Thursday, October 30

The poetry of Alex Webb

A couple of quotes from Alex Webb, shamelessly cut and pasted from the Magnum blog:

"I respond to what I find – that is one of the things that I find most exciting about this kind of photography. I never know what I will find when I step out the door. It's like embarking on a journey with no clue as to where it will lead or end."


"For me, photography affirms reality, but does not explain it. Part of its strength lies in its ambiguity, its suggestiveness. I embrace that strength of photography rather than worrying about its weaknesses. If I was predominantly interested in explanation or analysis, or if my goal was to present what people are thinking, I would choose another medium – film or discursive writing. I like to think that sometimes still photography can, through suggestion, get at complicated, inexplicable notions, much the way poetry does. More discursive forms like essays may not deal as well with these more elusive notions."

I've thought for a while that Webb's explorative approach is at the opposite extreme to Martin Parr, who often seems to have an "agenda" or concept, and is looking for pictures to illustrate his world view. I've seen criticisms of some of Webb's assignments that were done in a short timescale, and that surely is the downside to Webb's suck-it-and-see approach when it comes to producing the goods in a short space of time.

Webb seems to have to immerse himself in the subject matter, rely on a little luck, mood, feeling and instinct. And sometimes for a great poet like Webb, that just doesn't happen in a weekend or a week. Whereas Parr is the ultimate pro who has a box of tricks and techniques up his sleeve to fall back on when the going gets tough...

Sunday, October 12

Birds, trains, and the War on Oddness

I’m excited at the prospect of seeing the Eagle Owl that has set up shop in Bristol, near the University’s Biology department.


It’s thought to be an escapee from a private collection rather than a wild bird blown off course, but a creature with a wing span of up to 2 m sounds like a pretty impressive beast. The BBC’s Natural History Unit is based nearby, so perhaps it has got its beady eyes on a walk-on part on an upcoming production.

Not that I know much about birds, but generally I know what I like, and that’s the impressive, gaudy showbiz birds. Herons, spoonbills, kingfishers, that sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I can watch a flock of sparrows buzzing around for hours – their behaviour is interesting – but I don’t really share the twitcher’s urge to tick relatively mundane birds off the list just for a glimpse. When I see a flock of birdwatchers set up in a car park, because one of those birds in that huge pile of gulls just might be a rare Mediterranean gull – identical to all the other gulls apart from a minor detail of plumage – it leaves me pretty cold.

In the same way, I enjoy seeing the odd steam engine and nicely designed Intercity train, but don’t feel the need to get out the notebook and record the details of every diesel locomotive that passes through the station. Then again, the world needs obsessives, so good luck to them. It’s interesting to note that Martin Parr (him again) has at various times been a birdwatcher and a literal trainspotter, so maybe it’s the same species of obsession that drives on the best documentary and street photographers.

Unfortunately, street photography and trainspotting are both minority activities that fall outside the government-approved-behaviours-for-hard-working-families [list to follow]. Hence photographers, trainspotters and bus-spotter have had a tough time recently trying to pursue their interests in a climate of suspicion and paranoia.

Tuesday, October 7

Conversation in Jessops concerning Martin Parr

– Can I help you, Sir?

– Yes, I'd like to try out this camera please. [mucks around with camera for a few minutes]

– Hmmm, the focus seems to be a bit slower than I expected. Hard to know if it's just the low light inside this shop. Not worth going outside though, it's even grimmer out there. And raining.

– Yes, no way you could do any photography today.

– Oh, I don't know, have you seen Martin Parr's Bad Weather Series? [clearly this customer is the sort of fruitcake who talks to strangers on train]

– I think so. Was it on Sky?

– No, I meant a series of photographs. I think it was a book. Martin Parr used an underwater camera and flash to photograph people in the rain and snow.

– And what was the point of that?

– Erm, well, you know, documenting people going about their daily business in all conditions, not just photographing in good weather when everyone else is photographing.

– It seems like a lot of effort just to make a point.

– Maybe, but he's become quite a wealthy man doing stuff like that.

– Ah well, if he's rich, maybe he can afford to waste his time doing that sort of thing.