"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)

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.