Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Theresienstadt book text

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

This has been one of the world’s dark places. A place where humanity has faced the limits of its deep internal inhumanity.There are many, far too many, such places around the world. Some places are bloodier, more drenched in man’s visceral savagery, than others. But all these places have some- thing in common. Something that hangs over them like a lin- gering silence in the middle of a symphony.

Things have happened in these places that I and – I sin- cerely hope – most of us might be aware of, perhaps even imagine the horror of, but can never truly comprehend. The things men can do to others when placed in a particular set of circumstances.When they, as men, are degraded to such an extent that they see their debasement of others as normal. Mundane. Just a job. Part of the daily routine.

Theresienstadt had its small role to play in the carnal mad- ness that gripped Europe by the throat during the twentieth century’s early decades.The Nazi’s vile system for the depor- tation and murder of European Jews used Theresienstadt as a hub, and this gives the place its macabre celebrity. Over 140,000 Jews from various nations were forced through the town between 1942 and 1945. Up to 50,000 lived here at one time, in a town that had been fully occupied by just 7,000 peo- ple before the war. The hellish conditions, overcrowding, star- vation, disease and brutality of the ghetto killed 33,000 people, almost half of them children. There were 17,247 people still alive when the town was handed over to the Red Cross on May 1st 1945.The grim mathematics are stomach churning to do, but one must ask: where are the 90,000 people who did not succumb to the regime of the ghetto, and yet were not among those found by the Red Cross?


And yet, and yet, this is not the full story of Theresienstadt in those years. For instance, there was an unusually high propor- tion of artists, writers and musicians among the damned.There is which includes an opera.There are the paintings and the poetry, town, actually made by a forced labour production team of inmates – all subsequently moved on, through that hideous and meticulous transportation system, to Auschwitz.

the Hapsburgs built Theresienstadt at the end of the eighteenth smaller fortress alongside. This was to be a military prison, and such was its function for many years.And then Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Gestapo, found it a century and a half later. He was setting up the Reich’s terror network in Bohemia and Moravia, and he knew he had found the perfect hub for his web. Horror central.

The prison in the Small Fortress was not built with aesthetics in mind. This is functional, military-engineer-designed archi- tecture, equipped with everything necessary for the operation of a prison at the blunt end, the brutal end, of a system of state terror and repression. Under the Gestapo, this was not the sort of prison you would be sent home from with a “sorry, you’re clearly innocent, we got the wrong man”. If you left here alive, it was in a cattle truck.

There are large cells for holding male and female prisoners Nazis built more, even larger, cells.

keep track of all those troublesome ‘units’ sent to the prison by the state security police.There is the disinfection room, to keep the rampant contagious diseases down to an acceptable level.

What you see is the penultimate stop on a journey that starts with the midnight knock on an apartment door in Prague. A shocked and tearful wife, screaming children. A man, hurriedly dressed. Manhandled from door to car to police cell. Interro- gated, brutalised, humiliated, then sent on down the line To the Small Fortress.

In the cell complex, in the dead silence, I can hear the clanging of doors, the stamping of boots, the barking of orders, and the screams. I can hear the sergeant, alternatively laughing at his own jokes and then terrifying those over whom he has complete and utter power.

These old buildings have some nobility, like dumb witnesses. Now crumbling, they point at the perpetrators, singling them out: what you did has not been forgotten, they say. As long as we stand those who come here will know what you did.

Next to the large prison cells is the prison infirmary. Primo Levi writes in If This is a Man, his memoir of Auschwitz, that time spent in the sick-bay was a blessed relief from the crippling physical labour that filled the prisoner’s daylight hours, but brought other horrors. Released from the constant struggle to do the work, and thereby to survive, the body gave the mind the energy to think.The thoughts come unstoppably, Levi says.Why are they doing this? How can they do this? On a normal day his thoughts are unconcerned with anything beyond surviving the next few minutes, but given a day or two without beatings and unbearable physical demands, the questions come. And the answers are unsatisfactory.Why are they doing this? Because it’s their job. How can they bestialize other human beings to such an extent that their very existence becomes meaningless? Because this has become normality for them.

In 2001 a man called Anton Malloth was convicted of murder by the sinister Stille Hilfe organisation. Stille Hilfe, which translates as “Silent Help”, is run by a lady whose married name is Gudrun Burwitz. Gudrun Burwitz is Heinrich Himmler’s daughter.

Malloth, or “beautiful Toni” as he was known at the time, was a degraded crime, but in this context a typical one. He beat a Jewish prisoner to death for going straight to his cell at the end It was a symbolic conviction.The disgusting Malloth had, accord- ing to witnesses, beaten to death approximately one hundred prisoners in these cells. Frau Burwitz and her friends had suc- cessfully kept Malloth out of court until most of the survivors of the prison had died, but one brave Czech man came forward, and the case was made.

The question of whether an old man should be put to trial for an offence committed half a century earlier is, in my view, irrelevant. This was an unrepentant man. It was pointed out at the trial that he was not the kind of SS man who had drifted into Himmler’s legions, as so many others had. He was a willing volunteer. Someone who had truly found his ghastly métier, who relished the opportunity to exercise the power of life and brutal death over other human beings, on a whim.

This is the kind of man who walked these halls. Sat in these – ette in a cell doorway made other men – better, braver men – shudder in fear.The kind of man who liked to share a few bottles of schnapps with his colleagues at the end of the day, to have a laugh, maybe even take a swim in the pool on a warm summer afternoon.

And this is also the kind of man for whom there are will- ing helpers today. Standing in the shadows, offering money and assistance, a nice place to live, in today’s Germany. The demo- cratic, liberal Germany of the 21st century.They help him – not out of kindness, because he is an old man in need, in spite of who he is – but because of who he is. For these people he is a hero. There are not many of these people, but they are there still, to this day.And their queen is Gudrun Burwitz.

This town, that Emperor Josef II of Austria founded and named in honour of his mother Maria Theresa, is now called Terezín. are people who call this place home. But why shouldn’t they? The world turns and life moves forward. At least, by re-claiming some of the town for their families, these people are placing the diseased and bloody period where it belongs, in the past.

This is hardly the only former ghetto in central Europe: Budapest, Krakow, Lublin, Lviv,Warsaw, the list goes on. In most cases the centres of these cities became lethally overcrowded prisons for the Jewish population during the Nazi era, yet now each is a part of a thriving modern city. Indeed, often the old ghetto areas are on the sightseeing map, tourists admire the quaint beauty of the buildings that once held inconceivable numbers of people.

There is also a certain charm about this 18th century model municipality. It is far from ugly. The well proportioned buildings, the wide cobbled streets, the open squares, all lend a certain elegance. But most importantly there is life here.There are fami- lies and children.We can hope for a bright future for Terezín, but we must never forget the blackness of the past.

The Constant Eye, Vol.2: Theresienstadt

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011
The Constant Eye, Vol.2: Theresienstadt

The Constant Eye, Vol.2: Theresienstadt

The second volume of The Constant Eye is now available from Blurb. You can preview the book and buy it here.

I visited the Czech town of Terezín in November 2003 without really knowing what to expect. I found an old Hapsburg fortified town that had been used by the Nazis as a transit camp for Jewish families from all over Europe, where intense overcrowding, malnourishment, disease and brutality had claimed tens of thousands of lives. Attached to the main town is a smaller fortress used as a Gestapo prison where thousands were tortured to death.

The visit made a profound impact on me, and began my Prisons of Conscience project.

Please have a look at the book, but for another way to see the pictures you can watch the slideshow movie below, or you can visit the gallery here.


Saturday, April 2nd, 2011

We live in a time of promiscuous image making.

I believe that, in the not so distant future, every moment of every day will be photographed. There are more cameras about than ever before, and more people using them. There are cameras in pens, in traffic lights, in computers, in sunglasses and, of course, in every handheld mobile gadget from music players to phones. There are digital cameras of such breathtaking resolution that unimagined details are revealed, and post production software to make these images even more stunning. Then there are the digital printers, capable of producing huge, crystal clear, sumptuous prints within seconds of the image being captured. And yet I carry on with film and chemicals and a mechanical camera. Not only that, but black and white film. And a lens that doesn’t even zoom. Why? People think I’m nuts.

My technique seems to cause consternation in some quarters, which I’m frankly always surprised by. I’m either dismissed as a regressive dilettante or accused of willful contrariness, usually by people who don’t know what I’m trying to do. So I thought I’d set down what my technique involves – then at least we’ll have it straight.

This is not intended to be a defence of the way I work as, quite frankly, there’s nothing to defend. It’s a choice, like why I drink red wine and not white. I also don’t claim to have invented anything here. There is nothing revolutionary about this – far from it. There are a number of us out there, using old-fashioned cameras and monochrome film.

I use a 35mm rangefinder camera – in fact I usually carry two, with 50mm lenses. I have two in case one breaks, but also so that I can have different film stocks loaded. I usually use 400asa film, sometimes pushed as far as 1600asa, but also 125asa and 3200asa films. The high film speeds mean I don’t need flash, which is handy because I hate the way flash pictures look. I don’t usually develop or print my own work as I don’t enjoy the post-production (in the sense of post-exposure) side of photography. Sometimes, of course, financial constraints mean that I must get my fingers into the chemicals, but when I’m doing that I always find myself thinking I’d rather be out taking pictures somewhere.

Once the shutter button has been pressed, the image is set. Obviously the print is worked on to get the best out of the negative, but the composition of the picture is not changed by cropping. This means that what you see on the print is what I saw through the viewfinder – a constant view, since I always use the same lens. That black frame you see around the picture is the edge of the negative, it’s like the frame around a window that I carry with me everywhere, through which to look at the world.

This, in essence, is why I use this technique – and why I’m still very happy with it – but it does have disadvantages. To say the least! Many of the great pictures of the 20th century – pictures I admire and love – would not be known, or at least would look very different, if my criteria were applied. But that’s the crux – these are my criteria, for my work. I’m not suggesting anyone else should use them, but I like to work this way. If a picture doesn’t work the way I composed it in the viewfinder, then it doesn’t get a second chance in the enlarging frame.

I think I started doing this while under the mistaken impression that the photographers I admired worked this way. In fact, of course, the great ‘original’ 35mm photographers were never so strict with themselves. If many used a 50mm lens exclusively when they started out that was largely due to the lenses being fixed to the cameras in those days. As soon as interchangeable lenses became available everyone started making full use of them, and wide angle and telephoto pictures became the norm. Equally, it seems no-one had the slightest hesitation in improving a picture by cropping.

Which brings me back to why I work this way. The reason is, in short, that I’m not trying to make a good picture – I’m trying to make a good body of work. Changing the composition of one picture by cropping it might make it more pleasing, but it will break the pattern created by all the others, that constant view. Also, I reckon, with all those pictures being taken all the time, on phones and traffic-lights, there’s no shortage of images around – and most of them don’t say very much. I hope I might, by working my own way, be able to say something more interesting about the world and what we’re doing in it by keeping the technical fireworks to a minimum and really concentrating on that little window – composing, trying to get the focus and the exposure right, and pressing the shutter.

But all of this is just technique, which is not that important. Because it’s not about technique. It’s not even about photography. It’s just me trying to make sense of the world.

[This text is taken from the introduction to my book ‘The Constant Eye, Vol. 1‘]

Exalted Company

Tuesday, November 10th, 2009
Robin Bell's Silver Footprint

Robin's book

When I picked up Robin’s book at the London opening of his show last week I was chuffed to see he’d elected to put my picture on a spread opposite a Bill Brandt. What a complement!

Robin Bell's Silver Footprint

Bill and me

I don’t know if it’s fate taunting me after I mentioned Brandt in this blog last month, but now I come to think about it, it’s a little intimidating. Quite a lot to measure up to! Still, all in all I’m thrilled.

For anyone who hasn’t been following the story: Robin is the man I have been using for my printing recently. He’s probably the most respected printer in London and, to mark his 35 years in the darkroom, he selected some favorite pictures to go in an exhibition. I was very flattered to be asked to contribute, especially considering the exalted company I would be amongst. The book is effectively the catalogue of that show.

The book is available from the gallery.

How can I afford an exhibition?

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

The costs of mounting an exhibition are become so prohibitive. It seems the only way I will be able to show anywhere other than a café in the future will be to raise thousands in backing, and give away most of the income from print sales back to the gallery. The cost of the prints alone is huge, let alone mounting and framing.

With that kind of financial commitment I think I should really have a book to promote and sell as well, to make the most of the opportunity. That’s what I’m looking into now.

So – if you’re a publisher of photography books, get in touch!

Softcover version of The Constant Eye now available

Monday, February 9th, 2009

There is now a much cheaper version of the The Constant Eye available on the Blurb site here.
I don’t need to go on about Blurb’s bizarre interpretation of currency exchange rates any more, but rest assured this new version of the book is much more cost effective.
Have a look!

Blurb exchange rates

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

I made the mistake of listing my book The Constant Eye to be sold in GBP, just because it would be easier for my payments. However, Blurb seem to be using an exchange rate set about a year ago, with the result that the USD price is over $100 – which is daft.
I’m trying to get this sorted out, but Blurb inform me that it’s going to take a month to address the issue. I can only apologise for this, and suggest that you wait until March if you want to buy the book in US Dollars. Or, buy it in GB Pounds!

The Constant Eye, Vol.1 – Now Available

Friday, January 30th, 2009

Yes, the great day has come. A smiling UPS man arrived this morning and dropped off the first copy of The Constant Eye, Vol.1 hot off the press from Blurb.
After all the waiting I have to say I’m pleased with it! If you want to get your hands on one right away go straight to the Blurb site and sign up. I have to say they don’t seem to have updated their exchange rates recently…
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the book, and don’t forget to comment on the pictures on the book’s website.

The new book

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

This is getting frustrating! I ordered the proof version of my book The Constant Eye, Vol.1 from Blurb way back before Christmas – 11th December to be exact. It was shipped on 22nd December and since then – nothing.
I did chose the cheapest shipping option, which was incredibly cheap, and was untrackable, but even so. It was supposed to be here within 15 working days, latest. It isn’t.
To Blurb’s credit, once I emailed them and explained the problem they ordered me a new one at no cost and placed it on priority delivery, but it’ll still be 2 weeks before I see it, and before I can approve the book to be sold to anyone else. Somewhat annoying.