Photography as Feeling: Don’t Hide Behind the Tools and Technology

Don McCullin  The Guvnors in Their Sunday Suits

Don McCullin The Guvnors in Their Sunday Suits

'Seeing, looking at what others cannot bear to see, is what my life is all about.'
Don McCullin

I recently attended an excellent retrospective at Tate Britain of the photographer Don McCullin (until 6 May).

Born in 1935, McCullin grew up in a two-room flat in Finsbury Park, an area that had been battered by war and poverty. His father died when he was 14 and he had to leave school to support his family. He bought his first camera when he was on National Service, and he took to photographing North London’s gangs, tearaways and immigrants. Some of his pictures were picked up by The Observer newspaper.

'I fell in love with photography accidentally – it chose me, I didn't choose it.'

In 1964 The Observer commissioned McCullin to cover the civil war in Cyprus.

A running man in a raglan coat, with a peaked cap and Stenn gun, casts a crisp shadow in the Limassol sun. Two dead men lie in a pool of blood on the cool tiled floor. A child grasps his despairing mother by the hand. The soles of four corpses look out at us from the back of a Land Rover. These are scenes of Biblical sadness.

Don McCullin  ‘The Cyprus Civil War’

Don McCullin ‘The Cyprus Civil War’

'Cyprus left me with the beginnings of a self-knowledge, and the beginning of what they call empathy. I found I was able to share other people’s emotional experiences, live with them silently, transmit them.'

Soon McCullin was off covering wars and civil strife all over the world for The Observer and The Sunday Times. The Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Northern Ireland, Bangladesh, Beirut, Iraq, Ethiopia - the conflicts that dominated our news bulletins for over half a century. Unflinching, he examined pain, fear, cruelty, death and grief; he exposed the realities of war, the starvation, shell shock, looting and torture; the dark fruits of this bitter earth.

He worried that he was becoming addicted to hostilities.

'I used to chase wars like a drunk chasing a can of lager.’

But McCullin had a strong sense of moral obligation, of duty to report what he saw.

'You have to bear witness. You cannot just look away.'

Of course, continuous exposure to human suffering and inhuman cruelty came at a price. McCullin was troubled by doubts, haunted by nightmares.

'I am tired of guilt, tired of saying to myself: ‘I didn’t kill that man on that photograph, I didn’t starve that child.’'

Periodically McCullin took assignments in the UK. But even here his conscience drew him to ‘social wars’- to document the poverty, inequality and deprivation on our doorsteps. He observed the homeless in London’s East End; considered the effects of industrial decay in Bradford, Doncaster and Wigan; captured the harsh economic realities in Hartlepool, Liverpool and Sunderland.

Homeless men stand around the fire, sleep amid the litter. Heads down, eyes shot, faces grubby, hands knotted. Kids play in the rubble, unemployed men forage for coal, a courting couple take a drag on a cigarette. Parkas, prams and flat caps. Cold rooms and damp walls. England ‘laughing in the face of defeat’.

'Photography is the truth if it’s being handled by a truthful person.'

Don McCullin  Gangs of Boys Escaping CS Gas Fired by British Soldiers

Don McCullin Gangs of Boys Escaping CS Gas Fired by British Soldiers

If you’re familiar with photographers, you’ll know that they like to discuss their equipment: lenses and light exposure, apertures and aspect ratios. I was quite struck by McCullin’s inclination to focus on human qualities.

‘The photographic equipment I take on an assignment is my head and my eyes and my heart. I could take the poorest equipment and I would still take the same photographs. They might not be as sharp, but they would certainly say the same thing.’

Indeed McCullin describes his craft as a matter of feeling rather than technical expertise.

'Photography for me is not looking, it's feeling. If you can't feel what you're looking at, then you're never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.'

There’s a lesson for us all here.

In creative professions we often hide behind the tools and technology; the gear and gadgets; the arcane language and expert jargon. But the best practitioners are often characterised by their humanity; their feeling for others; their empathy.

A recent BBC documentary (‘Don McCullin: Looking for England’) followed the photographer on a tour round his home country.

‘I’m never bored by trying to discover what makes me tick and this country tick.’

In Eastbourne he comes across a bunch of intrepid old folk in anoraks - watching a brass band play, eating sandwiches in the rain.

‘Terrible weather,’ says McCullin to one of them.
‘But the show must go on’, comes the reply.

This tickles McCullin. He can barely hold himself together. He wipes a tear from his eye.

'This bitter earth,
Well, what a fruit it bears.
What good is love,
That no one shares?
And if my life is like the dust,
That hides the glow of a rose.
What good am I?
Heaven only knows.

Oh, this bitter earth,
Yes, can it be so cold?
Today you're young,
Too soon you're old.
But while a voice
Within me cries,
I'm sure someone
May answer my call.
And this bitter earth
May not be so bitter after all.’

Dinah Washington, ‘This Bitter Earth’ (Clyde Lovern Otis)

 

No. 219 

 

‘The Invention of Fogs’: Learning Not Just to Look, But to See

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament

Claude Monet, Houses of Parliament

‘There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we know nothing about them. They did not exist until art had invented them.’
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’

I recently attended the ‘Impressionists in London’ exhibition at Tate Britain (until 7 May). The show brings together works by French artists who escaped to the British capital in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the strife that subsequently gripped Paris.

It’s compelling to see how fresh eyes regarded London’s crowded shopping arcades and the quiet streets of its suburbs; how they perceived England’s social stratification, eccentric fashions and enthusiasm for sport. The emigres were, for example, quite taken with the spacious green parks they found here, and the fact that people were allowed to walk on the grass.

They were also drawn to the Thames: to its disordered shipping, dubious community and atmospheric effects. The exhibition climaxes with a marvellous collection of paintings by Claude Monet of the Houses of Parliament shrouded in fog.

‘What I like most of all in London is the fog. How could English painters of the nineteenth century have painted its houses brick by brick? Those fellows painted bricks they didn’t see, bricks they could not see. It’s the fog that gives London its marvellous breadth.’
Claude Monet

This fascination with London’s fog was shared by another expatriate painter, the American James Whistler. And it was Whistler that Oscar Wilde credited with ‘the invention of fogs.’

Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? The extraordinary change that has taken place in the climate of London during the last ten years is entirely due to a particular school of art. At present people see fogs, not because they are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.’
Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’

I was particularly taken with this thought: that Londoners had not really paid much attention to the fog that enveloped them; that when they looked about them, they observed the same streets that had always been there. They could not see the fog for the buildings; the wood for the trees. I like the idea that it took outsiders to see the obvious; that without their vision fog didn’t really exist; that sometimes only people with a particular gift of perception can recognize the truth.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne:Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne:Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge

Social change is all around us, hiding in plain sight. It’s in the behaviour of the outliers, the beliefs of eccentrics, the attitudes of the young. It’s in nuance and gesture; language and slang. It’s in unforeseen consequences and unrealised dreams.

Often social change lacks a name or a description. It’s there nonetheless for all to see. For the most part we look past it and through it at the structures and conventions of the past. We look, but don’t see.

So don’t wait to read about behavioural trends and cultural transformation in an industry publication, conference or blog. Don’t just adopt the tired labels and classifications of others. Don’t follow the crowd into clichéd observations about content-curating cryptocurrencies and machine-learning millennials; about authentic algorithms and scalable safe spaces.

Don’t just look at the world around you. See it.

No. 165

The Spaces Between: Learning to Value the Intangible as Much as the Tangible

whiteread.jpg

‘When I was a little kid I used to enjoy hiding in my Mum and Dad’s wardrobe. I had two older sisters. We played hide and seek and stuff. But also I think I was bullied a bit. It was a little safe, cosy space that you could go... I could just remember the smell of the clothes and the furry blackness of the space. I wanted somehow to make that real.’

Rachel Whiteread

I recently visited an exhibition at Tate Britain reviewing the work of the splendid Essex-born sculptor Rachel Whiteread (until 21 January 2018).

For three decades Whiteread has made casts of everyday objects: of fireplaces, mattresses, staircases and rooms; of floors and baths, windows and doors, tables and chairs.

Her sculptures prompt us to reflect on the curious emotive power of ordinary things. Cast from plaster and concrete, rubber and resin, wax and recycled materials, the forms are at once strange and familiar. The inside of a hot water bottle looks like a human torso. An office interior resembles a prison cell. An arrangement of the undersides of chairs brings to mind a grand cosmic chess game.

‘I choose things because of their humbleness really. And they’re things that we all have some sort of relationship with. It’s making space real…giving space an authority that it’s never had.’

In 1993 Whiteread created ‘House’, a concrete cast of the inside of a Victorian terraced home in London’s Mile End. It stood for 80 days before it was demolished by the local council. Seeing the work in photographs and film, we can consider the personal stories that once animated the space; the ghosts that haunted it; the private histories that have now vanished into thin air. Life seems so transient, so fragile, even when expressed in reinforced concrete.

Untitled - clear torso

Untitled - clear torso

‘It’s all to do with that ghostly touch of things. The way things get worn down by human presence, and the essence of human is left on these things, whether its pages of books or staircases or doors or windows.’

In 2000 for Vienna’s ‘Holocaust Memorial’ Whiteread created an inverted library, again in concrete. We imagine books unwritten and unread, words unspoken and unheard, thoughts unthought.

Whiteread asks us to contemplate space: she turns space inside out; she examines the spaces beneath, beside, under and over; private, interior, secret spaces – the mystical spaces that are unseen and unexplored; and the spaces that surround and separate us – the spaces between us.

I suppose we tend to value material things precisely because they are visible, tangible, audible. Material objects can be weighed and measured; bought, owned and sold.

But our lives are lived in the spaces between material objects. Our thoughts and ideas, feelings and passions, memories and relationships are played out in the spaces between us. Surely we should learn to value the intangible as much as the tangible.

Perhaps as a society we are increasingly appreciating the immaterial. It’s reported that consumers are turning to experiences instead of things; that they are as comfortable renting as owning; that they crave happy memories more than just stuff. In business we talk nowadays about the intangible economy: wealth is less and less held in machinery, buildings and shops; it is located in software and services, databases and design, IT and IP. And consequently the nature of work itself is shifting, from manual to mental labour. Progressive governments are beginning to measure success by collective contentment and wellbeing, rather than just gross domestic product.

Of course, the transformation to an experience culture and an intangible economy poses its own challenges. Intangibles can be readily distributed, shared and scaled. But they can also be easily replicated, copied and stolen. Intangibles are difficult to measure, manage and protect. Some have argued that the intangible economy is responsible for growing social inequality.

Untitled - Stairs 2001

Untitled - Stairs 2001

Nonetheless, people working with brands should be more capable than others at navigating this intangible world. Because marketing and communication expertise is fundamentally concerned with creating intangible assets, directing emotional investment, establishing value for ideas. Marketers and agency people should also be masters of managing talent and inspiration; of measuring feelings and experiences.

I say ‘should’ because sometimes I think brand managers hesitate to recognise their core competence. They may be more at ease working within a narrower frame of reference: a world of products and promotions, campaigns and initiatives, platforms and distribution.

Perhaps marketers and agencies should be more self-confident, more expansive in their vision for their craft. Perhaps they should think of themselves as creating, managing and measuring intangible value in an increasingly intangible economy. Because nowadays we’re all living on solid air.

'You've been taking your time,
And you've been living on solid air.
You've been walking the line,
And you've been living on solid air.
Don't know what's going 'round inside,
And I can tell you that it's hard to hide,
When you're living on solid air.’

John Martyn, Solid Air

 

No. 163

NOTES FROM THE HINTERLAND 2

Thinking Inside the Box

This week I visited the excellent Joseph Cornell exhibition at The Royal Academy. Cornell spent most of his life in New York State and never left America. But through his art he voyaged across continents and through time. In a week in which Pixar launches a film exploring the brain of an 11 year old child, the Cornell exhibition is a jouney into the mechanics of a creative mind.

Although Cornell didn’t travel, he read extensively and compiled dossiers on subjects that interested him, whether that be astronomy, ornithology, circuses, childhood games or nineteenth century France. Drawing on the contents of these dossiers and combining them in imaginative ways, Cornell painstakingly constructed collages, mechanicals and glass fronted ‘shadow boxes.’ His boxes contained fantasy hotels, tropical birds, celestial maps. He created fictional lives, shooting galleries, slot machines and an interactive Museum of Sound (including ‘the sound of silence’ which I guess belongs in a museum nowadays…).

It’s often been said that travel narrows the mind. Cornell demonstrated that a creative imagination can take us to exotic places without setting foot outside one’s home town.

What can we in the creative professions learn from Cornell?

Could we do more to capture and collate experiences and thoughts that would otherwise pass unexpressed and unremembered?

Are we misleading ourselves when we imagine that our exotic holidays are fuelling our imagination? Would we be better off just reading more?

In the age of consumer insight and user experience, do we give proper weight to the pure transformative power of dreams?

Cornell loved poetry and he dedicated his piece Toward the Blue Peninsula to the similarly private Emily Dickinson. The work refers to a Dickinson poem that considers the choice of an imagined, over an experienced, life.

‘It might be easier
To fail - with Land in Sight-
Than gain – my Blue Peninsula -
To perish - of Delight -’

Emily Dickinson/ It Might Be Lonelier
 

Carving, Not Casting; Making Not Managing

I also attended the splendid retrospective of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth at Tate Britain. Beautiful contemplations in form and space, surface and light. Hollowed out solids, wires casting shadows. Polished and painted, curved and scooped. Lovely.

In her early career Hepworth participated in the ‘direct carving’ movement: artists carving directly into wood and stone, respecting the truth of the materials; rather than casting sculpture into a mould or employing skilled craftsmen to execute a model. Initially the direct carvers’ works were a little cruder, a little more rudimentary, than those produced by the incumbent methods, as the artists learned the craft skills themselves. But there was a compelling simplicity and honesty about the results.

I wonder what would a rededication to direct carving look like in the communication arts?
What if all our creatives shot their own film, designed their own posters, wrote their own code, built their own applications?
What if we rejected our fragmented, demarcated world and rededicated our selves to ‘making not managing’?
 

Wasted Talent

On Friday afternoon I sat on my own in a cinema weeping to the Amy Winehouse documentary. It was like watching a car crash in slow motion. From the start you could see the ending, but there was nothing you could do to stop it.

There seem to have been many contributors to poor Amy’s demise; not least her determination to ‘sabotage her own life’. And I couldn’t escape a sense of complicity. I’d read those papers, consumed those news stories; I was watching the film.

But the abiding impression I took from Amy was of waste: wasted talent, wasted love, wasted life. In our disposable culture we imagine that talent, like everything else, is readily replaceable. But it isn’t.  And we’ll not see the like of Amy again in our lifetimes.

I wonder, are creative businesses wasting the very talent that sustains them?
Shouldn’t we be protecting talent as our most precious commodity?
Should our new-found commitment to sustainability extend to people, not just resources?

And, by the way, the film wasn’t entirely depressing. Tony Bennett emerged as a wise, gentle, luminous star. If only there were more like him…

Advice to My 17 Year Old Self

Work hard, but not at the expense of your cultural life.
Study hard, but not at the expense of your social life.
Play hard, but not at the expense of your health.

N0. 39

The Mirror Crack’d

‘The mirror crack’d from side to side;
“The curse is come upon me,” cried
The Lady of Shalott’

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – The Lady of Shalott

                                               William Holman Hunt -The Lady of Shalott

                                               William Holman Hunt -The Lady of Shalott

 

I attended the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at Tate Britain. Not entirely my cup of tea. Rather flat, two dimensional narratives of a romanticised past. Curiously the Pre-Raphaelites were regarded as radical in their day. It’s perhaps very English to express revolt by looking backwards…

I was nonetheless quite taken by a Holman Hunt painting of The Lady of Shalott. It seems to show a beautiful woman caught in a bizarre knitting accident. In fact it refers to a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

In the poem the mysterious Lady of Shalott is imprisoned in a tower, cursed to weave imperfect impressions of the world outside from the reflections she captures in a mirror. She weaves images of the traffic on the road to Camelot, the shepherds, knights, market girls and page boys that pass by her castle prison. But the curse denies her direct sight of life outside and ultimately she is unfulfilled.

‘ ”I am half sick of shadows,” said
The Lady of Shalott’

One day The Lady of Shalott steals a glance out of the window at the noble, handsome Sir Lancelot and with that glance the mirror cracks. She escapes her imprisonment in the tower and takes a boat down river to Camelot. At last she can see the world as it truly is.

This may sound daft, but I couldn’t help thinking about market research.

My first job was as a Qualitative Researcher and I guess I was engaged in a form of reportage. Relaying to Clients what consumers thought and did, summarising their behaviour, interpreting their opinions. Like the Lady of Shalott I was weaving imperfect impressions of the world. Reducing culture to basic bullet points, pithy Power Point, vivid verbatims. We were all well aware of the shortcomings of this approach, but it was the best we could do at the time. I recall how, a few years into my career, the introduction of even the smallest piece of video stimulus to a research debrief could revive Clients’ flagging attention. It was the late arrival of actual consumers in the room.

‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’

1 Corinthians 13:12

Perhaps with the social web a mirror has cracked. Disintermediation is the order of the day. We can gain fast, cheap access to raw, unfiltered consumer opinion. We can tame big data to animate culture. We can demolish the distance between concepts and customers. We can bring consumers into the creatives’ office, the innovators’ lab. We can workshop ideas. We can test real time in beta. We can see the world as it truly is. Live and direct. It’s invigorating, liberating, revolutionary. With one bound we are free. But market research is sometimes a frustrating business. I’m aware that there’s always a gap between vision and execution, that there’s a great deal of interesting experimentation going on. But sometimes change seems disappointingly pedestrian. As the great choreographer George Balanchine is reported to have said: ‘What are you waiting for? What are you saving yourselves for? Now is all there is!’

Of course, things rarely turn out quite as we had in mind. And things didn’t turn out well for The Lady of Shalott either. In the poem she meets a tragic end and by the time she reaches Camelot she is dead. The curse has struck.

I have been haunted by this dark conclusion.

Who is the Lady of Shalott? Who is this mysterious figure ‘half sick of shadows’, craving a fuller appreciation of life, but cursed not to enjoy it?

Is it a research industry clinging to the money-spinning methodologies of the old world and struggling to innovate for the new?

Is it the Client community that understands the revolution in theory, but fails properly to embrace it in practice?

Or is it us, the communications specialists, thrilled by the prospect of unmediated access to consumers, but ill equipped to realise it?

 

 Image: John William Waterhouse - The Lady of Shalott

 Image: John William Waterhouse - The Lady of Shalott

‘Lying, robed in snowy white
That loosely flew to left and right -
The leaves upon her falling light -
Thro’ the noises of the night
She floated down to Camelot:
And as the boat-head wound along
The willowy hills and fields among,
They heard her singing her last song.
The Lady of Shalott.’

Alfred, Lord Tennyson – The Lady of Shalott

First published: BBH Labs 10/01/2013

No. 17