Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Dustbin of History: Kodachromes

It feels like sacrilege, but I am in the process of binning large numbers of Kodachromes.

In the days of colour film, Kodachrome was the gold standard. It's what the National Geographic photographers used, despite its now unthinkably slow speed (64 ASA, unless you were a masochist and went for the 25). It had other drawbacks: it had to be sent back to Kodak for processing, so couldn't be used on jobs that required a fast turnaround, and, to get the best out of it, accurate exposure was essential. But, correctly exposed, it produced transparencies with great colour, contrast and sharpness, and reputedly better archival stability than any other film. I used it on virtually all my foreign trips through the 1980s and 1990s.

It was only when picture desks started going digital, and image distribution switched from Royal Mail or motorcycle courier to FTP and email, that another disadvantage was revealed: Kodachrome's unique emulsion structure made it quite tricky to scan. Getting the colour and contrast right was not straightforward, and Digital ICE automated dust-removal, which worked well on other colour film stocks, could not be used. That meant dust and scratches had to be removed by hand in Photoshop. Scanning Kodachromes was hard work.

However, that's not why they're in the bin. Distributing images shot on colour transparency film to multiple publications meant shooting multiple frames, or making duplicates after the event.  After each trip one set went into my own filing cabinet, and selections of 'similars' went off to the various picture libraries that also distributed my work. Over the last few years they have all come back, like long lost homing pigeons: many agencies have closed, and those that haven't no longer deal in hard copies.

Once an image has been digitised, identical copies can be made effortlessly, with no loss in quality. There's no need for 'seconds' or spares. So, although I can't bring myself to throw away the original of anything worth scanning, I've finally got round to trawling through the stacks of returned suspension files, comparing 'similars', keeping the best, and dumping the rest.  What I'm doing is completely logical - it just feels like an unforgivable sin.

Pictured above is a binful of hundreds of slides from two trips to the Dominican Republic, for Christian Aid in 1983, and Oxfam in 1991. Scans of some of those I've kept are here.

Dominican Republic 1991

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Rodney Bickerstaffe, 1945-2017

NUPE Conference 1988
For most of the 1980s the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE) was one of my most regular, and most enjoyable, sources of work. Its members were the unsung heroes of our public services – ambulance drivers, cleaners, carers, caretakers, cooks, dustmen, home helps, hospital porters and other NHS ancillary staff, street cleaners and more – and my commissions for the NUPE Journal gave me the opportunity to visit a huge variety of workplaces and meet the people who worked in them (more about that here).

The monthly assignments also meant I frequently photographed the union's General Secretary, Rodney Bickerstaffe, whose untimely passing was announced this week. It was always a pleasure. He was wise, witty, warm and, above all, a fantastic public speaker. He will be sorely missed.

Speaking for a national minimum wage at the TUC 1986

Thursday, May 04, 2017

No Resting Place

At the beginning of this year, prompted by what seemed to be a recent significant rise in the numbers of people sleeping rough in central London, I set about documenting some of the many dark doorways and uninviting corners in which anxious, disturbed or destitute men and women now spend their days and nights.

I decided to focus on the places, rather than the people who use them, in order to highlight the harsh locations in which rough sleepers find themselves, without identifying the often vulnerable individuals who use them.  Not all the photographs succeed in doing this - parts of faces are visible in one or two. 

The pictures were taken on and off from January through March, and now the Greater London Authority has released figures for the numbers of rough sleepers recorded in the capital during that time. I was not surprised. They showed an increase of 7% on the same period last year - to 2,751 individuals over the three months. Nationally, rough sleeping has risen by 37% since 2010.

Each person has their own story, but together the bodies trying to keep warm on cold hard pavements are the most visible symptoms of the current crises in housing and adult social care provision in one of the richest countries in the world.  Shameful.  More pictures here.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The Waste Land

 End of the day on London Bridge 2016
Unreal city,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent,were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street...
(from The Waste Land, 1922)

These pictures, recent additions to my London in 50 project, were inspired by TS Eliot's description of commuters crossing London Bridge and dragging themselves to their deathly work in the City of London.  Re-reading The Waste Land, written in 1922, I imagine them in black & white, ghostly shadows in the "brown fog".  But although my pictures were taken on a sunny evening as the financiers and their clerks walked in the opposite direction, their day's work done, nothing much seems to have changed in almost a century.  They still look miserable.

 End of the day on London Bridge 2016

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Bringing It All Back Home

In the National Gallery it's Van Gogh's Sunflowers. In the Louvre it's the Mona Lisa. And in Florence it's Botticelli's The Birth of Venus (above). It seems that every major gallery has one iconic work that is the principal focus of selfie attention.

Around these 'trophy' artworks the hushed reverence that was once the default gallery mode has been swept away by smartphone-toting tourists elbowing their way to a clear view on their screens or, even worse, blocking everyone else's by posing for a selfie. Anyone wishing to peacefully contemplate the actual painting in front of them is in for a hard time.

Collecting such photographs is one of the more explicable idiocies of tourism. Perhaps what I have been doing - taking pictures of people taking those pictures – is idiocy squared, but tourism and its idiocies fascinate and repel me in equal measure. Being a tourist traipsing around Europe's big cities, with no connection to anyone who lives there, carefully channeled through a string of 'must-see' landmarks to which no native gives a second glance, can be a deathly experience. Suddenly alighting on something recognisable, both to the viewer and to their Facebook friends back home, makes a connection between the real world and this transient state of novelty and boredom. Maybe that's what photography is all about. 

Florence 2016

Saturday, April 09, 2016

More Market Failures

Nine Elms regeneration zone

There is a striking disjunction between the desperate shortage of affordable housing in the capital, and the extraordinary panorama of cranes, pile-drivers and high-rise residential blocks in various states of construction visible from almost anywhere in the city with a view.

Even more extraordinary, at least to someone unfamiliar with London's dysfunctional property market, is the fact that many of the newly completed apartments transforming the skyline are empty, bought off-plan by overseas investors as convenient assets in which to stash their cash. But now it appears that all is not well in the luxury homes trade.

Battersea Power Station

Last month Morgan Stanley warned that prices of new, upmarket London flats could fall by as much as 20% this year, and the International Business Times reported that Chinese investors who bought apartments off-plan in the Battersea power station development are having second thoughts now the time has come to pay the balance on their relatively small up-front deposits. Those in the know are clearly expecting trouble: although pre-tax profits at the estate agent Foxtons only fell by 3% last year, investors knocked 33% of the share price. If these are the first signs of a bursting bubble, it would be good news for anyone who thinks of four walls and a roof as home, rather than an offshore shelter for their dodgy money.

More pictures here.

Construction of Alto Apartments, Wembley

Friday, February 26, 2016

A Chorus of Disapproval

Members of the ENO chorus in rehearsal, 1998
The chorus at the English National Opera has just voted for strike action in protest at proposals to cut four jobs and reduce the current year-long contracts for the remaining 40 singers to nine months. The cuts follow a 30% reduction in the ENO's annual Arts Council grant.

In 1998 I spent a very enjoyable three weeks dropping in on rehearsals for the ENO's world premiere of Gavin Bryars' Doctor Ox's Experiment, shooting backstage, in various rehearsal rooms and even, occasionally, on-stage, for a spread in Opera Now magazine. There's a lot of hanging around in rehearsals and I spent much of it in the very good company of the chorus. I don't know how many of today's strikers were there back then, but they were a diverse, humourous, and pleasingly stroppy bunch. I hope they win. More pictures here.

Director Atom Egoyan and the ENO chorus in rehearsal, 1998

Rehearsal for ENO's Doctor Ox's Experiment, 1998