Friday, September 11, 2009

Natascha Libbert

A practised eye

Natascha Libbert (1973) is in the fortunate position of having to travel a great deal, as a result of which she can look at society with a cosmopolitan eye. She has been struck by the fact that people, wherever they are in the world, are bending things to their will, creating something for themselves, making their surroundings their own. This in order to strengthen or disseminate their own identity, to distinguish themselves from the masses and to make a statement about style, taste or personal signature. People construct their own surroundings, because they derive a certain sense of calm from this order.

But staking out one’s territory is no longer enough. We build walls to escape the prying eyes of our neighbours, plant hedges and cover every opening. Irrepressibly, we transform our surroundings. We close ourselves off, withdraw into our bastions. And the more we control our surroundings, the more we lose our grip on them. The more we try to be individual, the more we conform, to the average taste, to global uniformity, to prevailing norms and values. In doing so, we are alienated from reality.

Our society is filled with conflicting characteristics: loss of identity alongside image building, globalisation alongside small scale, individualisation alongside mass mentality, alongside integration of and confrontation between traditions, cultures, religions and lifestyles. A continuous reassessment of fixed and newly acquired values. People are becoming alienated from themselves and from their world in a society that offers little respite. Our senses are over-stimulated. There is no time for self-reflection or contemplation.

People find fulfilment in the material possessions they acquire. In that acquisition, there is always a goal in sight, a feeling that is pursued. The object of our desire must give us a feeling of success or satisfaction. And it does, but only for a fleeting moment. Ultimately we are unable to find permanent fulfilment in tangible possessions. Attempts to do so are as vulnerable as we are.

Photography is a medium that lends itself perfectly to the study of the constructed environment and the role of people within it. This is the area that photographer Natascha Libbert, who graduated this summer from the Royal Academy for the Arts in The Hague, focuses on. Searching for an experience and an ideal. Small or indeed monumental forms of alienation. Beauty that is often present in the human inability to maintain the setting, the way in which people seek self-preservation in this cultivated reality. Her photos speak of the alienation in our relation with the world, of our dreams and ideals.

Her images have an intriguing stratification, which they relinquish slowly and only after careful consideration, just as good wine only slowly reveals the richness of its bouquet. Perhaps this can be attributed to the practised eye of the stewardess, a positionNatascha Libbert holds part time; a quick look to assess situations, alert to anything that deviates from the norm, anticipating and dividing attention without losing concentration. The ability also to observe the less pregnant things out the corner of her eye.

© Pim Milo, 2009

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Christopher Regis-Gludd

When the music’s over
Amsterdam was known as the Capital of Happiness, Love and Solidarity in the 90s. This reputation was owed to a liberal, tolerant and multicultural climate. Liberal with regards to drugs: ‘Nederwiet’ (hash or marijuana) could be bought freely, and so could XTC (Made in Holland too); tolerant with regards to homosexuality and extravagance and open to influences from other cultures. The nightlife was thriving like nowhere else in the world. Much talked about clubs like iT and the RoXY pumped out house tunes until the early hours and the Reguliersdwarsstraat was a long stretch of trendy clubs and bars. One side of this street was dedicated to the straight crowd, the other all things gay. The two crowds got together for immense, communal street parties where men, women, gays, lesbians and straights collectively and unabashedly surrendered to joyful abandonment and hedonism.
All and sundry graced the floor at nightclub 36 Op De Schaal Van Richter: the old, the young, straights, gays, Dutch celebrities, locals, artists and criminals. These were the years of wild house parties and a dance & club culture that had never been seen before. Charter flights from the USA, Germany and the UK were set up.

Christopher Regis-Gludd (London, 1964) went to Amsterdam for the first time in 1993. Bewitched by the vitality of the city he threw himself, no-holds-barred, into the nightlife, or ‘night clubbing’ as he called it. Come nightfall, armed with a reasonably heavy, somewhat awkward Leica R4, he would slip into the nocturnal world. He was a legal alien that couldn’t speak the native tongue, on the look-out for interesting characters, seeing just how far he could go with his camera. In the wee small hours of the morning, somewhere between 4am and the crack of dawn, Regis-Gludd would leave his house on the Hoogte Kadijk for the deserted club and bar district. He would cross the Blauwbrug, walk down the Amstelstraat, past iT, across a deserted Rembrandt Plein, along the Singel and past the RoXY to the Reguliersdwarsstraat where April, Exit, Havana, Oblomow, Downtown, l’Entrée, Rose’s Cantina and 36 Op De Schaal Van Richter could be found. He would photograph countless people en route; the homeless with their plastic bags; the drunks relieving themselves in the gutter who made work for the nightshift that Regis-Gludd would also photograph. Street cleaners, night watchmen and nurses and the morning shift besides. Bakers, paper delivery men, tram drivers and the first trams of the day, bus drivers and the last night bus. The refuse collectors, the loved-up couple caught up in a long goodbye, the hard working personnel and the homeward bound partygoers of the night before.

At nighttime he would plunge into the nightlife again. Too restless to do so, he didn’t give himself the time to develop his rolls of film. Detlef Eckert, a photographer of East German origin who documented the red light district of Amsterdam, offered to develop the films and make contact sheets for him. By this point Regis-Gludd had taken almost a thousand rolls of 35 mm. It was only then, when Eckert developed his films, that he actually got the chance to see what he had been shooting all that time. Pure street photography; tough, uncompromising, raw and of the moment. That moment could be compared to being in the eye of a storm: the pandemonium subsides, but the tension remains. The self-taught Christopher Regis-Gludd has since become a professional photographer and has his work printed onto traditional, fibre-based, gelatine-silver paper by Wim ‘Silver Hands’ Dingemans.

© Pim Milo, 2009

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Denis Waugh

Searching the Thames

Slow craftsmanship
Fred Gandolfi started working for the business of his father Louis in 1919. His brother Arthur Gandolfi followed suit in 1921. That’s how it went back then: once you were 14, you had to go out to work. When Fred retired in 1986, a few years after Arthur, he had been working for 67 years.

In a London workshop that was barely bigger than a garage, with paving stones on the floor and hand- and foot-powered machinery, the Gandolfi brothers built cameras that would become some of the finest ever made.
Each camera consisted of ten separate wooden sections and a hundred steel, copper, zinc and aluminium parts, all of them produced, cut, sawed and finished by the brothers themselves. The leather bellows came from a supplier, as did the lenses, which were left to the discretion of the photographer. A storage case would be built upon request, made from the same wood as the camera. Until the trade embargo prevented them from doing so, Fred and Arthur preferred to use Cuban mahogany, sawed roughly, bundled into packages and left in the workshop to dry for at least five years. Later they used mahogany from Honduras, as well as teak, rosewood and walnut. The choice was always left to the customer. After being sawed to size, planed and glued, the wooden parts would be put aside for a year, before being French polished by Arthur; this explains why the production time for a Gandolfi was two years. That period doubled when Arthur was hit by a London bus and confined to his home. Lord Lichfield, photographer and cousin of the British Queen, tried to rely on his royal connections to skip to the top of the waiting list, but he met with a stony refusal and was sent to the bottom. Fred and Arthur, two ‘grumpy old men’, were utterly unimpressed by power or status.

Slow photography
On 7 June 1997, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her silver jubilee and the whole of Britain joined in. Opposite the gates of Buckingham Palace stood a human pyramid: hundreds of photographers from throughout the world were crammed together, trying to take the photograph of a lifetime. It was a forest of 35-mm cameras with motor drive and long-focus lenses. And in their midst – like a bird of paradise amongst starlings – stood Denis Waugh, alongside a tripod holding his large, somewhat archaic-looking, wooden Gandolfi with a wide-angle lens.
When the Golden Coach left the palace gardens, the wall of cameras erupted with clicking and zooming. In the time it took the motor drives to send one film after another hurtling through those cameras, Denis Waugh took just two shots: open cassette, click, close cassette, change cassette, open cassette, click. The better of those two shots was published and selected by Life Magazine as one of the finest photographs of the year.

Landscape and portrait
Denis Waugh had moved to London from New Zealand at the start of the 1970s, together with his wife Priscilla. He went there to study photography at the Royal College of Art, while his wife planned to learn the trade of journalism. Denis focused on landscapes and portraits, and on the use of the large format camera. The wooden Gandolfi worked to his advantage: this cumbersome piece of equipment suggested a man of serious dedication. People became curious, watched what was happening and then went on their way again, leaving Denis to carry on unnoticed.

His first serious commission came from Bruce Bernard, the legendary picture editor of the Sunday Times Magazine. Commissions from other magazine, including Life Magazine in America, followed. He later received commissions from the advertising world, when the trend was to make ads that didn’t look like ads at all; at that time, large format photographers like Denis Waugh, Peter Lavery, Kenneth Griffiths and Rolph Gobits were being hired to give ads more of an editorial appearance. For instance, Denis produced a portrait of Freddie Heineken, having a beer at the bar of Café Hoppe in Amsterdam. However, things went downhill in the 1980s. The rise of commercial television undermined the hegemony of the magazines and advertising budgets shifted from printed media to TV commercials. In the meantime, Priscilla was causing a stir as a travel reporter for the British newspapers The Independent, Telegraph and Guardian, as well as a series of international magazines.

Slow journalism
At the start of the 1990s, Denis and Priscilla had the idea of creating a book about the Thames. Getting the go-ahead wasn't easy. In the UK, just like everywhere else, photography books are expensive to produce and the market for them is small. Bruce Bernard put the couple in contact with book designer Derek Birdsall , who thought that their book idea was wonderful and put together a dummy copy. This helped sell the concept, and a publisher was soon found.

The couple worked independently, although they consulted each other constantly. Denis followed the 346-kilometre long river by car (because of all the equipment), while Priscilla did so by bike. From her writing you get a very real sense of her making her way along the banks of the Thames through lush, thriving nature, places where nobody had ventured for centuries. She took the time to note the tiniest details, however trivial, absurd, subtle or grotesque. Her writing is poetic but not woolly, informative but not patronising, and dreamy but not verbose. Some sentences unfurl slowly, in others the words come tumbling out, but always her prose remains fresh and clear like the river itself.

Denis and Priscilla married when they were 21 and 20 respectively – young by today’s standards. By the time that they embarked on the ' Searching the Thames' project, their marriage was long since over. However, although they lived and worked separately after their split, they retained a certain mutual fondness and still understood each other intuitively, even when they weren’t in close physical proximity. Consequently, the writing and the images in this book blend together beautifully in a harmonious union.

Searching the Thames
The long exposure times slowly bring everything that moves to a standstill. The surface of the water appears mysterious, in places even slightly viscous, while the clouds contrast sharply with the blue sky. The photographs were taken throughout the year by Denis, a man of all seasons, just as comfortable on a cold winter morning as on an early spring night.

On 19 August, it will be 170 years since the invention of photography was announced to the world. It is truly fascinating that, in the decade that digital photography came into its own, Denis Waugh was using his Gandolfi camera to take roughly 80 photos, works of true craftsmanship created in the classic traditions of a medium that continues to develop.

Denis & Priscilla Waugh: Searching the Thames - a journey from the source to the sea’.
Book design: Derek Bridsall. Aurum Press 1999, ISBN 1 85410 620 1 (Although no longer available from the publisher, the book can still be obtained from some book sellers.)

© Pim Milo, 2009

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Christophe Agou

Life Below

The New York Subway consists of 468 stations and 1,355 kilometers of track. It is one of the few services that is maintained 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. The rattling, rumbling trains announce their arrival by propelling a warm cloud of swirling dust before them. As the carriages grind and screech to a halt, the doors hiss open. Passengers elbow their way out and force their way through the crowds on the platform who are waiting to get on. In less than a minute, the doors close once more and the train thunders on into the dark tunnel.

Taking photographs in the subway is something that the average New Yorker would not do as a rule. It is just too ordinary and unimaginative, with little to catch the eye. As a commuter, you have other things on your mind: you’re in a rush and you’re worrying about how busy it is and whether the trains are running on time. On 27 October 1904, the day that the subway was officially opened to the public, one passenger said, “Once you get on board, there’s nothing to look at except your fellow passengers, and that becomes tedious very quickly”.

This may be what the average New Yorker thinks, but for an attentive spectator, observing people can offer boundless fascination. Public transport in a major metropolis is a living, breathing record of the psychological, social and economic mood of the times, and a veritable melting pot of metropolitan society.

Between 1862 and 1864, Honoré Daumier painted ‘The Third-Class-Carriage’, a French train carriage full of tired travellers. The painting inspired Walker Evans to photograph the subway of New York between 1938 and 1941. Because Evans had the feeling that he had broken the unwritten rule that people in the subway should be left alone, his photos did not see the light of day until 1966. They are featured in the book ‘Many Are Called’, which includes an introductory text by James Agee and offers a wonderful insight into society in America during the Great Depression.

Christophe Agou (b. 1969 in France) took up this particular baton from 1997 to 2000. He had been living in New York for five years when he started work on this project – long enough to have shed the rose-tinted glasses but short enough to still retain a sense of the initial disarming affection that the city had evoked in him. The book of photographs ‘Life Below’ was published in October 2004, and coincided with the centenary of the New York Subway.

Walker Evans had carried out his work in secret, by hiding the camera at chest height underneath his jacket. He kept one button undone to allow the lens to poke through, and a cable release ran through his right sleeve. Because of the need to wear a coat, Evans could only take photographs during the winter. Agou, however, took his photographs openly and at all times of the year. He used a Leica and two wide-angle lenses, a 28mm and a 35mm. Nothing more - no bag, no flash bulb, no tripod and no light meter; the process was kept as simple and inconspicuous as possible in order to get the job done quickly.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) tried twice to ban filming, photography and audio recording in the subway. However, vehement protests by journalists and the general public ensured that these plans were never implemented. Recording in all of these forms is still permitted, providing it is done without stands, reflectors or external light sources.

In New York, looking people in the eye can cause problems, leading to animosity and even to aggression. It is easier to photograph people, as long as the photographer’s observation of the subject in question is inconspicuous. Agou had to be a nice, but not particularly eye-catching man. Charming, maybe, with an endearing grin or a quick wink, but not somebody who would arouse hostility or mistrust. Maybe it was his French traits that endeared him to people – his black hair, his thick eyebrows and his Monsieur Hulot hat.

Everybody is in their own world. The train propels forward, and the thoughts in the carriage turn to a diverse range of issues. The people can see that a photograph is being taken, but they are too engrossed in their own thoughts and lives to react.

Christophe Agou takes photographs with a great deal of warmth. His work is not gritty, nor is it intended to shock or humiliate. He handles the camera with compassion, and displays to us a mixture of races and social positions, in which the better-off sections of society seem quite under-represented – they evidently tend to avoid public transport. However, this may well change in light of the rapidly rising energy prices of early 2008, closely followed by the credit crisis. In the final quarter of 2007, the New York Subway transported a total of 6,432,700 passengers on weekdays. This figure has since risen to nearly seven million.

In amongst the melee of passengers travelling under the ground, Agou spotted the remarkable in the midst of the commonplace, something which passes the regular New York commuter by. This particular feat requires the eye of an outsider.

Since then, Agou has thrown himself into a new project, for which he must regularly return to his native district in France. In July 2008, Agou reached the final of the prestigious Prix de la photographie de l’Académie des Beaux-Arts (The Academy of Fine Arts Photography Award) in Paris, for the project he is working on, ‘Face au Silence’, about rural families who live and work in the region of Massif Central. After spending sixteen years in America, he has detached himself sufficiently from his roots to be able to give an objective perspective of French life.

To get as close as possible, it seems, requires a degree of distance.

© Pim Milo, 2009