Talk 1: Great American Photographers

August 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

One off class taught by Armelle Skatulski at City Lit

If you live in London, you might have noticed the rain a couple of nights ago. There was lots of it. Picture me then, walking to Covent Garden under a big, black umbrella, the backs of my trouser becoming wetter and heavier. I think the weight of my damp clothing slowed me down as I arrived late. Armelle had already given out the handouts, small black and white reproductions of the photographs to be discussed, starting with Lewis Hines and the famous “Workers Lunch”. In the next two and a half hours, she took us through some twelve photographers, all working in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Here are some things I learned. The more informed of you will know all this already so feel free to skip ahead or completely.

1. Lewis Hines was a social reformer who, along with his photographs of men working precariously on the Empire State Building, took dozens of pictures of child workers standing next to the machinery they operated or the crops they picked. Like these girls.

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2. Something about pictorialism, which I gather is about photographers creating images rather than just recording them, or as Armelle said, “producing an image in the language of painting.”

3. Alvin Coburn invented the Vortograph, which is a bit like Cubism, with the image chopped up.

4. Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, “The destitute peapickers in California,” better known as “Migrant Mother” was taken to support the New Deal agenda of the Resettlement Administration’s (later known as the Farm Security Administration’s) documentary project. The project aimed to improve conditions for poor farmers and sharecroppers brought to poverty by the Depression.

Dorothea herself said of taking these pictures: “There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

According to photographer and writer, Michael Stone, “That help came quickly. Lange sent the photos to her employer, the Resettlement Administration in Washington, prompting a quick response by federal bureaucrats who rushed food supplies to peapicker camp. She also gave them to the San Francisco News, which featured two wide-angle shots in a March 10, 1936, article on the hardship endured by harvest workers. On the following day, it placed the iconic Migrant Mother picture above an editorial on the New Deal agenda. The ensuring uproar was a catalyst that inspired John Steinbeck to write his most influential novel, the Grapes of Wrath.”

That was all good but not much use for Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of the picture, and her family, who had already left the camp by the time the extra food arrived. In later years, Thompson noted that Lange had not even asked her name and said that she wished the picture had never been taken. She’d earned nothing from it. As it was a government funded project, neither did Lange, although, of course, she did go on to have a renowned and acknowledged career. So not quite equal.

On the upside, apparently there are no restrictions on the use of these pictures so it might be the only imagine I can safely put on this blog.

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I think some other people were annoyed with me. I tried to say that I couldn’t imagine the current Government funding photographers to document the damaging results of their policies, as the FSA funded Dorothea Lange and the others. “Yes, that happens,” said one woman. “The Arts Council gives out grants like that all the time.” This didn’t seem very likely to me but I lacked any facts with which to counter her.

The teacher was good, very knowledgeable, and acted a little like a French Annie Hall. She thought almost everything was “very interesting.”  I saw that the man next to me wrote on his evaluation form, “The worse class I have ever been to,” which shocked me. He was looking at his phone the whole time anyway. Maybe if he listened more he could have avoided being so darn rude.

And, to finish, here’s a lady I like, Margaret Bourke-White, who seems to have photographed everything, from the liberation of Buchenwald for LIFE to capturing the young Marlon Brando. Quite a career.

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The Road West

August 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

We’re just back from Wales, from Saundersfoot, near Tenby. We go there every year and it’s lovely, even when it rains, which it does a bit, but not as much as you’d think. For the past five or maybe six years we’ve spent the first week of the school summer holidays there, sometimes just us, sometimes with others. It marks the start of summer, the beginning of the fun.

That’s still true, although now it also marks the anniversary of my diagnosis. Two years ago, I had to come back on the train to attend my appointment, when I was told I had breast cancer. I then took the train back to Tenby and played beach cricket with lovely people in the fading light of a beautiful, warm summer evening, the kind of evening that was already nostalgic and sentimental just by dint of it being perfect.

So now two years have gone by and this year I was less tense than a year ago, and certainly less tense than two years ago. Two years is a good length of time and, as a friend who went through all this herself predicted way back, I no longer wake up every morning with cancer as the first thing on my mind. And that’s good, very good. Time goes by and I’m calmer. I still assume that every new ache and pain is something hideous, but I also have a bit more perspective and less often these days do I look at random people walking by and think, “It’s alright for you,” assuming that strangers have no problems and nothing going on that is half as bad as what’s happenng with me. I’ve talked to lots of people, checked out this and that with doctors and counselors (but never online, never, never), and I try to be sensible and not worry too much. Not always easy but it’s the only way I can think of to approach things.

I just reread all that and I sound a bit glum and sorry for myself still, don’t I? Clearly, it is time to cheer up and I think I have, mostly. There is other stuff to get my head round now but keeping busy is still apt. Without wanting to sound too Oprah, there are lots of things out there to do and maybe it’s time to start doing some of them.  I wondered about taking an evening class but couldn’t decide on anything. And actually what I want is just to know more, generally. So here’s the plan: to go to as many talks (or similar) as possible and to write about them here. Talks about anything and everything. In London, where everyone is their own little expert, that must be possible. If there’s anywhere to learn what everyone else knows, it has to be here.

To kick off the new Anne is Keeping Busy, this evening I’m going to a talk at City Lit, “Great American Photographers.” So, in that spirit, here’s a great American photograph which says something about going forward, the road ahead and so on. (I think this might have been taken during the depression, when the Road West wasn’t really much of a solution for all those migrating, desperate farmers, but let’s now worry about that now.)

Dorothea Lange, "The Road West."

Dorothea Lange, “The Road West.”

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