Archive for June, 2009

Magnum Portfolio Review

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

A few weeks ago a regular email bulletin from Magnum announced that several Magnum photographers would be holding portfolio reviews in London, ahead of this year’s AGM. There was a fee to attend – £135 – and you got to select which photographers you wanted to have critique your work. Finding valuable criticism is a big problem for me, as it depends on who is giving it. If your friends are complimentary about your work they could be just being loyal, if someone else doesn’t like it, it could be they they simply don’t know what you’re trying to do. So the idea of getting the opinions of three people who knew what they were talking about, and had nothing to lose by giving it to me straight, sounded like it was worth the money.

So I pitched up at the new home of the Photographer’s Gallery on Sunday morning clutching a copy of The Constant Eye, a pile of work prints and a large bag of curiosity. I was to see Larry Towell, David Alan Harvey and Susan Meiselas. I’d never met any of them before, but of the three it was Towell’s work that I was most familiar with.

The café room of the gallery was full of people already and Fiona from Magnum’s London office, who had organised the whole thing, greeted us all, introduced the photographers, and got us organised. Suddenly I was sitting at a little table facing Larry Towell, with my book lying between us. I think we were both wandering what was supposed to happen next.

Well – we caught our breath – and Larry looked through the book. There were some pictures he thought were good and some he thought shouldn’t have been included. He took a lot of care over explaining to me what does and what does not work in a book – the captions, the design, the visual impact of the pictures. After many minutes had passed I realised that we hadn’t really discussed the merits of individual photographs, and I asked for his views. What struck me, as he described what might have been improved in certain pictures – a change of composition, a shift of focus, a vertical format instead of a horizontal one – was that I already had, in many cases, the improved pictures he was describing. They were on the same rolls of film, a few frames either side. I had eliminated them during my editing process. Clearly, I need to work on this aspect of my photography.

In the blink of an eye our allotted time was over and I was packing up my wares. I thanked him for what had been a very helpful review. It put certain things in their correct place which I, working away on my own at my own work, had overlooked. “I sometimes wonder” I said, “whether I really am a photographer.”

“So do I,” he replied. “I wonder whether I’m really a photographer too.”

Back down in the café I met Mark Seymour, who had also just finished his first review, and Marcus Brierley, who was waiting for his scheduled time to go in. I was buzzing with the ideas that Larry had sparked off, and Mark, who had just seen Constantine Manos, was similarly excited. I’d never before met Mark or Marcus, but one of the great things about gatherings like this is the people you bump into.

After lunch I sat down with my book at a little table again, this time with David Alan Harvey. David understood quickly that The Constant Eye, Vol.1 is purely a collection of pictures from the last few years, and that what I really needed to do was a book with more of a story. I hadn’t realised how much David had worked in Spain – the work prints I’d brought, from my Bous al Carrer project, sparked interest.

He suggested I should approach my next book in the same way as I would a novel. Don’t be too tied to a strict journalistic approach – let the story live it’s own life. “It’s not the story that is interesting, it’s how it’s told,” were his parting words.

Again, I felt I was buzzing, more excited about my work than I’d been for many months, and ready only to give myself the time to sort out all the thoughts and ideas generated by talking to these folks. Time for a quick coffee then back in the review room with Susan Meiselas.

Susan’s opinion of my pictures contrasted in some ways with the earlier discussions, which re-enforces what a subjective business this is! She was very clear about the pictures she liked and the ones that shouldn’t be there, and why, and also why I should work on a book with a common theme. The landscapes in The Constant Eye were the most comfortable, she noticed, which is dead right. I am much more comfortable taking pictures at a distance, for instance:

Snowfields, Belgrade
River Sava, Belgrade, Serbia. February 2004.

and

Street, Belgrade
Karadjordjeva, Belgrade, Serbia. February 2004.

work better than:

Dancers, Vienna
Elmeyer Dance Academy, Vienna, Austria. November 2003.

Susan was also the only person other than myself who has ever said they liked this one:

Vienna design
Michaelerplatz, Vienna, Austria. October 2003.

And so, far too soon, my part in the review was over and I could go away and think through all that I’d picked up. I have to say I was amazed to find there were spare places available during the day, and that some people paid but didn’t turn up – this was the most valuable day I’ve spent for many years, and I’m very glad I was able to go. One irony is that many of the things I was told were actually things I already knew, but had lost sight of or forgotten in the course of the daily grind.

I’m very excited about getting my next book out, and the discussions of format, selection and theme were invaluable. And I love the idea of actively engaging the reader in a story. As Susan said just before I left: “Let’s see Constant Eye 2!”

Thanks Larry, David and Susan, for your time. I’m pretty sure you weren’t there for the money!

Now – what I want for my birthday is a good picture editor!

Galeria Paz y Comedias

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

Had a good meeting with Teresa and Laureano at Galeria Paz y Comedias in Valencia on Thursday.

First of all, this is a beautiful gallery. In these days, when galleries try to make themselves resemble a white cube as much as possible, it’s refreshing to find a gallery that allows the beauty of the building to come through. It’s located on the second floor of a stunning Valencian art nouveau apartment building which has the trademark mosaic tile floors intact.

Galeria Paz y Comedias is a unique space

This must be troublesome on occasion when it comes to selecting work that won’t fight with the decor, but works brilliantly for most shows.

Teresa Legarre, gallery owner and curator, was also a breath of fresh air. She was appalled by my Spanish, of course, but very helpful, knowledgeable, and frank. I can only sympathise with her when it comes to navigating her way around modern photography, with it’s huge digital prints using size and colour to overcome deficiencies in structure and composition.

We left with a good feeling that the gallery understood what I was doing, which is rare enough, and that we should be able to work together at some point in the future.

Europcar Back Down!

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

I try to keep this blog focused on photography, but I’ve just had a small triumph against multinational car rental company Europcar/Alamo that I’m bursting to tell you about.

I hired a car from their Gatwick office last month and when I returned it they found a bulge in the sidewall of one tyre. There is only one way such damage can be caused, and that’s by hitting a curb. Since I hadn’t hit any curbs I knew I didn’t cause the damage and so the tyre must have been in that condition when I picked the car up. Europcar had a different view. They maintained the damage was my responsibility and deducted over £60 from my credit card.

After a month of hassle, phone calls – holding on the phone to speak to people who never show up and listening to the inane garbage they play while you’re waiting (anyway, why do they think that hearing a recorded voice telling you how much you mean to them as a customer is going to help when you’re still holding after eight and a half minutes?) – Europcar today backed down, said they’d refund the charge, and wished me a nice day.

A victory for the citizen in the face of corporate bullying! Hang out the flags!

The moral of the story is that if you feel unfairly treated by one of these companies, badger the hell out of them until they realise you’re not going to give up. Then they’ll figure out it’s more hassle for them to deal with you than it is for them to surrender.

People power. Yeah.

Пол Харди Картер, фотограф

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

Somebody was searching for ‘Пол Харди Картер, фотограф’ and it came through to me. I was poised over the spam button when curiosity got the better of me and I tried a Google translation from Russian to English.

Turns out ‘Пол Харди Картер, фотограф’ means ‘Paul Hardy Carter, Photographer’!

I think I might get it on a t-shirt.