936-2008) called Seamus Murphy “a poet with a camera” – yes, of course, a clichéd epithet - but, like any cliché worth its salt, it contains more than a kernel of truth. If you want to see some excellent examples of Murphy’s visual verse, you have until September 13th to wend your way to Asia House, an extraordinary and relatively new venue, still practically hidden on London's super-posh New Cavendish Street, nestled between all the plastic surgeons, orthodontists and top-of-the-range shrinks plying their various trades in W1.

Murphy’s exhibition of images from his latest project: A Darkness Visible: Afghanistan remain on show in the main Asia House Gallery. Check out:


Afghanistan and continued British involvement in this fascinating, strange and remote country remain an enigma to me. In a bid to better understand why we are still involved there, and to what end, I went last week to an Asia House event where my erstwhile & esteemed colleague, “Vitamin Murders” writer James Fergusson, was talking about his latest book: A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan. I left elucidated but nevertheless depressed to have my own instincts confirmed: that military intervention – let alone that of a former imperial power – had no chance whatever to effect any possible good for the future of the Afghan people – the same people so nobly portrayed in Seamus Murphy’s photographs. If you can’t make the show, do check out the book at:

James Fergusson’s considered and beautifully written analysis can be perused further at:

24 July, 2008

ArtLondon #4: Puppies win Prizes? Jeff Koons & the RA's Wollaston Prize

Jeff Koons 'Puppy' outside Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain
Art prizes seem designed to create controversy. What would the Turner be without the annual kerfuffle about the calibre of the nominees and the eccentricity of the eventual selection? Martin Creed, one of my own heroes & Turner winner in 2001, springs immediately to mind. This year the Royal Academy’s prestigious £25,000 Charles Wollaston award went to American artist Jeff Koons (b.1955). In the Spectator magazine, critic Andrew Lambirth has registered his own protest – suggesting that Koons’ piece, the high chromium stainless steel ‘Cracked Egg (Blue) 1994-2006’ was far from being the most distinguished work in the Summer Exhibition. I find myself increasingly irritated with the flashier, "life-style" Spectator, but the lucid writing of contributors such as Lambirth keeps me from cancelling my subscription. (My other Spectator must-reads include: Simon Hoggart, Charles Moore, James Delingpole, Marcus Berkmann, Charles Spencer, Matthew Parris and Robin Oakley).

On the RA award, I fully agree with Andrew Lambirth that Koons’ cheeky sculpture - brashly displayed in the middle of the magnificent octagonal central hall - cannot by any criterion be called the most distinguished piece in the exhibition – & I do wonder what Lambirth’s own choice would be? However, I can’t help but cherish a quiet personal fondness for Koons’ triumphantly kitsch celebration of the banal – a skewed but utterly hilarious, tongue in cheek aesthetic, exemplified by pieces such as 1988’s ceramic sculpture of Michael Jackson and Bubbles.

I don’t seem to be the only one reluctantly seduced by Koons’ humour and vision. His sculpture Hanging Heart (also 1994-2006) set a new record for a living artist at auction when it reached $23.6 million at Sotheby’s in New York in November 2007. His 12m high topiary terrier ‘Puppy’ has become very much a city symbol in Bilbao, as loved and as lauded as Frank Gehry’s iconic Guggenheim Museum outside which the giant floral West Highland Terrier sits obediently to attention.

Back to the Summer Exhibition, I was relieved and heartened to see that the work of a handful of much younger photographers and painters whom I’ve had the luck to spot already had made it through the tortuous submission and selection process. They include Ed Kevill-Davies and Eleanor Lindsay-Fynn and I will be writing about them in their own post soon.

19 July, 2008

ArtLondon #3 - RA Summer Exhibition & the Genius of David Mach

David Mach: Chairman Mao, 2004. Collage. Image Courtesy - The Red Mansion Foundation

There are still four weeks left in which to experience another annual highlight of the London art carousel: the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition – “the largest open contemporary art exhibition in the world, drawing together new work by both established and unknown artists. Now in its 240th year, the exhibition includes 1,200 works, the majority of which are for sale”.

Another confession: I haven’t even bothered to go to the Summer Exhibition for the last year or two – I've been content instead to watch the hang on some worthy cable arts programme and pick up on any controversy via the popular prints. However, I found myself in Piccadilly recently with an hour to kill and I decided to give the RA one more chance, making a note to spare myself the mental and visual anguish invariably provoked by the over-busy hang of generally poor amateur efforts which yearly fight for attention on the walls of the Weston rooms.

The RA blurb insists that highlights of the show include a memorial gallery dedicated to the late Ron Kitaj (1932-2007) but after passing attentively through it, I was no less perplexed by his huge reputation. Gallery VIII, curated by recently elected Academician, "our" Tracey Emin, also failed to move me; it was, however, full of sniggering schoolboys – perhaps attracted by the “over-18s only – shocking works on display” warning.

The perceptive and always readable Andrew Lambirth has complained in the Spectator Magazine about the award of the RA’s prestigious Wollaston Prize to American Kaiser of Kitsch, Jeff Koons. I will add my own guinea’s worth of comment on the subject in a later post.

For me, the stand-out works of the show were the huge-scale collages, constructed from thousands of identical postcards, by David Mach (b.1956) currently RA Professor of Sculpture – & in particular, the haunting, veiled image ‘Visitor’ and its gallery partner ‘Golden Delicious II’.
I dream of one day owning one of these incisive and accomplished comments on 21st century society but I was sadly unable to persuade Mach himself, a genial leather-jacketed Scot, to let me have one at a discount when we met him at his 2006 solo exhibition at Jill George Gallery in Soho. Click on this link to marvel at the images then on show: http://www.jillgeorgegallery.co.uk/artists/mach/mach_exhibition2006.htm

My particular favourite is the one of Bart Simpson – a two metre square collage of Tao-Te-Ching cards which so faithfully reproduces almost everyone’s favourite prodigal cartoon son. Photo-collage began as a tool for Mach to describe and layout his large scale installations and public sculptures but they have now emphatically transcended this preliminary phase to become fully-realised works of art in themselves.

16 July, 2008

ArtLondon #2 - Prince's New Clothes at the Serpentine Gallery

This image - Untitled (cowboy) 1989 - copyright Richard Prince

London’s green & verdant Hyde Park - what better place to be on a balmy June evening? The rather chic crowd, milling outside the Serpentine Gallery is brazen testament to director Julia Peyton-Jones drive, energy and extraordinary networking prowess. The annual temporary pavilion is now a cultural landmark and talking point by any measure, while the Serpentine Summer Party is now a Society and Season landmark – considered - in certain circles - as right up there, alongside Ascot, Wimbledon and Henley Royal Regatta. And yet, and yet..…I can’t help wondering whether somehow the art itself is getting increasingly sidelined, as the Gallery itself and its profile goes from strength to strength?

I was so depressed by the last Serpentine exhibition – a collection of dismal and utterly distinction free abstract paintings by Viennese feminist artist Maria Lassnig (b.1919) that I was unable to even contemplate writing about it. It seems that the latest show has also split the critics. “Continuation” is hailed as the first major British public exhibition of the work of American appropriation master Richard Prince (b.1949). The show was chosen and curated by Prince himself, who has somehow squeezed London in, neatly between last year’s “Spiritual America” retrospective at the Guggenheim in New York and another solo show, entitled “Four Blue Cowboys” which opened (in the same week as "Continuation") at Gagosian’s newish Rome headquarters.

My heart sank as I entered the gallery’s sunny white rooms on “Special Private View” night, to read that the show was: “presented by the Serpentine Gallery in collaboration with Louis Vuitton”. Prince is one of the latest artists to design a line of new handbags for the luxury brand. The work itself, both older and more familiar pieces - such as the cannibalized Marlboro Man above: “Untitled (cowboy)" (1989) - and the newer “Nurse” series, left me personally rather cold but the show has been reviewed rather more comprehensively by, among others, Joanna Pitman in the Times – you can read her intelligent and measured conclusions by following this link.
In the Sunday Times, her colleague Waldemar Januszczak took a rather more benign view:
Elsewhere, in the Guardian, writer and broadcaster "Bidisha" vented some moral outrage in a blog post which attracted so many controversial comments that the thread was finally closed down by the free speech monitors of Farringdon Road.

The Richard Prince retrospective continues until 7th September. In the meantime, I do look forward to the opening next week of the latest Pavilion, the first built work in this country by pioneering American architect Frank Gehry, working for the first time in collaboration with his son, Sam. When last glimpsed, half finished outside the Prince show, it looked utterly intriguing. Watch this space for a considered opinion on the finished construction.

09 July, 2008

ArtLondon #1 - Plensa's Monument to Fallen Journalists

(Breathing 2003-2006: Copyright Channel4) In London recently, I caught for the first time a glimpse of Jaume Plensa's new art work which glows above the BBC in Portland Place, as a memorial to journalists & crew who have died upholding freedom of speech. Entitled 'Breathing', the site specific, glass and steel sculpture which was unveiled in June is engraved with a meditation upon silence, life & death. Veteran hack Robert Fox has written movingly about the dedication service for the memorial, which he suggests is highly timely - given that, despite every advance in technology, news gathering around the world continues to be a highly dangerous business. You can read the full article here: http://www.thefrontlineclub.com/club_articles.php?id=412

"Breathing" is certainly both elegant and thought-provoking. To date, I had not taken Catalan artist Plensa (b.1955) terribly seriously, dismissing him as a Turrell wannabe and his huge outdoor installations such as Gateshead's "Blake" (1996) the laser beam outside the Baltic and Chicago's mirrored "Crown Fountain" (2004) as rather gimmicky. This new work has made me think again and I look forward to finding out more about the artist's latest public sculpture for this country. A model of the landmark, entitled "Dream", was first seen in May. Commissioned by St.Helens Council as part of The Big Art Project, an ambitious public art initiative from Channel 4, supported by Arts Council England & The ArtFund, the 20 metre high sculpture will sit on top of the former Sutton Manor Colliery, overlooking the M62 main east-west arterial motorway which effectively bisects England.
For the unveiling of "Breathing", the BBC also commissioned a new poem from former war reporter and foreign correspondent James Fenton (b.1949). It is elegiac and apposite. You can read the text here:
For a slightly more accessible but equally beautiful memorial to fallen journalists, I can highly recommend the simple side altar at St Bride's Church in Fleet Street upon which tributes to those reporters, cameramen, photographers and fixers who have all paid the ultimate price still appear with depressing frequency.

07 July, 2008

It's a Lacroix, Darling - Rencontres d'Arles

Photography Festivals are a bit like blogs: now ubiquitous, of wildly varying quality, often highly political, if sometimes irrelevant and currently springing up all over the globe. However, one of the oldest and justly popular is the annual Rencontres d'Arles in the southern French city which this year celebrates its 39th edition, with an official launch tomorrow July 8th at various venues across Arles until mid-September. If I manage to make it across the Channel, perhaps I might manage to understand a little more about fashion photography and where it fits into the canon of 21st century imagery?

This year's guest curator is one of Arles' favourite sons - the fashion historian and couturier Christian Lacroix (b.1951 or 1956 - some confusion between the designer's own website and every other source...). Among his guest exhibitors are many of the usual suspects: Peter Lindbergh, Paolo Roversi and Brit star of the moment, Tim Walker; the latter has his own retrospective at the Design Museum in London until 28 September. On show in Arles for the first time outside the U.S. is a series from 1995 by doyen Richard Avedon (1923-2004). Entitled "In Memory of the Late Mr and Mrs Comfort: a Fable" - the images feature a series of increasingly macabre tableaux of model Nadja Auermann, engaged in an extremely intimate relationship with a skeleton - albeit one which is often fully-clothed - in itself, a puzzling image which continues to disturb long after one has turned the page or moved on.

Cintra Wilson, the "Critical Shopper" recently lambasted Lacroix's latest design confections in the New York Times, calling them "regressive" and suggesting that the designer was "boxing the dusk in the twilight of life" and concluding that he had reached "inevitable self-parody".

Yet only last week, Suzy Menkes in the IHT lauded Lacroix's very latest Paris collection. At a chic birthday lunch in the Netherlands last week, my table companion correctly identified my Wedgewood blue brocade coat as a Lacroix; I didn't trouble him with the detail that it was only from the relatively affordable Bazar diffusion line and that it was at least a decade old....

If you feel like a trip to Provence to consider Lacroix's curatorial eye, check out: http://www.rencontres-arles.com/ARL/C.aspx?VP3=Renderer_VPage&ID=ARLP144

18 May, 2008

Corpses & Cornflakes

Another day, more harrowing pictures from China & indeed, from Burma, where the regime can try & prevent overseas aid from coming in but is having markedly less success at preventing photographic evidence of the extent of cyclone death and devastation getting out.
Last week, David Viggers, Reuters UK Chief Photographer, wrote the blog post below:

The post was accompanied by a series of powerful images of the Chinese earthquake. The impact was immediate: a series of comments, initially branding the photographs offensive, and even berating the author for "boasting of his brilliance" - when people needed hands-on help. Fortunately, a raft of subsequent comments praised the images and vindicated Viggers.

Yet the cyber-storm highlighted a perennial problem - who decides which images are acceptable, why and how do they make these decisions? How can we both be sure & ensure that vital images such as those currently coming out of Burma and China are both published and circulated?

Questions of propriety and prurience have become decidedly blurred in the multi-media 21st century of the ubiquitous image. Things have become far less clear cut since 1991, when Ken Jarecke's gruesome carbonized bust of an incinerated Iraqi combatant polarised picture editors across the globe. The image managed to escape the US military censor but was immediately pulled when it hit the AP wire Stateside. Nevertheless, several papers, among them the Observer in London chose to run with the shot.

The move succeeded in sparking a major debate: should editors protect their readers from the sight of such horrors, particularly when they might expect to be enjoying a leisurely weekend breakfast? Or was the image itself simply too important to spike, or to hide downpage on the foreign pages inside?

In Jarecke's case, the image, though indubitably upsetting, ultimately proved its intrinsic worth by demolishing, once and for all, Washington's line that the Gulf War to date had been 'clean bloodless and surgical' with an absolute minimum of Iraqi casualties.

For more, equally important, images from China, follow the link below:

14 May, 2008

Cyclone Pieta - Burma #3

(This image: copyright MYM/IPS)

Courtesy of Frontline Blogger, a link to some extraordinary pictures being emailed out of Burma (see posts passim). What I think I find most moving is the brightly coloured baby-gro - the sort of thing middle-aged women like me rush out to buy for expectant friends. Not to mention the reverent caress, lifeless head still carefully cradled; the look of anguish just discernible on the furrowed brow. It is a pose instantly recognizable from scores of religious imagery over the centuries. Perhaps here even more poignant as it is not "Madonna & Child" but "Father & Son".

12 May, 2008

Juergen Teller vs Josef Koudelka

A senior U.S. editor recently asked me what I thought of the Sunday Times Magazine, a publication she herself had worked on, in its glory days of reportage and striking photo-journalism. I was not very complimentary and complained that it, too, had been rather dumbed down of late. Since I made this pronouncement, I have reluctantly backed down, as week after week the ST mag has published one worthwhile, well produced story after another. This week brought us a welcome spread on Magnum's Josef Koudelka (b.1938) and his famous Prague Photographer shots (see above). The interview itself proved less than illuminating; nevertheless, it did provide an opportunity to review Koudelka's extraordinary images of the Russian tanks on the streets of Prague, on the eve of publication of a new book: Invasion Prague 68 (Thames & Hudson). Immediately preceding this spread was an article about fashion turned fine art photographer Juergen Teller, alongside some of his more arresting images: Lily Cole naked, Bjork in an Icelandic geyser and several of the photographer himself, naked, with & without actress Charlotte Rampling. It made for a thought-provoking juxtaposition.

Burma #2

As predicted here in my last post, the situation in Burma continues to deteriorate hourly. The attitude of the military junta would be almost farcical - if so many millions of lives were not at risk.

The latest UN reports has between 1.2 million and 1.9 million people struggling to survive after the cyclone. The U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated the number of deaths at between 63,290 to 101,682, with 220,000 people still missing.

06 May, 2008

Cyclone in Burma-Myanmar - 22,000 reported dead. Far more fatalities to come.

Sitting at my desk over the weekend, headlines about the Burma cyclone popped up regularly in the Top Stories box in the corner of my screen. First estimates were of around 400 fatalities. I knew this was, sadly, going to be way off the mark. I grew up in the Far East and storms of this magnitude always leave a devastating trail of death & destruction.
With my foreign correspondent's hat on, I also wondered how the information was actually getting out of the notoriously xenophobic & isolationist regime. Slowly, the terrible scale of the disaster has leaked - and continues to leak out - not just via the authorities or the NGOs or accredited envoys, but via the Internet & mobile phones - technological advances unknown in Burma until relatively recently.
Without both the latter, it is unlikely that the world beyond the Burmese border would have learned so much so quickly about the scale and passion of the Buddhist Monks' protests in September 2007 (see image above).
At a debate hosted by London's Frontline Club on World Press Freedom Day (2nd May) last week, several speakers, including Nazenin Ansari of London-based Iranian newspaper Kayhan and Palestinian writer Iqbal Tamimi of the Exiled Journalists Network, eloquently lauded the new freedoms and frontiers afforded by the New Media. Regime change effected by text message and photo uploads? Stranger things have happened.
For a guide to the Burma/Myanmar debate, follow this BBC link:

29 April, 2008

War Art: Official & Non-Official

Apologies for starting with a classic critical truism: the history of photojournalism is inextricably linked to the narrative of war - from Robert Capa and George Rodger to Philip Jones Griffiths, Nick Ut and beyond. (The juxtaposition of the latter's 1972 Vietnam napalm kids and his snatched sobbing Paris Hilton shot, precisely 35 years later, tells a story all of its own...).

The concept of the official war artist first became enshrined during the Great War but the depiction of warfare has concerned both artists and patrons for centuries. This weblog plans to consider war photographers and artists - both official and unofficial - on a regular basis.

The experience of warfare leaves no one unaffected and many official war artists have produced work markedly at odds with what the authorities who appointed them might have anticipated. John Keane (b.1954) hit the headlines in 1991 when he was appointed official British war artist during the Gulf War. His work is concerned with conflict - military, political and social - in Britain and around the world. The image above is from his 2006 series Guantanamerica.
Queen & Country (see the panel right) is the title of a similarly powerful and thought-provoking work by Turner Prize Winner and official war artist Steve McQueen (b.1969). Working closely with 137 families of servicemen and women who lost their lives in Iraq, McQueen has created a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets, each dedicated to a deceased soldier. The project is currently on show at London's Festival Hall (until 1st June) where visitors are being asked to sign The Art Fund's online petition, asking the Royal Mail to issue the stamps as a fitting tribute to the fallen and to fulfill the artist's original vision.

22 April, 2008

Examining the Image: Nixon in China

Richard Milhous Nixon, 37th President of the U.S.A., died 14 years ago today in 1994, at the age of 81. This image shows Nixon and his wife, Pat, sharing a joke with Chinese Premier Zhou EnLai, during the historic 1972 visit which initiated a gradual thaw in Sino-American relations. This is not the place to go into details about what came to be known as "Ping Pong Diplomacy" but to make a point of just how time and history can blunt the shock of the original appearance of any image. For most Americans, steeped in the paranoia of the Cold War, the news that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had secretly visited China in 1971 was scandalous enough. To see the President of the United States sharing jokes with the "enemy", shaking Mao by the hand and toasting the Peking regime at banquets, shook many Americans to the core. The ground-breaking trip passed into legend, not least because it became the subject of a minimalist, critically well-regarded opera by American composer John Adams, with libretto by Alice Goodman. Nixon's record was overshadowed by the Watergate scandal and the threat of impeachment in 1972-1973. It all ended ignominiously with his resignation - the first by a president in office - in 1974. Nixon was pardoned by his successor Gerald Ford but the spectre of Watergate still obscures many of his diplomatic achievements, not least his role in negotiating a ceasefire with North Vietnam, his moves towards detente with the Soviet Union and key role in the limitation of strategic arms and, of course, his historic visit to China.

20 April, 2008

Martin Parr - Jester or Genius?

British photographer Martin Parr (b.1952) has always polarised the critical establishment. Personally, I am a fan (and not just because this image - from the 1995-1999 Common Sense series looks just like my best friend Cara). Eventually, after much toing and froing and significant and vociferous protest, Parr was admitted to the pantheon of full Magnum membership in 1994. His sly, wry documentary - spying on his countrymen at play, dissecting the phenomenon that is mass market tourism - is feted on the Continent and in the US, yet slightly sniffed at back home. Robert Sandall captures the paradox well in the following piece which appeared in the Sunday Times on 20th April 2008.

18 April, 2008

Eldorado #2: Chaos at YFZ Hearings - A Few Statistics

San Angelo Barbara Walther district judge was forced to suspend proceedings amid scenes of chaos at the custody hearings of the children seized from the Yearning for Zion polygamist ranch.
Lawyers acting for the members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints are arguing that the case violates their religious freedoms.

The FLDS, a breakaway branch of the Mormon faith, led by self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs, currently in jail on charges of complicity to rape, claims 10,000 members
The fate of 416 children is being considered in San Angelo.
At least one minor is reported to be pregnant and four girls under 16 already have children.

More than 350 lawyers are involved.

The relatively restrained BBC story follows below -
For rather more detail and analysis, I have found the Salt Lake Tribune, the market-leading publication in the mainstream Mormon capital of Utah, to be invaluable.


14 April, 2008

Teenagers in Victorian Fancy Dress? Or Fortunate Escapees from Abuse in Eldorado?

Religious news of most types usually comes relatively down-page on this side of the Pond. Consequently, it was only last weekend that peopled images of the extraordinary developments at the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas found their way to our front pages, notably in the foreign coverage of the broadsheet Sundays. More than 500 women and children have now been removed from the ranch, set up by polygamist Mormon sect leader, 52-year-old Warren Jeffs.
What really struck me about these particular images was the nature of the demure clothes, or rather costumes, worn by the women and, in particular, their extremely elaborate and doubtless, time-consuming hair styles. There seems to be every possible variant of the Victorian chignon, French pleat, braid and bun on show, suggesting that personal appearance and grooming remained extremely important for these females - presumably in the stiff competition to attract the attention of the relatively few men in their midst?
I found the initial image above extremely disturbing and distressing. These young, practically pre-pubescent, women look as if they have wandered out of a Victorian novel, or an early Laura Ashley catalogue. There is more than a hint of Grant Wood's seminal 1930 painting 'American Gothic' while the girls themselves seem to have slipped somehow out of a Thomas Eakins portrait. Presumably, these demurely clad and elaborately coiffed Henry James' heroines are now among the 400 children who have been taken into state custody for their own safety?

13 April, 2008

Marathon News (and Just Because I love it...)

Once upon a time, I ran the London Marathon. Not particularly fast - it has to be said. (I blame the loo queues plus my Dad ringing on the mobile every 20 minutes to check my progress...) I'm intrigued to find out how the six Maasai warriors, running today to raise money to install a well in their home village, got on. They were all rather optimistic, given the likely absence of lions from the streets of London and the high comfort factor of their shoes, made out of re-cycled car tyres. Charity Greenforce certainly raised its profile with a series of fabulous photo ops such as this one & some fantastic PR, including news that M&S had donated underpants to the chaps, who usually go commando and that they had swiftly become addicted to the English cuppa with as many sugars as the proverbial plumber. To donate, follow this link: