"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)

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?!