18 Aug 2019

street reverb

I've just read a great conversation between two people I've enjoyed following over the years, Blake Andrews and Brian Formahls
I was so happy when Blake contributed to the Ambiguous project. His blogging was a source of inspiration and Brian's LPV has been a great resource to find about new street work. It was fascinating to find out more about his recent thinking on urban walking and I must share them 
For me, when I’m on a long walk time tends to slow down and feels more abundant. Four hours can feel like a week. It's that hyper focused attention mixed with the ability to allow your mind to drift, that allows you to enter into a different perceptual space. When you add photography with meditative walking, then I truly feel that you can enter new dimensions beyond our normal perception. Or I should say photographic seeing because I don't think you need to actually make the photographs but there's a lot of reverb when you see the actual photos.  
I love that last sentence.   
The first part corresponds to an approach I describe as a five act production of making photographs... 
- The initial sense of a possible picture. 
- Choosing the moment to release the shutter. These two happen in quick succession for me.  
- The revelation of the resulting images on the contact sheet. Some weeks/ months later, we're talking analogue here folks.  
- The selection and making of a print. Eventually. After the Interval.  
- Re-looking, editing and sequencing those prints into a book or, even, a zine 
Each act is just that. A set of separate actions that have their own worth not just part of a process but greater than their sum. I could go on about actors, narratives and drama but I think you're already there :)
Regents Street image
Secondly the word reverb captures both a visceral response, not purely intellectual, and also a kind of echo rippling out from the original act. It's also a musical reference I enjoy. I've compared street photography to jazz in terms of technical words like standards and improvisation as well as the spiritual and soulful. As an aside I was fascinated to hear Mark Sealy talk recently about how he now looks to John Coltrane as he once did photographs for that quality of experience.
Oxford Street image
So what about the act of walking itself. Can the definitive act of the flaneur/euse incubate those conditions of meditation, of the satori moment? I certainly recognise the state of attentiveness, of being immersed in my surroundings to a point of invisibility. I remember reading Cartier-Bresson's thoughts on Zen archery and recognising the reference. Interestingly enough it surfaces obliquely in the conversation too. Here's Blake 
It’s strange to comment on Soth because he actually made a direct comment on this thing years ago, that photography was NOT a Zen Buddhist activity. Photography involves wanting, and acquisition, and collecting, and all the little things you're supposed to let go of.   
It's a salient point and I'd only counter (between you and me) that the wanting/acquisition/collection desire can be satisfied by simply connecting with the world around us - in this case the streets - by focusing the mind on people on proximity, how we move, interact, dream. On rare occasions it can be an overwhelming experience. Even at an every day level there can still be a common bond of emotion...simply if it's crossing Oxford Circus before the timer runs out and the 159 bus bears down on us.  
OK reverie over. There's work to be done. 

28 Jul 2019

speck on a clover

Today could be hottest day ever as 39C heat roasts Britain read the headline. In my contortions over the climate emergency versus my photography, he(art) won and I found myself on the street subsumed into Manhattan-style humidity. However by lunchtime clouds were creeping over Oxford Circus with the promise of lifting later so I sought solace in the company of Trent Parke's pictures at the Magnum Print Room. It was my second contact with Magnum in recent weeks. I attended their symposium last month where interestingly enough the best part was the keynote by Mark Sealy on western photographic practice. More of that in a future post. 
Trent Parke show image
I was first made aware by Nick Turpin of Trent Parke's The Camera is God at a street photography symposium a couple of years ago. He cited it as an innovative development on the tradition of the genre and I must agree having seen them. The images are fascinating in themselves but I also love they are made by what are now called analogue practices in taking them on film and printing them in the darkroom.However this project is certainly not rooted in nostalgia .The literally indiscriminate practice of CCTV cameras in cities shaped Parke's approach taking 30 second bursts without specifically framing anyone. As if that would ever catch on.
The way the images are displayed form a chorus of fragmented fractured faces, discernible as human but anonymised into atoms of light and dark. However there is still just enough detail in each image to project possibilities of gender, age etc on to them. I can now see why Parke talks about creating a narrative with them. It's fascinating to read the lines from his diary describing a moment in the life of this project
Back to my corner… he emerges from the shadow of the building into the light. There he is … the big clock on the other side of the road says, right on time … the sad boy in the white collared shirt who everyday stands in the same position on the same corner at the same time. He remains motionless, staring at the street before the lights eventually change once more and he walks his same sad slow walk off into the west and the blazing setting Adelaide sun. 
I wonder who he is. I wonder where he goes.
Back in London I balefully look at the blazing London sun still cloudy sky and vainly hope there will be a break as the BBC Weather app confidently predicts. I find myself not far from another regular refuge, the Barbican, my favourite building in London. The big show there at the moment AI: More than Human and one of the pieces before you get into the show caught my eye.
Trent Parke show image
I couldn't - needlesstosay - avoid a connection to Parke's piece. But beyond the symmetry the concepts aren't a million miles apart either. Es Devlin's POEMPORTRAITS takes a word donated by a participant which then generates a two line poem authored by machine learning projected across the face of the donor to create a portrait. I was struck by Devlin's comment 
We are predisposed to seek meaning in these fragments that have been offered to us personally, as we seek significance even in the lines we find in a fortune cookie. 
In our age of selfie surveillance both projects acknowledge the omnipresence of technologically generated imagery. Both then use that as a place to reflect upon what it is to be human in that kind of world. To take Devlin's word, how we can converge?
I was left intellectually if not physically stretched in a way I hadn't anticipated and, cursing weather forecasters, descended into my own convergence with another world, the London Undergound.

18 Jul 2019

zine take two

New Europe has certainly benefited from new work from Berlin and London. I've now put together a second draft of the zine. 
In terms of format I'm now looking at A5 pocket size and the layout is more magazine-y with images cropped and overlaid. For me it's giving more urgency and pace to the experience of flicking through it. It's about finding a (poly)rhythm that reflects the theme.

New Europe zine next draft from Sean McDonnell on Vimeo 
The hard questions remain over sequencing. It's a challenge in a more traditional one-image-a-page-one-opposite but here I've sets of threes and sixes to juggle. It's great to have a collaborator in this situation and so far Fabrizio and I are still talking ;) 
Take a peek.

25 Jun 2019


Another summer break, another excuse to try something different.  
For good or ill I'm finding it hard to disassociate my black and white street work on film from my New Europe project. Using my camera has become synonymous with a certain way of working (which I've commented on at length!) so a trip to North America was an opportunity to use mobile/digital/colour in a new way. 
This combination actually got me started again in London a few years ago after a quiet period. Perhaps it was the more relaxed vibe of the city but I wasn't driven in the same way in Vancouver as I am in other cities. It made for a more deliberate approach which for me is not a bad thing. 
Vancouver 2019
I've shied away from this style as I - arrogantly to be honest - find it hard to make it individual to me and not too generic. However using a mobile phone without changing any settings pre or post let me work in the fluid way I enjoy with my camera (that in the moment thing) and feel more excited about the making process as well as the resulting picture. Yes I still like to see them as two separate parts! 
Vancouver 2019
I like the results. The images themselves are a - small - change in direction but they also represent a way of working I should consider in London too.
Vancouver 2019
They are still one-off pictures in a travelogue style but in the same way I've built a narrative around my more recent work it's perhaps a way of looking at other ideas. Short stories, not novels.

4 Jun 2019

desert island pics

My photo group was recently set a challenge to choose our Desert Island Pics. If you're not familiar with the phrase it's based on there's a nice summary here  
As I'd be thrown by choosing 8 pieces of music then 8 photographs was I'd say even harder. The format of the show is to tell the life story of the guest and the music often relates to particular moments so I chose to pursue that approach rather than select a set of fantastic images that really didn't mean anything personal to me.  
That said I did look at family snapshots as very much part of my story. An interesting point of departure from the music route as I've rarely heard home recordings selected.  
Anyway. Where to start?  
Well as I've mentioned before growing up in front of a black and white TV gave me a particular perspective on the world. I do remember old American comedies - excuse me movies - broadcast on Saturday mornings: Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton etc so I've chosen a famous still from a film by Harold Lloyd. I love the view of the city below. It obviously adds to the drama but for me it's a window on the everyday world below. In retrospect - I'll be doing a lot of that here - it plants a seed for my interest in America and cities in particular
Harold Lloyd film
Harold Loyd in Safety Last!, 1923
I can't leave this period with acknowledging film noir. There are so many to chose from but this is a memory from a Sunday afternoon. We're in front of the telly again. Turned down low while my mum and dad rest after their working week. On comes a film set not in Chicago or Pittsburgh but in Belfast. The atmosphere is tense. We're following an individual in real time with odds stacked against him. The city has a personality of its own, Swaying passionately from violence to humour. I'm transfixed. It's called Odd Man Out by Carol Reed starring James Mason. Watch it.
Odd Man Out film
James Mason in Odd Man Out, 1947 
OK so now I'm a little older. My first time living away from home. I've a bedroom wall to decorate. What do I put on it? Pop stars? Political manifestos? Family photos? Nope. Pictures of sports photography cut out from the newspaper and mounted neatly on card. Yep. What can I say. Eamonn McCabe was the premier sports photographer of the time and  I remember looking forward to seeing his pictures in the Sunday paper. Here's one of Bjorn Borg that was on my wall. although I must admit to fancying myself as more of a McEnroe.
Eamonn McCabe
Bjorn Borg, Eamon McCabe, 1978
Doing this exercise now it's interesting how significant photography was in my upbringing but how I made no real effort to pursuing it as a career. Put it down to an academic education, absence of any peer support or simply lack of self belief. Anyway next pic. Sorry for the self reflection but hey it's my blog.
We're now in Leeds and there are two images I've chosen to represent that period in my life. Apologies still back and white. We're going back a bit but I believe colour had been invented by now. 
I never saw The Clash (although Mick Jones played an important part in my later life) let alone any bands I should have done in that tumultuous era. However I did buy the album! Two in fact as the were selling for 99p each in a bargain bin and I gave one to my friend Paul. This is getting very Adrian Mole. Here's the cover photograph by the great Pennie Smith.

Pennie Smith
 London Calling, Pennie Smith, 1979 
I remember the university library at Leeds had two photography books, Minamata by W Eugene Smith and the other was I think by Don McCullin. By now I'd started taking photographs around Leeds with my first proper camera a Zenit and my style evolved with what I saw around me. Bradford wasn't far away and at the time the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television had recently opened there so my self-education continued inside those walls and outside on the streets surrounding it. McCullin's work had particular resonance and I devoured his work to the point of forfeiting my fare home to London to buy his book on Beirut.
Don McCullin
Bradford, Don McCullin, 1979
So my life took another turn after Leeds and the fulfilment of a dream to see New York City. Music was again a stimulant. Seeing Stop Making Sense at the Hyde Park Picture House wasn't quite Buzzcocks at The Free Trade Hall but the spectacle of David Byrne propelled me to go.
David Byrne
David Byrne in Stop Making Sense, 1979
I've chosen two photographs to represent my time there.  
The Village Voice became a staple read for me every week and the work of one photographer in particular stood out. Sylvia Plachy's Unguided Tour column eloquently captured the energy, madness and passion of the city around me. 
Sylvia Plachy
Unguided Tour, Sylvia Plachy
At the time I still really hadn't discovered the canon of street photographers that are now so well known. My education was browsing book stores and going to see exhibitions and at that time there wasn't a great deal on offer. One day a book called Invisible City caught my eye. The photographer was Ken Schles. As Plachy represented an exuberant exterior life of the city Schles refracted an underground perspective that I was also conscious of. 
Ken Schles
Invisible City, Ken Schles
Oops. I've got to 8 and I'm just into my twenties. I knew this would be tough. So what's this telling me? Well after that period I settled into developing the style of work you see today and is actually picked up at the start of this blog. Would I choose some of my own work - public and private - to represent that later period in addition to other photographers? I certainly think so. 
All the pictures - except one - are black and white. I need to keep breaking that upIn addition only two pictures are by women and they're all from a white western perspective. I think my later selections would have a range of far richer source as I keep learning about new photographers and practices. 
So I could have picked the most influential, well known photos over the same period but I think sitting on my desert island, wondering what on earth I'm going to cook for supper, looking at these particular images will kindle some important memories. 
Excuse me while I choose the next 8 and see if I can smuggle them with me too.