Practitioners, Human History, Memories and Concrete

MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 4, Sustainable Prospects.  Week 6

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“Photography allowed the return of what had come before — and with it the prophecy of future returns. Whatever its nominal subject, photography was a visual inscription of the passing of time and therefore also an intimation of every viewer’s own inevitable passing.”

Geoffrey Batchen, Each Wild Idea, pp 133


I have been guided by tutors to look at a number of practitioners in response to my practice and in particular the deepening research I am undertaking into concrete and image infusion.

Figure 2, 3

These images  figure 2 – 0148, 2005,  figure 3 – 769, 2015 were created by David Maisel as part if his ‘Library of Dust’ series.  He gained access to a psychiatric hospital in Oregon, USA (see also figures 4 and 5) and not only captured the spaces that tell a powerful historic story about the containment of people with deep psychological problems, but their remains were contained in copper canisters and numbered. Each containing the unclaimed remains of a patient.  The spaces and the canisters have undergone the decay over time, evoking a disturbing embodied encasement of human disturbance.  Reading these uniquely coloured and stained images together summon in one’s mind the activity of patients, staff and visitors and perhaps the aural screeches.

The exhibition of Maisel’s work was also made into a book and in its review in the New York Times, November 28, 2008 described it thus “Rivulets of chemical corrosion, almost oceanic in their intense coloring, run down the sides. Mr. Maisel’s book is a fevered meditation on memory, loss, and the uncanny monuments we sometimes recover about what has gone before”.

The expression here describes recovering what precedes us; the memory that a photographic image expresses here is both spiritual and human.  In his essay entitled ‘Graves of the Insane, Decorated’, penned to accompany this exhibition, Michael S. Roth writes  “This engagement of photography with death and ghosts became the seed for twentieth-century reflections on photography’s metaphorical connection to death and memory”. He quotes André Bazin  “photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.” And goes on “It is this “proper corruption” that is unavoidable in David Maisel’s photographs from the asylum’s crematorium……. Maisel’s images recall the necessity of decay and the fact of death, even as they can be said to “embalm time.”


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figure 4 Library of Dust (Asylum 14), 2016.  figure 5 Library of Dust (Asylum 15), 2016


Of many other artists working to capture a physical and human condition the photographer Guillaume Herbaut created a body of work known as the Black Gold of Chernobyl.  His haunting images of the nuclear plant’s explosion in 1986 visited 24 years later saw not only the activity of the substantial theft and export of contaminated scrap metal but the spaces that left upon them the signifiers of the scale of human loss, exemplified in figure 6 the school in the local town of Pripyat.

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figure 6


My reflection on this work is three-fold.  Firstly, Maisel chooses to create a catalogue (hence the ‘library’ reference) of the spaces of a building that has passed its life and use in a particular era of medical treatment and as such I draw parallels with the premise for my Pause Project; Herbaut too manages this to powerful effect.  Secondly, my obsession with the materiality of the spaces I study echo Maisel’s calm and finely captured canisters.  The third element is the loss, the memoriam to the human spirit compressed here into a copper tin or the scattered gas masks.

This is reflected in the convergence of my practice strands where I draw out the past glory of concrete architecture into an act of remembrance of the sheer force of human endeavour to create buildings that are being destroyed, but I endeavour to deflect the possibility for dismissal and removal from memory via my work.

I use here in figures 1, 7, 8 and 9 images I have made of a concrete core sample which have a coincidental visual parallel with Maisel’s canisters, though clearly with less embodied content and meaning, but nevertheless they create a narrative.  This concrete core sample was taken from the external balconies of the Central Fire Station, Lancaster Circus Birmingham, designed and built in 1935 which ended its life as a first station in 2006 and has since been transformed into student flats.  The fascinating analysis reveals 5 layers to this core, each indicating a building application; the top surface was black asphalt which would have borne the footsteps of fires crews (figure 1) and the underside render (figure 9).  But the building revealed secrets when this core sample was taken, as the balconies were cast, insitu concrete, clearly in three layers, the middle layer includes fragments of brick, seen in figures 8 and 9, which are problematic within concrete as brick contains sulphur which is detrimental to the make up and strength of concrete but historically of interest as a Georgian building stood on the site of the fire station and it is likely that the demolition of that structure found its way to making up the volume of concrete, thus not only saving the building contractor money in 1935, but embodying the life of its predecessor into the new.  A visual and material history.


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figures 7,8


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figure 9


Batchen, G. (2002). Each wild idea. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Maisel D. ‘Library of Dust’ (Photographs by David Maisel
Essays by David Maisel, Geoff Manaugh, Michael Roth, Terry Toedtemeier
108 pp, 71 color reproductions, 17″×14″), Chronicle Books, San Francisco. 2008

Figures 1,7,8,9 Philip Singleton

Figures 2,3,4,5 David Maisel accessed 4.11.2017

Figure 6 Herbaut Guillaume accessed 4.11.2017



MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 3, Surfaces and Strategies, Week 7

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In my search for improvement. learning and experimentation I search out practitioners as a constant.  In this series published in Format Magazine on 28th June 2017, entitled Dalmatinka, The Ghosts of Croatia’s Abandoned Thread Factory by the photographic artist Nada Maleš.  These are empty spaces of an abandoned factory in former Yugoslavia founded in 1951, once a leading thread maker. Maleš explains. “After an economic and political crisis, Yugoslavia broke up, bringing along privatisation and bankruptcy and hence losing a large part of the market.” This lead to the bankruptcy of the factory, and it eventual closure in 2009″.

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The article Jill Blackmore Evans commentates on the images and cites the human trace and thus Sontag “In these remarkably quiet images, Maleš is searching for what the factory workers left behind. The small human traces she uncovers give personality to the huge, empty space of the former factory: a cluster of wooden chairs, a red thermos left behind on a desk, a cross hanging on a shadowy wall, a clock stopped just short of 10:30”.

Personal Reflection

I was pleased to see this work published; it has a political connotation – the failure of local industry and also a very strong parallel with my own approach to practice – that of trace, loss and pause.  The wide view alongside the intimate is an approach I use.  There is a role for the visual communication of recent past in a none romantic method.


Figures 1 and 2 extracted from this article  accessed 16th July 2017




‘Hands Off’ an Exercise in Not Making Images.

MA in Photography, Falmouth University, Module 3, Surfaces and Strategies, Week 4

This proved to be an provocative stage of learning.  We were tasked with not making images uses the established methods in one’s practice. I was thus faced with the choices which began to open up from what felt like a restrictive ploy but actually opened a metaphoric window onto two new trains of thought.

The task was to make work in a 24 hour period on the longest day of the year, 21st June 2017, exploring the new then posting the outputs on the VLE portal and via programmed webinars.

My initial reaction was go ‘back to basics’ and test out techniques I had not ever explored, either using photograms or cyanotype papers.  A trawl of web based retailers did not guarantee delivery before the day of activity.  I had decided that it would be a group project using wither of these media.  This group idea led me to creating a short piece on the past and future of a central regeneration project in Birmingham , UK, known as Paradise Circus.  I created a 4 page paper to share with 5 colleagues, set out here.

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I invited answers to two questions, one about the past, the other the future.  I deliberately asked about feelings about both states.  All 5 were completed on the day of 21st June.

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The second, parallel project was very different and came about through a discussion with a peer, Simon Fremont.  We held a late night debate about practice, technique and challenged each-other’s thinking.  I was particularly feeling ‘old fashioned’ in using 21st century versions of 19th century inventions, capturing light, space and making prints (to distil an enormously complex process and all the thinking that goes with it).  I then downloaded an app called Splash onto my iPhone and started using it in my work meetings (one of which interestingly was in a huge 19th century space), my garden bedroom and, least successfully, on my own head.  As a free app it is crude in its execution and as it is stitching in real time the complete image model tends to make errors, as can be seen below.  However it was the first time I had created a ‘spherical’ image.

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These two exercised have helped advance and consolidate my work.

The consolidation comes from the appreciation that photographic work is about collaborative ventures and engaging others in image making and now in textual narrative is likely to find its way into my cross media work in future.

The largest and most advancing leap is the creation of images that are spherical panoramas of spaces.  As I work in buildings and structures which are going through transition there is a new opportunity to widen the visual capture by ‘mapping’ whole spaces and finding ways (VR and more) to recreate those spaces that are disappearing from reality and making them recur in a new reality.


Splash IoS app (if link does not work try from your phone)

For the textual engagement project:

Artist Interview: Attilio Fiumarella: Works of Mercy

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It is very timely, interviewing Attilio Fiumarella about his work on show at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, hosted by the University of Birmingham, it reflects on European flow of people in Birmingham as the great welcoming city, the division that appears in society between the disenfranchised which is sharply in focus as we approach a general election and then the increasing volume of local photographic activity.

Attilio is an accomplished and award winning photographer who chose Birmingham as his new home in 2013.  Born in Naples and trained in architecture and photography in Porto, Portugal he has the natural instinct for the visual, rooted in the authenticity of communities and the means of using photography as a political and social ‘voice’.

Caravaggio’s singular painting of 1607 is hung over an altar in a Naples church, steeped in the Christian tradition of the gospels, cites the seven acts of mercy, feeding the hungry and the sick, burying the dead, visiting the imprisoned, dressing the naked, the offer of shelter, receiving the thirsty.  These all play out in one painting, the tumble of figures powerfully highlighted against a very muted street backdrop.  Attilio speaks calmly and fluently about the memory of his childhood and the abiding nature of the act of art placing the fragility of humanity onto the conscience of church-goers and applies it to his days walking through Porto, a city that was struggling years after the banking crisis that created a community of need, with the homeless, prostitutes young and old sitting in a square and lines of people, including students, queuing at food-banks.  Attilio observed those queues daily, having sold books and possessions to fund his own version of Works of Mercy; he needed to demonstrate the empathy with people.  The project was appropriately born in Naples where he shot a dark, underexposed series of 7 images which would serve as a backdrop to seven models.  The models were homeless men he talked to and explained that he wished to make images of men who could be offered an opportunity to participate in a studio, posing to reflect the acts of need and mercy.  One by one the images were made, reflecting the immaculate planning typical of Attilio’s architectural training as he was able to book the school of photography studio for only one hour at a time, placing his models at ease, setting the lighting and explaining with sketches how the props should be harnessed, always keeping in mind the individual backdrops that he was to merge with these studios shots in a post-production blend to achieve the final image.

Working from the platform of success Fiumarella then approached the prostitutes and after the first cautious candidate agreed to take part she was happy to convince others of the merits of the venture.  In all 14 images were created; a female and male series.  The prize for emerging photographers was bagged and for three years the work toured throughout Portugal.

The series is moving and enthralling and provokes a reminder that in the twenty first century we are allowing a degraded, helpless group of people in all our cities, but Attilio’s wish was to provide an authentic dignity to his collaborating models which he does with aplomb.  Printed and framed at almost life-size scale we are provided with a series of images which one views as a painterly execution, it somehow seems possible to swing between the natural tendency to look at these rather than ‘through’ them as many of us do with photographs. Reassuringly it was good to hear that as many models as possible were found and provided with a print of themselves; this was noted by Attilio as a moving and tearful moment, seeing the quality and beauty in the model and photographer’s joint venture.

A moment of serendipity occurred when Attilio arrived to settle in Birmingham and he attended a local portfolio review, a common process in the photographic world, where he was seen by one of the most influential people on the Birmingham photographic network, Pete James, who immediately saw the deep meaning and quality of the series.  Pete in turn made contact with the Barber and the journey to making a rather excellent foray for that institute to dip its toe into showing photography, rather momentus, as the first in its history.  It is not possible to view this series without seeing its relevance to now and the election just weeks away and matters of conscience.

2017 is clearly going to be a great year for engaging with photography in Birmingham.  Pete James has been collaborating for a long time with Mat Collishaw, he of Young British Artist fame, and a truly amazing experiential installation called ‘Thresholds’ is due at Waterhall, BMAG from June to September based on the innovation and birth of photography in 1839 which was on show at King Edward’s School just months after the very birth of the art.  You will be able to immerse yourself with the latest artificial reality goggles, headphones and a backpack and walk though the Victorian room touching the vitrines showing the equipment and prints from the 1839 exhibition with moths around the lights and mice running around your feet.  This is part of Developed in Birmingham and is a cutting edge techno experience which matches the shocking new world of photo that was on display for all to see at the birth of the new reproducible world.  BOM, Birmingham Open Media, is hosting a parallel show called ‘A White House on Paradise Street’ by artist Jo Gane in collaboration with Pete James and Leon Trimble. This exhibition is inspired by what may be the first Daguerreotype image made in Birmingham, and potentially the first image made in England using the Daguerreotype process (a process invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre, using silver plated copper). Now missing, the image is said to have depicted a White House on Paradise Street and was made by Birmingham based scientist, artist, lecturer and patent agent George Shaw in the summer of 1839.  So keep an eye out for more information.

Fig 1 To Shelter the Homeless

Fig 2 To Admonish the Sinners

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Fig 3 Barber Institute Exhibition