I finally got around to watching the documentary film Finding Vivian Maier (2013) and found that she was just as idiosyncratic as everything I’d read about her had led me to believe. But the eye never lies… what talent.
This hefty slab of a book mainly consists of 1200 images from the invaluable Historic England archive, yet it is the details from Philip Davies’s impressive introduction that slap the reader in the face. Reading Davies’s excellent summation of the six decades covered in ‘Lost England 1870-1930’ one encounters some sociological insights that we should be eternally grateful we left behind.
Despite the country being one of the richest in the world thanks to the industrialisation of its cities and large towns, the resulting rapid urbanisation of the same places saw millions living in complete squalor. The lack of decent housing for the drivers of the Industrial Revolution, the working classes, was part of their continued degradation that locked them out from having any stake in the millions of profit being generated. Of course we are well aware nowadays of this exploitation of the labouring masses by the ruling classes, and there were a small number of philanthropic business families. Nevertheless, details outlined by Davies of how wealthy society disregarded their fellow brothers and sisters a centenary or so ago stick in the craw.
For example: cellar houses were commonplace in northern industrial cities; basement dwellings built beneath squalid terraced houses. In the 1860s one fifth of Liverpool’s population lived in cellar houses, eight or nine people in a single unventilated basement, and the city’s Chief Medical Officer of Health noted that ‘fluid matter’ from communal privies on the ground floor oozed into the cellar. It got worse. Thirty years on many cellar houses were closed, but with no provision for replacement housing. This caused such a squeeze for homes across northern cities that many houses in Leeds, Manchester, and seaports created ‘penny hangs’ in their cellars. Anyone staying overnight would drape their bodies over a rope suspended breast high between cellar walls until dawn, when the ends were unfastened and everyone would collapse on to a piss-flooded floor.
This is just a tiny snapshot of the turmoil that was part of extraordinary change experienced by England in the sixty years covered in this book. And if the social record of the country during this time is bleak, then its beauty can be found in the remarkable photographs featured here.’Lost England’ is a follow on from ‘Lost London’, covering the regions of the North West, the Midlands, East England etc and once again the pictures are poignant, elegiac, yet stirring. Look at the mighty civic buildings: the town halls, the libraries, the post offices; see the railways once the envy of the world; why did we ever forgo the elegant and timeless beauty of shopping arcades for banal American-style shopping malls? So much of the Victorian and Edwardian age was beautiful and this book will make you wonder why we let much of it slip through our hands, or tumbled it with the very same hands. As Davies writes, ‘Embrace the past with remembrance, but the future with optimism. Look back, but don’t stare.’
Lost England 1870-1930 by Philip Davies (Atlantic Publishing) £45
* Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement
Since Muhammad Ali’s passing in June, the image that springs to my mind when thinking about him is no longer the iconic Neil Leifer shot from 1965 of Ali towering over a vanquished Sonny Liston on the canvas, admonishing the recumbent fighter “Git up sucka; git up and fight!” Nor is it the photo generally considered the greatest in sports photography, again taken by Leifer, a year later. The picture is from above the ring, and shows Cleveland Williams (who was still carrying a bullet in his body going into the fight after a police shooting the year before) floored in the third, flat on his back on the square canvas. Ali is walking back to his corner, his arms raised in a victory many aficionados say was perfection personified (he sent Williams to the canvas four times). The perfect shot for the perfect fight. But it’s not that one, nor is it Flip Schulke’s famous underwater photograph of Ali eternally poised with his dukes ready for launch.
Instead, my mind’s eye conjures an image taken by Peter Angelo Simon in 1974. It shows Ali from behind, in black and white, doing his early-morning roadwork; pounding the Pennsylvania gravel in a grey tracksuit and heavy black boots. We see his breath cutting through the stillness of the new morning air, while a shaft of sunlight cuts across the middle of the frame. It’s a photograph that will never run out of road for me anyhow.
Now Ali is no longer of this earth, I can only think of this picture in a cosmological context, where he is being called back to where he started from; a cosmic ray bouncing back to that great ball of energy at the centre of our universe. Indulging the celestial metaphor once more, I always feel that if you had labelled Ali a meteorite, he would have slapped you down saying a meteorite was too small-time – he was the asteroid! Either way, aren’t we fortunate he shot through our universe?
But Ali was just a man (even if the distinction of super- is unconditionally prefixed to him). Just like the rest of us, he would bleed, hurt, cry, laugh and eventually die. We get a welcome new glimpse of his human side in Muhammad Ali Fighter’s Heaven 1974 (Reel Art Press), the cover of which is Simon’s astral image. The book is the fruits of two days shooting for Simon at Ali’s remote training camp, as the artist formerly known as Cassius Clay prepared to take on George Foreman in Zaire in a month’s time. Simon recalls that he and Ali had an unspoken agreement: “he’d do his thing and I’d do mine”.
What’s striking in most photographs of Muhammad Ali where he is surrounded by all sorts of people is that they are always smiling, even if he is not. It’s as if Ali swallowed life whole and transmitted only its joy through himself to anyone within his orbit.
“If there’s a secret to my fights,” Ali once said, “it’s how I prepare.” This collection of photographs gives us a privileged window into both the brutality and humanity that this preparation entailed.
If boxing is taking something of a standing count from mainstream consciousness nowadays, then jazz has showered and shaved, checked out of the hotel, and slunk off into defeated obscurity. It might be hard to fathom, but there was a time when jazz was the absolute symbol of hep, as we can see in Jazz Festival, which is based on Jim Marshall’s photography at Monterey and Newport in the 1960s. The greats are here: Coltrane, Miles, Satch, Nina and some unexpected figures too: Kim Novak, Steve McQueen, Joan Baez. This large book is an eye-catching testament to an age of effortless cool – sharp suits, smoked edges, sounds rising to the stratosphere – and features a foreword from famous sax player (and sometime president of the United States) Bill Clinton. The historian Nat Hentoff places jazz of that era in its proper cultural context – an integrated scene that maintained its dignity in the maelstrom of the civil rights struggle.
Hentoff references Cambridge University’s Tim Blanning who laid out in his book The Triumph of Music the idea that black musicians readied America for the civil rights movement. He’s right: straight-no-chaser. Just like Muhammad Ali, jazz changed white American attitudes and America changed for the better, eventually.
Someone we think of as the embodiment of American values is Bruce Springsteen and – unlike jazz and boxing – it feels like he has never had anything but praise and approbation during his career. However, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band 1975 (also by Reel Art Press) documents a time when “The Boss” was struggling to break into the mainstream of American culture; at one point back then it seemed touch and go. Following two critically acclaimed albums, a lo-fi Boss is captured in these gritty portraits trying to piece together what would become his breakout album Born To Run.
With his trusted band in tow, we see a stripped-back Bruce: unadorned, living out of a bag, and from meal to meal probably. It’s also touching to see “The Big Man”, the late Clarence Clemons so full of life in these early photos, as well as a very lithe Steven Van Zandt, who is as well known for his role in The Sopranos these days as for cutting licks with Springsteen. The book is a snapshot in time of Bruce and his band living the life that he so painstakingly crafted into his music, and we are lucky to have this perspective. One suspects that “The Boss” has carried these pictures around in his head in the 40 years since they were taken; it’s probably why he’s “Mr Integrity” for so many of us.
When probed by critics to contextualise their vast collection of photographs of industrial architecture, Hilla and Bernd Becher stated that, “just as the medieval thought is manifest in a Gothic cathedral”, then “so too is the industrial age captured in the machinery once scattered across our lands”.
For more than 40 years the Bechers, husband and wife, documented a world made up of water towers, gas tanks, blast furnaces, grain elevators, collieries, and mine heads: a world of machinery that was no longer used, obsolete; a world that was being swiftly and ruthlessly dismantled.
The epoch of the Industrial Revolution was vanishing without trace, so the Bechers decided to watch, camera at hand, capturing its memento mori.
Hilla and Bernd met in 1957 while working at an advertising agency in Dusseldorf and discovered they had a mutual love of industrial architecture, especially that of the Ruhr region. Bernd had grown up in the area and initially planned to draw and paint these huge structures. But he soon realised that they were being demolished before he was finished with either pen or brush. Hilla, who was an experienced photographer by then, thought it more effective to use this medium instead, and instructed Bernd in technique and printing. A beautiful relationship was formed, and they married in 1961.
During this decade the Bechers, with their son Max in tow, travelled around in a VW camper pulling an old caravan customised as a darkroom. Their itinerary included Germany, Holland and France, while in 1966 they embarked on a six-month journey through England and Wales taking pictures of the coal industry. A love of collieries also took them to North America in 1974, Pennsylvania, where they recorded the coal mine tipples.
The objects of their affection might seem cursory upon first impression, but the Bechers’ working methods were anything but. Hilla described their style as “direct, descriptive photography”. This usually meant using ladders and scaffolding to shoot on their large-format plate cameras, with overcast conditions to minimise shadows and allow a neutral backdrop. The same standard was applied to each photograph to give complete objectivity. Photos were published in gelatin silver prints, and no monolith was considered too humdrum to be reverently and painstakingly recorded by them as one of their “anonymous sculptures”.
What transformed the Bechers’ work from documentary to art (although critics remain divided on this categorisation) was their use of typologies, which saw structures being exhibited in grid formations made up of six to fifteen photographs. “By placing several cooling towers side by side something happened, something like tonal music”, Hilla said: “You don’t see what makes the objects different until you bring them together, so subtle are their differences”.
Individually the pictures are impressive, but collectively they take on a rippling power that pulses right out across the grids: a series of gas tanks that morph into displaced industrialised glitter balls; framework houses that variegate across the page like real-time mosaics; winding towers that could be desolate fun parks.
“When you look at something”, they explained, “you look at first one detail and then another until your memory builds up a complete picture. You never see anything in detail at once but the camera can”.
Contemporary critics found the Bechers’ exhibitions workaday, detached and indifferent: sets of stark black-and-white pictures of water towers and gas tanks will not engage everyone’s sensibility, understandably. But this did not deter them or their vision. The Bechers were awed by the ambition of design invested in objects that were functional tools of the industrial landscape; they were enraptured by the imagination and effort invested in composing the perfunctory.
Hilla and Bernd Becher also sensed the cultural value of the likes of the collieries in Wales, while other watched them fall. They understood how these structures were markers on the maps of our age, soon to be erased. “Someone who concerns himself with scorpions must love them to a certain extent. And photography is there precisely to portray what is, not to sort and reproduce only the good and the beautiful”, stated Hilla.
I often wonder what the Bechers would document of our digital age if they were alive: sadly Hilla passed away near the end of last year, Bern in 2007, aged 81 and 75 respectively.
An empty office space, sprinkled with sleek computers slumbering atop linear desks at the break of dawn maybe; scrubby Chinese warehouses stacked with smart devices, just off the production line and freshly boxed for shipping; or perhaps the tools fuelling our vast electrical appetites now: static wind turbines, enervated energy grids, or thundering power plants. All of them fixed, purposely static.Who knows. What is for certain though is that the Bechers marvelled where others might only have overlooked as mundane. With clarity and objectivity, they rendered beauty in places where it should have few expectations. And in the end, criticism of their work did not concern either of them – they were as detached in their reactions to commentary, as they were in their working methods. Their legacy is assured, and their influence lives on in the work of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Candida Hoffer. “The question if this is a work of art or not is not very important for us”, they said. “Probably it is situated in between the established categories. Anyway the audience which is interested in art would be the most open-minded and willing to think about it”.
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