I went back to the photo-portrait exhibition at the Tate Modern, puzzled about how two videos running for more than 25 minutes could be defined as a photograph, located the puny screen representing the public’s involvement, bought the catalogue and thought thoughts about the extraordinary twaddle (badly translated from German) therein. But actually why bother with any of that when there is this:


Just look at that light. Fan-bloody-tastic. Setting sun running west-east along the Thames. These two fishermen were absolutely delightful, as was their dog, a collie called Charlie, who was as rotund as they but had seemingly limitless energy when it came to chasing a small plastic bottle which he demanded be thrown for him at 40 second intervals. When I first sat down on the bench next to them they were having a long conversation with a Russian man who was bemoaning the near extinction of the sturgeon.

The pile of words

I had a pile of words silted on my hard drive. Mine, I thought, and yet not mine. Today I realised they were nothing more than the old rags of a dressing-up basket, second-hand finery and cheap bits of ribbon, make-do-and-mend for any occasion. They were no more than the ones and noughts of binary, the individual and the vacancy.

They are gone now, and my heart feels lighter.

Me and you (annoyingly subtitled Permission and Power)

To the annoyingly subtitled exhibition An Urban History of Photography (surely the photography is urban not the history thereof) Street and Studio at the Tate Modern with Hg (and the already holidaying FirstSpawn).

The blurb is similarly annoying:

Street & Studio brings out the contrast between the photos taken in the carefully orchestrated studio, and images captured in the changing and uncontrollable street, whilst highlighting the crossovers between the genres and their influence on each other…

Focusing on photos taken in buzzing cities, with their cosmopolitan cast of hipsters, businessmen, beauties and criminals, Street & Studio builds an engrossing urban history of photography, ranging from early black-and-white pictures from the late 1800s, to elegant fashion photography from the mid twentieth century, to cutting-edge portraiture by contemporary artists.

How many adjectives can one be expected to take in such a concentrated space?

However the exhibition itself is fascinating but its hugeness means repeated viewings will be necessary in order to absorb all the photoyumminess.

What most interested me on this, the first pass, was the concept of permission in terms of images of people. In other words the perennial question of whether it’s “ok” to take pictures of people in public without asking them. Although Room 2, Passers-by is where the issue is most clearly demonstrated but discussion avoided, as far as I could see. However I find the tone of the accompanying text interesting:

DiCorcia takes striking close-ups but goes to extreme lengths to ensure his subjects are not aware of being photographed. Using a long lens and flashlight, he sets up a complex apparatus above the street and is able to illuminate and isolate passers-by. Ed van der Elsken’s tactics were more aggressively voyeuristic. He followed an anonymous woman around the streets of Hong Kong, creating a sequence of pictures that is reminiscent of a tracking shot from a movie. ‘I followed this babe around for a while. She knew I was doing it, and didn’t like it one bit’, he confessed.

“…more aggressively voyeuristic”… “he confessed”… hmm… a tadette, a mere whiff of the pejorative, perhaps?

knitting, spawn, bee, beer

(Gratuitous portrait interlude to break up the blocks of text and pejorative only to beer-seeking bees inhabiting the buzzing city)

Perhaps this issue just isn’t controversial any more, it’s merely my continuing considerable unease with the practice in a tide of acceptance which makes me feel it’s so. It certainly has been in the past though. There are a couple of pictures in that room by Philip-Lorca diCorcia from his series Heads which prompted a lawsuit from one of the unwitting subjects and much debate on blogs. The photograph in question is not in the exhibition which could be entirely unconnected with the subsequent litigation but I did wonder whether there might be worries about further action under a different legal system.

Meanwhile, and relatedly, over in Room 9, Liberation: 1960s – 1980s there’s a piece by Laurie Anderson called Fully Automated Nikon (Object/Objection/Objectivity) which is described as a “photo-narrative installation”. Back in 1973 Anderson got sick of being harassed by men as she went about minding her own business so she decided to retaliate by taking a picture of the harassers.

The piece consists of an introductory text statement explaining the background followed by a number of photographs of men with their identities obscured in time-honoured newspaper journalistic fashion (a bar over the eyes) and beneath each picture is a short account of the event around the photograph. In the introductory text she compares taking someone’s photograph to mugging them.

This project was apparently the inspiration for a number of web-based “fight-backs” against street harassment – Holla Back New York City (not annoyingly sub-titled If You Can’t Slap ‘Em, Snap ‘Em) and Blank Noise in India for example.

The piece explicitly and the effect it has had demonstrates clearly the fact that one person taking a photograph of another person is an act which involves a significant power relationship and it is this which I think lies at the heart of my unease with some, possibly a lot, of street photography.

This twinning of permission and power is delightfully exemplified in a showcase in Room 5 (Ordinary People and Celebrities). One half is occupied by a hundred or so photographs of women taken in photobooths in 1928. The women, alone, entirely in control of what is happening, pose in exactly the way that appears on such pictures today. One even holds a telephone receiver to her ear which presumably she had brought with her for the purpose of appearing to converse animatedly.

The other side of showcase has a series of police mug shots – individuals without any control or power at all.


(Second gratuitous portrait interlude to break up the blocks of text, having nothing at all to do with mug shots)

The issue of permission emerges in the “public contribution” section of the exhibition. Street and Studio is following in the footsteps of last year’s How We Are at Tate Britain – which invited the public to contribute to the exhibition via a specially-set-up group on Flickr – and has set up a Street or Studio group. There’s an interesting discussion thread about “permission” centred around the Tate’s rather vague terms and conditions:

For legal reasons, the main subjects of the photograph should have consented to being photographed and not have received any payment in return.

Tate do not require evidence of written consent from the subject of the photograph…

The condition applies where the subject is the main focus of the shot, as in a staged studio portrait.

A snatched street shot would not require this permission as the subjects may be incidental.

The main thing is that the subject of the photograph has not been paid for being featured in the photograph.

Clear? Yeah, as mud.

I was disappointed not to see the Flickr photographs anywhere in the exhibition itself, unlike How We Are Now which included several screens showing pictures from the group pool and later 40 of those submitted were chosen for display in the gallery for the end portion of the show’s run. It seems counter-intuitive to invite public participation in a themed exhibition and then not incorporate those contributions in the gallery itself.

True, the involvement is billed as “Your photos in print” but there’s a para which claims “All submissions will be posted and shared on Tate Online and displayed on a screen in the gallery” so maybe I missed it. I’m a cynic, of course, but this does look more like a marketing opportunity for the project’s publishing partner to cash in on a new variant of vanity publishing rather than exploring the richness and variety of responses to the theme.

I shall look carefully for the screen in the gallery on my next visit, which shall be very soon indeed.

Dried and folded

Not my laundry, obviously, which apart from one emergency trip to F’s machine remains unwashed and scrumpled, but the local lilies.



I had one of those conversations this morning which I dread. The ones with someone you don’t know particularly well and haven’t seen in a really long time. Fortunately this was a woman I liked and had much in common with who I met through shared school stuff and hadn’t seen much since our respective children moved on to different places. The conversation went something like this:

Pleasant Acquaintance (out jogging, jauntily): Hi! how are you?

Me (attached to lead pulled by grumpy dog): Fine!

PA (removing headphones from which issue tinny jogging music): I haven’t seen you in ages! How’s FirstSpawn?

Me (heart sinking slightly, realising that we weren’t going to pass like ships in the night): He’s fine thanks, but he’s off school at the moment…

[we have a wide-ranging and in-depth conversation about boys, illness, and school examinations and find we have much in common]

PA: And how’s [the ex]?

Me: Oh he seems fine. He’s just got engaged.

PA (unable to disguise the fact that she’s goggling with astonishment): Engaged????!!

Me: (realising it’s been a *very* long time since we last met): Ah, er, yes. We split up some time ago…

[we have a wide-ranging and in-depth conversation about men, maintenance and much younger women and find we have much in common]

PA: And the BBC, how’s that going?

Me: Ah. Well, actually I’m unemployed now. A single mother on benefits, you know, that great scourge of modern society.

At this point PA realises that the water under the bridge is of sufficient volume to irrigate several rice paddies. We check that we have up-to-date mobile numbers and arrange to meet for a cup of tea.

I’m rather looking forward to it.

Hanging out the washing

hanging out the washing

News just in – the washing machine’s finally given up the ghost. Sigh. An expected bereavement but sad none the less. The economics of laundrettes clearly dictate a new machine will be cheaper than feeding the voracious slots of commercial washing appliances for any length of time, so a new machine has been ordered. Thank goodness for the never-never, that’s what I say. Oh, and the peerless John Lewis without which life might not be worth living.

The above is F hanging out her own washing while condoling on my loss and sheroically offering the services of her own machine while I wait (a week) for the new one. Hurrah.

More red, green and white

red green and white too

In some lights London looks almost continental European, ancient architecture decaying in a genteel manner under a Mediterranean sun. But of course it isn’t, it’s merely a boarded-up shop in Willesden.

bathroom discount shop

I am also red, green, white and decaying, but in this case also tired and shriveled.

wrinkled and tired

Warm, not to say hot, weather

We all respond in our different ways.

SecondSpawn wraps himself up in a blanket and retreats to the sofa. He’s gone down with some virus/bacteria infection which has given him a fever and rubbed the lining of his throat red-raw removing the ability to swallow and talk much.

FirstSpawn requests deodorant, chocolate-scented, and pooh-poohs (I use the expression advisedly) my suggestion that regular, frequent and thorough attention to personal hygiene is more effective, cheaper and would prevent the danger of attack by frustrated and therefore enraged chocolate-seeking bees.

I step out with a pair of scissors into the area behind the house inaccurately known as the “garden”, that word containing as it does the implication of cultivation. The fact that I can’t actually find the rosemary bush I am seeking to snip (and I must make it clear that this is a very very very small garden) may indicate the level of lack of human intervention in the burgeoning plant life.

Where I thought the rosemary bush once grew was instead a curtain of young saplings with leaves liberally sprinkled with vile and vicious alien creatures. And to make matters worse they were fornicating with abandon.


Well, abandon in two senses perhaps. While the male clung on and intermittently shook his booty manically side-to-side like the rattle of an excited snake the female strolled around apparently oblivious to the  proceedings.

I needed the rosemary to flavour a roast which is of course the most sensible thing to eat in midsummer.