Thursday, September 27, 2012

'Bright Phoebus' by Lal and Mike Waterson

Bright Phoebus is a classic folk-rock album, first released in 1972. It bombed, and has been almost impossible to obtain ever since (my copy is from ... mumble mumble, clears throat). Although it has never had a proper re-release, there was a CD issue at one point, based on what sounds like a very poor transfer from the vinyl. Here's hoping it gets a remastered digital upgrade.

Lal and Mike were siblings, and also sang (together with sister Norma and other relations and friends) as a group in The Watersons, who performed arrangements of traditonal music. Bright Phoebus was therefore a doubly unexpected release of all original material, coming as it did after a long hiatus from The Watersons. From the Wikipedia page for Lal:

Lal, Norma, and Mike Waterson were orphans and brought up by their grandmother who was of part gypsy descent. Always very close, they began singing together, with cousin John Harrison, in the 1950s, with Lal 'singing unexpected harmonies.' Having opened their own folk club in a pub in the fishing port of Hull where they grew up, by the mid 1960s they had developed their own unaccompanied style singing harmony style re-workings of traditional English songs. In 1968 they stopped touring and became geographically separate for the first time - Norma went to Montserrat, and Lal to Leeds where her husband George lived, while Mike stayed in Hull. Both Mike and Lal were writing songs and when Lal returned to Hull they began working together. When Martin Carthy heard Lal's songs he found them extraordinary. At this time Carthy was in the folk-rock band Steeleye Span and he told the bass player Ashley Hutchings about Lal and Mike's songs and together they arranged to have them recorded, not unaccompanied, but with a backing band that included Carthy, Hutchings and Richard Thompson. Bright Phoebus was released in 1972 and 'caused a quiet sensation'. Her songs sometimes echoed traditional material but also involved a variety of other influences - 'some veered towards jazz and ragtime, others like Winifer Odd had a quirky charm worthy of The Beatles, but with bleak lyrics added. Another favourite Fine Horseman, made use of unexpected chords and structures.' Lyrics were as important to her as the music. The writer she admired most was the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud.

That summary perhaps undersells the contribution of Mike Waterson to Bright Phoebus, although it would be fair to say that his songwriting isn't as extraordinary as Lal's. The opening Rubber Band, written by Mike, is something of an embarrassment: the sort of song that people who hate English folk rock imagine it sounds like (it reminds me of Steeleye Span's similarly execrable All Around My Hat). Mike's other contributions are more effective. He wrote the album's title track, and also the concluding verse of The Scarecrow, the spinechilling second song, which immediately stakes the album's claim to greatness. He also sings this song. His voice is quavering and full of character - Lal's is similarly 'impure'. Both have very pronounced NE England accents, even while singing (no transatlantic drawl here).

There is a fantastic cover of The Scarecrow by June Tabor, which I had with me in Venice when I wrote the first chapters of Five Wounds (and the song's scenario is adapted for a dream sequence late in the book).

Another standout is the penultimate track, Red Wine and Promises (written by Lal, sung by Norma in a guest appearance), which is one of the best songs about being drunk I've ever heard.

Here's a short radio documentary (in two parts) about the recording of the album:

Over twenty years after Bright Phoebus, Lal released a new collection of original songs with her son, Oliver Knight, Once in a Blue Moon.:

Sadly Lal died a few years ago, very suddenly; and Mike also died recently. Bright Phoebus not only represents a singular achievement as a piece of recorded music; but the history of its creators is also an example of how to live a dignified and meaningful life in the face of commercial failure. When they recorded the album, Lal was a housewife and Mike was a painter / joiner. Shortly after it bombed, they reformed The Watersons and went back to singing traditional songs. Neither of them gave up on music; and those who heard the album didn't give up on them either.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Phaidon 55 Series

‘The illiteracy of the future’, someone has said, ‘will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography’. But shouldn’t a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less accounted an illiterate? Won’t inscription become the most important part of the photograph?
Walter Benjamin, ‘Little History of Photography’, 1931

The first part of this quotation was cited by Phaidon as one of the inspirations for their 55 series, a set of small monographs, published in pocket-sized paperback editions c. 2000. Each title in the series is dedicated to an individual photographer and features 55 images by him or her, with separate commentary for each image, and an introductory essay. The format and design for each book in the series is identical: it opens with a photographic portrait or self-portrait of the subject, followed by the introduction in continuous text (i.e. with no interpolated illustrations or 'figures'), followed by a series of 55 commentary / image layouts, most of which have a short passage of text on the left page (verso) and a photograph on the right page (recto). At the end of the book, there is a chronology for the subject’s life and work, followed by a final page with biographical notes for photographer and commentator / editor.

Mikhailov 55

The initial price of each volume was £4.95 in the UK. The idea was to provide affordable, portable introductions to the work of key photographers, to enable people to acquire a library of such works, in much the same way that Penguin Classics encouraged engagement with the literature of the past in post-war Britain. They were readable not only in the sense of being written for non-specialists, but in the sense you could slip them in your pocket and take them out to browse on the train.

There were of course other, related publishing initiatives (besides my collection of Phaidon 55s, I have several volumes from the Photo Poche series by Delpire, published originally in French, but acquired by me in various languages, depending on where and when I was able to get hold of them). However, the Phaidon series seems to me to have been the most imaginative and ambitious because of its use of text, which was, incidentally, typeset in light grey (with black for the headings). In skipping from photograph to text, the grey therefore served as a sort of calibration for the tonal scale of the image.

While the design and production of the books was uniform, the protocol for the selection of the images and the nature of the commentary differed from title to title. In most cases, a curator chose the 55 images and wrote both the introduction and the commentary. In some cases, a critic wrote the introduction, but the photographer made the selection and / or wrote the commentary. Some of the chosen writers contributed rather dull, pseudo-academic introductions that occasionally lapsed into artspeak, but in other cases the combination of writer and photographer was inspired: for example, in the volume on Walker Evans, where the text is by Luc Sante.

The direct commentary on the photographs was usually evocative and incisive, since it was almost always less than one hundred words per image, and it also avoided technical information (these were not 'how-to' books). But it otherwise varied greatly, both in tone and in what we might call its terms of engagement with the images. The commentary for the Eugene Richards 55, for example (by Charles Bowden), is a sort of continuous rolling jazz riff on the circumstances and characters of the human subjects of the images, cut into 55 short segments that run on into one another, like a Beat poem.

I own almost all of the paperback 55s, and in acquiring them I encountered many photographers about whom I previously knew nothing, so from my point-of-view the concept was an unqualified success, their only flaw being that the binding and glue tends to fall apart with extensive use (a problem that may be attributable to the paper, which is necessarily thicker than that used for most paperbacks). However, Phaidon significantly revised the project in the mid-2000s, when they started to issue new titles in the series (along with selected reprints of popular earlier titles) in a larger, hardback format, and at an increased price. The only currently available paperbacks seem to be left over from the initial print runs. So, perhaps, from Phaidon's point-of-view, the initial concept did not prove to be cost-effective.

The new iteration of the project is still cheaper than many photographic monographs or exhibition catalogues, but not by much - their newest 55 title on Edward Curtis is advertised at £22.95! At that price, I'd only buy a volume if I had a prior interest in the subject, and even then I'd have to consider it carefully. The increased price and page size also discourages browsing and continual use, whereas, because of the cheap price, I didn't much mind if the original paperbacks became dogeared or worn from carrying them around. 

The 55 series was not only an essential part of my visual education, but also a primer for the second part of Benjamin’s comment above (along with the work of John Szarowski): they taught me how to write about photographs in a concise and meaningful way.

Friday, September 14, 2012

'Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought' by Martin Jay

For me it is not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody—it’s a caress.
Nan Goldin

Reciprocity Failure not only features numerous photographs. It is about their creation, which is an integral part of the narrative (this distinguishes it from, e.g., the work of W. G. Sebald, in which the text is never really conscious of the presence of photographs in its midst). It is therefore about the relationship between art and life, but also about art-making as a mode of consciousness. How do we 'think' photographically: that is, how do we think with a camera

One influential answer to this question is: we think like a voyeur. This critique of photography as intrinsically voyeuristic is tied up with a wider critique of vision, as described in Martin Jay's Downcast Eyes: The Denigration ofVision in Twentieth-Century French Thought. A characteristic statement of this position is by Luce Irigaray (quoted on p. 493): More than any other sense, the eye objectifies and it masters. It sets at a distance, and maintains a distance. In our culture the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch and hearing has brought about an impoverishment of bodily relations

As applied to photography, this analysis echoes Susan Sontag’s On Photography 

What is being urged is an aggressive relation to all subjects. Armed with their machines, photographers are to make an assault on reality – which is perceived as recalcitrant, as only deceptively available, as unreal (p. 121, also quoted in a previous discussion of a character whose photographic activities parody Sontag's argument).

Sartre's suspicion of the ‘gaze’ as intrinsically objectifying is also influential here, and even more so the gendered variant of his analysis suggested by Simone de Beauvoir. Most commentators therefore treat the camera’s lens as the exemplary instance of the exploitative, male gaze.  

Reciprocity Failure draws instead on the philosophical tradition of phenomenology, which is concerned specifically with appearances (i.e. phenomena), and which therefore offers a different way to think about how photography intersects with gender relations and sexuality. In drawing on this alternative tradition, I describe photography in terms of touching (intimacy) rather than looking (distance). Or rather, photography does not isolate vision from the other senses, but rather unites looking and touching.

There is a problem with this argument though. By promoting photography as a kind of touching, I am in effect underwriting the 'denigration of vision' described by Martin Jay, rather than arguing against it: because I am implicitly admitting that photography can't be redeemed except by translating it into something other than looking.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Chris Ware Quotation

CW: I don’t want them to be interesting lines or interesting drawings, because then my hand comes into it too much.

Q: Why is that a problem?

CW: Because I just think it’s harder to read, in the same way that I wouldn’t want to read Ernest Hemingway’s rough draft of one of his novels, I would want to read the typeset, clean version, because I don’t want to be aware of his handwriting or anything. Not that you couldn’t be, necessarily. It’s certainly interesting to see an author’s corrected proof — you can see his scratch-outs and things that are added in — but fundamentally the intention is to have it read smoothly. It’s the words that matter; it’s the story that matters, and fundamentally, I’m interested in the story ...

[From this interview]

Friday, September 7, 2012

'Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' by Robert Louis Stevenson

I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.

The above quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, first published in 1886, is the epigraph for Pat Barker’s The Eye in the Door, a novel that features a protagonist experiencing fugue states. In The Eye in the Door, the theme of dissociation is strongly associated with that of surveillance: in other words, dissociation is a way to evade the surveillance of our own conscience, as indeed it is for Jekyll (see also: Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly).

Stevenson’s text is odder than its subsequent reworkings in popular culture might suggest. The first thing to note is that Hyde, who is described as both slighter and younger than Jekyll (the latter is common in dramatisations, but not the former), is rather unimpressive as an avatar of evil. He tramples a child underfoot in the opening chapter; and later he commits a murder without provocation; but otherwise his propensities are described in rather vague terms. Perhaps this was quite enough to create an overwhelming impression of evil in 1886, but it seems rather tame now. Of particular note – and again this distinguishes Stevenson’s tale from its later dramatisations – is the absence of any sexual element in Hyde's escapades. Indeed, there are almost no female characters at all, except in incidental roles (e.g. a servant who witnesses Hyde carrying out the murder from an attic window). This absence has lead some interpreters to see Hyde as an allegory of repressed homosexual desire (hence the lawyer Utterson’s suspicion that Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll). As if in response to this, almost all subsequent dramatisations (including the very first stage production, in the 1880s) have added a heterosexual love interest for Jekyll, and in many cases, they also insist that Hyde’s evil nature expresses itself in sexual terms, usually by violence against female prostitutes (as in, for example, the 1990 television adaptation starring Michael Caine). This last point does take up an allusion in the original text, since Hyde rents a room in a squalid neighbourhood to facilitate unspecified depravities, an action that has no obvious explanation within the text (why would he need a separate room?), but makes immediate sense if one assumes his landlady is a madam.

Lending credence to both the homosexual and the violent heterosexual subtexts is the fact that all the important male characters in the story, including Jekyll, are middle-aged or elderly bachelors, who seem to spend most of their time in each other’s company (this circumstance is apparently not worthy of comment, either for Stevenson or his protagonists). The subsequent career of Jack the Ripper – who came to public attention in 1888, and has been associated with Hyde ever since – lent immediate credence to the second of these interpretations.

Both these sexual interpretations are of course characteristically psychoanalytic, in that they identify what the text does not say as its most revealing element. Stevenson himself rejected any sexual interpretation of Hyde’s proclivities.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Illustrated by ....

From The Paris Review interview with Robert Crumb:

Genesis is obviously a graphic novel, but the cover is like a fifties comic-book cover.

It’s a Classics Illustrated! I had to argue with them to let me call it “illustrated.” They wanted to call it The Book of Genesis According to R. Crumb but I preferred “illustrated by.” I wanted a humbler position. It’s an illustration job, OK? Illustration has a bad name in modern culture because for decades artists who were “mere illustrators” were considered inferior to fine artists. Being an illustrator was looked down upon. It meant you were not really a creative person, you just had the technical skills that you were lending to someone else’s ideas. It’s all bullshit though—the fine-art world, the myth of the creative genius artist.

Monday, September 3, 2012

'Nico's Children' by Jack

Baby I've been waiting for you
In the housing benefit queue
I've been waiting for the light
That's set to end us all
I've been thinking
What these hands could do
Let loose upon you
Set free inside you
Honey, undress me for the last time
Put me to sleep in the daytime
Tonight you're ugly and I'm worse
But we're both victims of this thirst
When the sunlight turns to snow
When these lights are turned down low
It won't be poetry
Just poverty
Like so
Nico's children
Follow me like flies
Needlepoint arms
And nothing in their eyes
Come home to me early
Say that you'll save me
So sunny and dirty
Oh swear you won't spare me
The last in a line of beautiful mistakes
Together we'd never make it
Straight out of here

[N.B. If you are waiting in the housing benefit queue, I advise you to bring a book, and also to expect that when you do eventually talk to someone, that person will claim that the information you gave on your previous three visits - during which you saw three other people - is not recorded in the system, and consequently nothing has been done about it.]