Posted on February 10, 2019
Posted on February 10, 2019
It’s a joy to contemplate the photography of June Newton, a.k.a. Alice Springs. The Australian-born Springs is the 95-year-old widow of the provocative fashion photographer Helmut Newton, but that’s the least interesting thing about her.
Under Springs’s gaze, world-famous actresses like Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling, and Audrey Hepburn look like people, not icons — conversational, intent, their eyes telegraphing depths beneath. Springs respects their beauty, but doesn’t accept it as a mask. There are shadows beneath Deneuve’s perfect features; Hepburn looks gorgeous, but her age.
Vivid personalities leap from Springs’s portraits, which depict not just her subjects but her dialogue with them. Early on, Springs decided to forgo studio portraits and photograph people on their own territory, peeling back the protective facades that prominent people — especially the famous and beautiful — often construct.
“She quickly realized that photographing people in situ, their situ, was more revealing than bringing them into the studio,” says her longtime agent, Tiggy Maconochie. The resultant photos, while artful, convey a feeling of frank exchange. “[Alice] does not use any tricks,” her husband Helmut wrote.
Springs’s earlier career as an actress in her native Australia surely informed her sensitivity to character and personality, but it was Helmut who introduced her to photography. The couple met in Melbourne in 1947, when Springs was 23, and were married a year later. She followed his career, first to London, then Paris for 20 years, and later Los Angeles and Monte Carlo, where she lives to this day.
It was in Paris that Springs launched her own photographic career, on a day in 1970 when Helmut was too sick with the flu to shoot a Gitanes cigarette ad. Perhaps sensing an opportunity, Springs convinced him to let her go in his place — and after a quick tutorial in how to operate his camera and light meter, she went off.
As it turned out, she was a natural. The photos Springs took that day, of a model smoking, launched her decades-long career in both commercial photography and portraiture. She adopted the professional pseudonym Alice Springs after a town in Australia (chosen by randomly sticking a pin into a map of her home country).
Throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, Spring’s work documented the heady world she shared with Helmut: the upper reaches of European art, fashion, society, even royalty. Under her gaze, though, these iconic, powerful, and often gorgeous people look human and approachable.
Springs captured the “shock” of the individual — that electric current you feel when you really connect with someone. And she invited us to share those connections. Look at her portrait of Yves Saint Laurent model and muse Loulou de la Falaise and Nicole Wisniak, publisher of the magazine Egoiste, both lounging on a beach in white robes.
Loulou looks glamorous even in terrycloth, with stacked bangles, dark manicure, and cigarette. Nicole, hand covering her face (in keeping with her more “behind-the-scenes” profession), looks toward Loulou, and a third figure forms the triangle’s apex — the bottom half of a man wearing a similar beach robe. He strides toward Nicole, whose head moves toward Loulou, who gazes toward us. The circuit of energy moves through them, then out, inviting us to sit down in the sand.
Such a pattern occurs also in Springs’s portrait of the designer Kenzo, leaning lovingly toward his look-alike mother who gazes outward with similar warmth — affection streaming from son to mother, through Springs, to us. We see an oddly similar dynamic with artist Anna Mahler, who mirrors the downward gaze of her own sculpture (a giant face) which hangs above her.
Springs was especially sensitive to artists’ hands. Bella Freud stands resolute, hands clasped on hips with an odd intensity that punctuates her defiance. Betty Jackson holds a cane in one hand, while the other makes a fist–balancing fragility with strength. Sonia Rykiel’s graceful fingers cast shadows echoing the sculptural planes of her cheekbones. Diana Vreeland’sfascinating hands wrap around the complicated wrap she’s wearing. And a regal Vivienne Westwood has one black-and-white glove on, and clasps its mate upward, as if holding a third, ghostly hand.
Most startling are Spring’s unsentimental portraits of mothers and children, which upend expectations by refusing any trace of a beatified Madonna-and-Child motif. These women and children are fully separate, distinct beings.
Model and actress Brigitte Nielsen, in glamazon, not maternal mode, stares impassively, peculiarly hoisting her limp, sleeping infant to shoulder-height. Princess Caroline’s toddler son twists away from her as she stares straight ahead.
Some portraits are quite witty: Margot Werts, owner of the trend-setting L.A. boutique American Rag, holds her baby who looks like a miniature drunken sailor, cap askew. Artist Mirène Le Floch’s infant might be performing a modern dance contraction. And Tiziana Zenecla’s tiny son resembles a Hollywood gangster — with spiked hair and tough-guy stare.
A similar wit runs through Spring’s socialite portraits — Mica Ertegun merges into the painting behind her, to odd Surrealist effect. Judy Peabody holds up her pampered brown dachshunds breast-high, before a painting that depicts … a brown hunting dog.
Springs never sought the limelight, content to let her husband be the famous half of their couple. But right now seems like a perfect time to shine new light on her work. With a wave of American women flooding into the political arena at all levels, Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim, and a Frida Kahlo exhibit opening at the Brooklyn Museum, we seem surrounded lately with striking examples of women’s talents and power. What better way to keep up this momentum than by drawing inspiration from Springs’s humane and insightful portraits of these complex, gifted, and grown-up women.
Posted on February 10, 2019
I first saw the photograph some years ago, online. Later, I tracked it down to its original source: “In Afric’s Forest and Jungle: Or Six Years Among the Yorubans,” a memoir published in 1899 by the Rev. R.H. Stone. It shows a crowd in what is now Nigeria, but what was then Yorubaland under British colonial influence. The caption below the photograph reads: “A king of Ejayboo. Governor of Lagos on right. For years the rulers of this fierce tribe made the profession of Christianity a capital crime.” This description is familiar in tone from anthropological literature of the period, though the photograph is hard to date precisely. “Ejayboo” is what we would nowadays spell as “Ijebu,” a subgroup of Yoruba. That catches my attention: I am Yoruba and also Ijebu. This picture is a time capsule from a world to which I am connected but had not seen before, a world by colonial encounter.
By the middle of the 19th century, through treaties and threats of force, the British had wrested control of the coastal city Lagos from its king. They then turned their efforts to improving access to the goods and services in the Yoruba hinterland. The Yoruba were already by that time a populous and diverse ethnic group, full of rivalrous kingdoms large and small, some friendly to the British, others less so.
Stone, a Virginian sent by the Southern Baptist Convention, lived among them — lived among us — for two spells, in 1859-63 and 1867-69, before, during and after the American Civil War. He had this to say about Yoruba people: “They are reasonable, brave and patriotic, and are capable of a very high degree of intellectual culture.” It is praise, but must be understood in the context of a statement he makes earlier in his book about living “among the barbarous people” of that part of the world. In any case, the Ijebu in the mid-19th century were largely wealthy traders and farmers who did not want to give the British right of way to the interior of the country; only through diplomacy, subterfuge and violence were they finally overcome.
This photograph was made in the aftermath. The white governor of Lagos — based on the plausible dates, it is probably John Hawley Glover — sits under an enormous umbrella. On one side of him is another high-ranking colonial officer. On the other side is the Ijebu king, or oba, probably the Awujale of the Ijebu kingdom, Oba Ademuyewo Fidipote.
The oba wears a beaded crown, but the beads have been parted and his face is visible. This is unusual, for the oba is like a god and must be concealed when in public. The beads over his face, with their interplay of light and shadow, are meant to give him a divine aspect. Why is his face visible in this photograph? Some contravention of customary practice has taken place. The dozens of men seated on the ground in front of him are visibly alarmed. Many have turned their bodies away from the oba, and several are positioned toward the camera, not in order to look at the camera but in order to avoid looking at the exposed radiance of their king.
The invention of the daguerreotype was announced in 1839. By the 1840s, photography had spread like wildfire and become a vital aspect of European colonialism. It played a role in administrative, missionary, scientific and commercial activities. As the Zimbabwean novelist Yvonne Vera put it: “The camera has often been a dire instrument. In Africa, as in most parts of the dispossessed, the camera arrives as part of the colonial paraphernalia, together with the gun and the bible. …”
Photography in colonialized societies was not only a dire instrument. Subject peoples often adopted photography for their own uses. There were, for instance, a number of studios in Lagos by the 1880s, where elites could go to pose for portraits. But such positive side effects aside, photography during colonial rule imaged the world in order to study, profit from and own it. The colonial gaze might describe as barbarous both the oba’s beaded crown and his regal right to conceal himself. This was one of the repeated interactions between imperial powers and the populations that they sought to control: The dominant power decided that everything had to be seen and cataloged, a task for which photography was perfectly suited. Under the giant umbrella of colonialism, nothing would be allowed to remain hidden from the imperial authorities.
Imperialism and colonial photographic practices both flourished in the 19th century, and both extended themselves, with cosmetic adaptations, into the 20th. In 1960, during the horrific French war on Algeria, the French military assigned a young soldier, Marc Garanger, to photograph people in an internment camp in the Kabylia region of Northern Algeria. Thousands of people had been confined in the region under armed guard, and the French military commander had decreed that ID cards were mandatory. A picture of each prisoner was required. Many of the women were forced to remove their veils. These were women who did not wish to be seen, made to sit for photographs that were not for them. (Photography played a different military role in the numerous aerial reconnaissance missions by the French, which resulted in thousands of negatives mapping the region.)
Garanger’s photographs both record an injustice and occasion it. His alternative, not an easy one, would have been to refuse the order and go to prison. His pictures show us what we ought not to see: Young and old women, their hair free flowing or plaited, one face after the other, in the hundreds. They collectively emanate refusal. The women of Kabylia look through the photographer, certainly not considering him an ally. Their gazes rise from the surface of the photograph, palpably furious.
When we speak of “shooting” with a camera, we are acknowledging the kinship of photography and violence. The anthropological photographs made in the 19th century under the aegis of colonial powers are related to the images created by contemporary photojournalists, including those who embed with military forces. Embedding is sometimes the only way to get a direct record, no matter how limited, of what is happening in an armed conflict. On occasion such an arrangement leads to images whose directness displeases the authorities, but a more common outcome has been that proximity to an army helps bolster the narrative preferred by the army.
Still, photographic reportage has the power to quicken the conscience and motivate political commitments. Examples abound of photographs acting as catalysts in the public’s understanding of vital issues, from the images of Bergen-Belsen in 1945 to the photograph of the Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi in 2015. And yet, perhaps even more insistently, on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis, photography implicitly serves the powers that be. To insist that contemporary photographic practice — and I mean to include a majority of the international news coverage in newspapers like this one — is generally made (and published) for the greater good is to misconstrue history, because it leaves out the question of “Good for whom?” Such pictures aren’t for their subjects any more than the photograph in Stone’s book was for the Ijebus and their king.
Certain images underscore an unbridgeable gap and a never-to-be-toppled hierarchy. When a group of people is judged to be “foreign,” it becomes far more likely that news organizations will run, for the consumption of their audiences, explicit, disturbing photographs of members of that group: starving children or bullet-riddled bodies. Meanwhile, the injury and degradation of those with whom readers perceive a kinship — a judgment often based on racial sympathy and class loyalties — is routinely treated in more circumspect fashion. This has hardly changed since Susan Sontag made the same observation in “Regarding the Pain of Others” (2003), and it has hardly changed because the underlying political relationships between dominant and subject societies have hardly changed.
Without confronting this inequality, this misconstrual of history, photography will continue to describe itself as one thing (a force for liberation) while obdurately remaining another (an obedient appendage of state power). It will continue to be like the organs of the state that “spread democracy” and change regimes. Even when it appears to go against the state, it will only do so selectively, quaintly, beautifully, piteously, in terms that do not question the right of the state to assert power.
For how long will these radically unequal societal realities endure? Many affecting photographs have been made during the huge waves of international migration of the past few years. These pictures issue, as usual, from the presumed rights of photographers to depict the suffering of people “out there” for the viewing of those “back home.” But in looking at these images — images of war, of starvation, of capsized boats and exhausted caravans — we must go beyond the usual frames of pity and abjection. Every picture of suffering should elicit a question stronger than “Why is this happening?” The question should be “Why have I allowed this to happen?”
This is what the scholar Ariella Azoulay calls the “citizenship” of photography, its ability, when practiced thoughtfully, to remind us of our mutual responsibilities. When I look at the bewildering photographs of refugee camps in Richard Mosse’s recent book, “The Castle,” I feel indicted. The imperial underpinnings of Mosse’s project are inescapable: Using military-grade thermal cameras, he makes extremely complex panoramic images (stitched together from hundreds of shots) of landscapes in the Middle East and Europe in which refugees have gathered or have been confined. His pictures echo the surveillance to which these bodies are already subjected. But the thermal imaging renders the images very dark, with the humans showing up as white shapes (almost like a negative). The picture conceals what it reveals. We see people, but they remain hidden.
This technique makes for uncanny images in which distressed people move about like the figures you see in dreams, indistinct but full of ghostly presence. At the Moria camp in Greece, it is snowing. We see a long snaking line of people, waiting. What are they waiting for? For some material handout, probably, for food or blankets or documents. But their waiting represents the deeper waiting of all those who have been confined in the antechamber of humanity. They are waiting to be allowed to be human.
Mosse’s images, formally striking as they are, are unquestionably part of the language of visual domination. With his political freedom of movement and his expensive technical equipment, he makes meticulous pictures of suffering that end up in exquisite books and in art galleries. He is not the first photographer to aestheticize suffering, nor will he be the last. And yet, by suppressing color, by overwhelming the viewer with detail, by evoking racial horror rather than prettily displaying it and by including in his work philosophical considerations of the scenes he shows — “The Castle” contains essays by Judith Butler, Paul K. Saint-Amour and Mosse himself and a poem by Behrouz Boochani — he does something quite different from most photojournalists. He unsettles the viewer.
Photography’s future will be much like its past. It will largely continue to illustrate, without condemning, how the powerful dominate the less powerful. It will bring the “news” and continue to support the idea that doing so — collecting the lives of others for the consumption of “us” — is a natural right. But with a project like “The Castle,” I have a little bit of hope that an ethic of self-determination can be restored. I have hope that the refugees of Moria, Athens, Berlin and Belgrade will gain a measure of privacy. The women of Kabylia will cover their faces and return to themselves as they wish to be. The oba’s beaded crown will fall back into place, shadowing his face. Photography writes with light, but not everything wants to be seen. Among the human rights is the right to remain obscure, unseen and dark.ù
Posted on February 10, 2019
There have been a few film versus digital articles here and there on the interwebs, but seems like very few have approached the subject in a scientific fashion or with the advice of both film and digital experts.
However, with the help of Joe Cornish (a landscape photographer who made his living shooting on medium and large format but now shoots Phase One IQ280s), Chris Ireland (who sells Phase One cameras), and myself, Tim Parkin, (I shoot film and run a drum scanning service), a definitive test was born.
The first part of the test compared large/medium format film with medium format digital, and a subsequent part was a comparison of high end DSLRs using the Nikon D800E.
The results may surprise a few people.
Here’s our comparison of the Nikon D800E and a Mamiya 7 medium format camera (both using ~25mm equivalent lenses):
First of all here’s the full photo view showing the cropped area we’ll be looking at:
￼￼We were that impressed with the performance of the Mamiya against the D800E in terms of resolution that we thought we’d try comparing with the IQ180.
Firstly the color comparison:
￼Okay… Even though if you look closely at the way the Mamiya 7 resolves the text it looks comparable, the overall impression is that the IQ180 has the sharper, cleaner image. This is due to the fact that high resolution details in film get lower contrast, whereas on digital, everything resolved appears at a fairly high contrast.
Let’s look at the black and white results. The first image is the IQ180 and the second is the Mamiya 7 at f/8 (ignore the third for now):
￼Wow! Now the film used is Adox CMS 20, a high resolution film capable of resolving 800 line pairs per mm. In real world tests (by Henning Serger) this film on a Mamiya 645 with the 80mm Sekor has resolved 210 line pairs per mm which is greater than 24,000px across the film height!
You might be wondering what the third frame was in the above image. Well, it’s the Mamiya 7 at f/22! This goes to show just how good old lenses actually are (especially the Mamiya rangefinder ones) and on a sideline proves that f/22 isn’t the hellhole that many photographers believe it is (for more about that refer to Roger Cicala’s article about diffraction).
Here are a couple of comparisons between 4×5, 10×8 and the Phase One IQ180. This first is a section from a transparency that was placed on a lightbox (see the studio overview shots above – it’s the bottom left transparency). Here’s the full transparency and then a section from the left hand fork of the branch. Here’s the whole view for reference:
…and a sample showing just the part of the table of interest. We’ll be comparing results from the red area.
And here’s the final comparison. From left to right this is the IQ180, 4×5 Velvia and 8×10 Velvia:
4×5 shows better performance than the IQ180 and the 10×8 just blows everything out of the water.
Finally, here’s the real world landscape photograph that we took on a windy day in Yorkshire (that happens a lot!). We’ll be showing a comparison of 4×5 and the IQ180 for the area marked in red on the left hand side of the picture:
Here’s a comparison between the IQ180 and 4×5 Velvia 50.
Why are the results from 4×5 not performing as well as indicated by the studio comparison? Well in the real world we had to stop down from our optimum aperture of f/11⅔ to about f/22. This reduced the max resolution of the 4×5 shots. The IQ180 needed stopping down too but that just reduced the contrast at the sensors maximum resolution and with a bit of sharpening it didn’t really do much damage.
One of the interesting things that cropped up was the way that the digital sensors deal with color in terms of tonality and resolution. Because only one in four pixels are blue or red, quite often color resolution is reduced in comparison with luminosity resolution. These look fine at small enlargements but when images are shown larger these artifacts can show through.
Here’s a great example of the problems with having only a few red pixels from an outing a few years ago, comparing a Canon 5D Mark II with 4×5 Velvia. Obviously the 4×5 Velvia has more resolution but we downsampled it to match the 5D Mark II and got the following result (show at 200%)
On the right (the 4×5 image downscaled) we can see all of the berries on the tree but on the left (the Canon 5D Mark II image) a lot of the berries have disappeared. The only berries shown are where there were larger groups of them (i.e. a single pixel size berry is unlikely to match up with a single red pixel whereas a group of berries covering 2×2 sensor pixels will definitely hit a red filtered one).
Also film still seems to differentiate color differently to digital (depending on the camera). Here’s a sample of our test image from the cyan boxed area at the bottom next to the pond.
On top we have a 4×5 Portra 400 scan and on the bottom the IQ180. The 4×5 Portra 400 version has much more color definition.
We didn’t include 35mm film in the test – it was originally aimed at comparing 10×8 film with the IQ180. However, I had a recent scanning job for a colleague of mine who has taken 35mm film cameras to some of the highest mountains in the world (Alan Hinkes – the UKs first mountaineer to climb all of the world’s 8000m peaks) and he has allowed me to show a photograph here including 100% crops. These photographs were taken using a Ricoh GR1 on Fuji transparency film. We’ve enlarged this to 15″ x 30″ recently.
Here’s a 100% of the scan at 6000DPI:
The results are very impressive and from our comparisons we think scanned color slide film has a digital equivalent resolution of between 12MP and 24MP depending on what aspect you look at (12MP for overall sharpness appearance, 14-16MP for luminosity resolution, and 24MP for color resolution). These figures are estimates based on a good Imacon or Drum scan and would be even higher for projected or enlarged images.
Film still has a lot to offer, especially with the price of very high quality cameras so low. Using high resolution black and white film is well documented these days (although you have to process them yourself) and the latest version of slide and negative color film are stunning. Portra has been reformulated for scanning and has immense dynamic range and Fuji Provia is one of the highest resolving slide films ever made.
As for scanning, film scanners can be had for reasonable prices, even drum scanners! And finally medium format drum scans can be had from $20. My conclusion? It’s a great time to be using film AND digital!
Posted on February 10, 2019
When the photographer Giles Duley was 18 years old, he was given two presents by his godfather: a camera and a copy of Unreasonable Behaviour, Don McCullin’s autobiography about his life as a photojournalist in Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Biafra, Lebanon and London’s East End. The book was illustrated with McCullin’s acclaimed black-and-white photographs, images of war and human suffering that helped define the conflicts they described. It was a book that bowled Duley over. Today, the two men sit opposite each other in McCullin’s quiet cottage on the Somerset levels – as far removed from the horrors of war as can be imagined. The excuse for their meeting and for our conversation is a major retrospective of McCullin’s work at Tate Britain, opening next week. Not that any excuse is required because, as they reveal, they are friends already.
On 7 February, 2011, while involved in a photographic project studying the impact of war on soldiers in Afghanistan, Duley was “embedded” with the 1st Squadron of the 75th Cavalry Regiment of the US army and blown up by a landmine. He became a triple amputee. Most soldiers with similar injuries do not survive. But one of the many astonishing things about Duley (who is at pains to point out that his subject is not war itself but its aftermath) was that his first thought when he realised he had retained his right arm was: “I can still work as a photographer.”
Our focus today is on the Tate’s McCullin retrospective, which begins in 1959 with The Guv’nors, the first McCullin photograph published in the Observer – of a north London gang (McCullin was born in rough Finsbury Park) theatrically posed, looking out from the timbers of a burned-out building, each occupying his own space, as if about to burst into song. It was the Observer that gave McCullin his start, though it was the Sunday Times that made his name. The show includes his most famous pictures – such as the albino boy in Biafra, clutching the corner of a corned beef tin. But it features less familiar photos too. In a BBC4 documentary to be aired on 4 February, Looking for England, McCullin says that whenever he is away, the longing for home exerts the strongest hold. His pictures of the Somerset levels are seen through a glass darkly: pewter, silver and black – anything but bucolic, potential battlefields. In McCullin’s work, darkness is always visible.
Listening to the two men talk, affinities and differences emerge. Both have courage, empathetic vision and resist being described as heroic. But while Duley stays positive, McCullin, who once described war as “madness… insanity… schizophrenia”, is restlessly self-questioning – and although he is a gent with a wicked sense of humour, he can tilt into gloom, not about to let himself off any moral hook. Their conversation veers from growing up (both were dyslexic children) to dilemmas about what it means to photograph suffering, and each has a stab at addressing the toughest question of all: what can a photograph change? KK
Kate Kellaway: My first question, in the spirit of setting off, is what do you both take when you go into the field? What are the practical things that you need?
Don McCullin The right attitude really. You have to know why you’re going; are you committed to taking the risk? Particularly when one had a family, children, as I did. And then a lot of premeditation: “Will I be able to do this? Will I be able to do that?”
Giles Duley I always take Tabasco with me, because of the amount of terrible food I’ve had. And I always have a doorstop. In a lot of the places I work now, kidnapping’s become a big thing. So I always shove that in the door, then at least if somebody tries to kick it in, there’s a wedge on it. It’s funny how you have these little things from habit.
DMcC I used to take a crepe bandage in case I busted an ankle or something. And Ready Brek because I was always afraid of winding up with nothing to eat in the morning. There are all those niggling things.
Giles, you have spoken before about how reading Don’s memoir Unreasonable Behaviour as an 18 year old inspired you. Why was that?
GD It’s interesting, because there was adventure and excitement, but what stayed with me were the photographs. There’s an image of a child soldier pointing a gun at other child soldiers [in Congo, 1964]. They are about 12 years old, fully kitted up with M16s and helmets. Growing up, I had actually wanted to be in the army, thinking it was glamorous, thinking war was exciting. And seeing images like that brought home what war was: an ugly, brutal thing. Every photograph I’d ever seen of war before that was about chaos, was about tanks, was about planes, explosions, people firing guns. But what stuck with me in Don’s pictures was the contact with people’s eyes. I think a lot of war photography, whether it’s accidental or deliberate, does glamorise war, but Don’s never has.
DMcC When you experience a calamitous day and see bullets flying over and shells coming and you survive that day, there’s no doubt, the adrenaline’s at full blast. But then this goes on for war after war until you come to the conclusion that you’ve been kidding yourself, thinking that war is exciting, and you forget that people are suffering and dying around you.
GD It’s interesting, hearing you say that. Obviously I was inspired by you when I was young, but I think what I do now, almost [follows on from] what you learned, what you hated about war. I set out not to document the war element but the consequences of war and what happens to civilians. So maybe I start from the point of understanding that you had reached. I learned from that and carried on. In my work, it’s always about that connection with the person’s eyes, or somebody holding hands, those little moments of intimacy, little gestures. That’s my continuation of Don’s work.
DMcC A photograph should shout at you and tell you something’s wrong, that you’re not living in the right kind of world, something that words can’t explain to you. When I walked into a schoolhouse in 1969 in Biafra and saw 600 dying children, some of them collapsing and dying in front of me, I just cannot tell you what it was like, knowing I had my own children living in Hampstead at the time. When a picture like that is so bad, it’s easy to press the button, but it’s not easy to live with it. Morally, I’ve always had a terribly uncomfortable conscience about it. Trying to justify my work, in any statement, in any form or shape, is most difficult for me.
GD For me – and I’m sure it’s the same for Don – when you actually take a photograph, it’s not just etched on the camera, it’s etched in your mind. I can remember every photograph I’ve taken. And actually the photographs that really haunt me are the ones that nobody sees, the ones that for whatever reason don’t make the edit, don’t get published. Then you feel like you’ve let those people down, because they’ve entrusted you to take their photograph and it ends up in a folder somewhere.
But I think what I’m getting at here is are good photos found? Or made? Does the eye find the image?
DMcC It’s about the emotional – we’re not just photographers, we gather emotionally. A camera doesn’t mean a toss to me. I just put it in front of me and transfer the image through that piece of glass and that film. But I’m using my emotion more than I’m using that piece of equipment. And at the same time there’s a thousand thoughts going through my brain saying: “Is it right do this?” I’ve seen men executed and I haven’t photographed it and I thought my God, if my editor knew that I hadn’t pressed this button he’d give me the boot. But it’s my moral duty not to take that picture because the man who’s about to be killed hasn’t given me his permission.
GD Unlike Don, I’ve always been on the edge of conflict, [concerned with] the consequences of it. But definitely, there are times when you choose not to take a photograph. There’s always a moment when you connect with somebody’s eye or something happens and when somebody doesn’t want you to, it’s quite clear.
DMcC When a man is standing in front of you about to die, you can’t help him. He’s crying and he’s looking at you. He’s looking up to where he thinks God is and he’s scrambling around like mad to this last chance to keep alive and you’re standing there, you can’t help him. You are ashamed of humanity.
So has doing the work changed your view of humanity over time?
DMcC Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s why I live here. There’s hardly anyone around here. I don’t have to communicate with people. I need to get away. I need to hide. I need a sanctuary, and this [his home in Somerset] is it.
You have said, Don, that you feel in some way that you’ve failed to do what you would like to have done through photography, but you can’t surely have thought that photography would put an end to war or human misery?
DMcC A lot of people wouldn’t understand what one means by “fail”. All I’m saying is that when one war’s cleared up, the next war is waiting in the wings and they seem to have got worse over the years. When I first started, there weren’t crazed 14-year-old boys in west Africa with machetes, lopping off the arms of people and babies and children. You thought it couldn’t get any worse than that and then along came Isis, setting fire to that Jordanian pilot in that cage. And if you think about the two most important pictures that came out of Vietnam, one was the girl running down the road, which was taken by Nick Ut (although everyone thinks I took that picture… I don’t know why) in 1972. The other picture was Eddie Adams’s 1968 picture of the police chief shooting the man in the head. It took several years after them for the war to end. So that’s what I’m getting at. Do we change anything? The pictures didn’t stop the war, did they?
GD People ask: can you change the world with your photograph and I would say, no, but maybe we can inspire the people who do. A couple of years ago, I got a letter from a man in Australia who had just got into medical school. He really struggled growing up, at home and at school, but he had a picture of mine on his wall, one I took in Afghanistan. “That’s what made me want to be a doctor,” he said. Every day, he would look at that photograph to remind himself. Honestly for me, if that’s the only impact my work’s had then it’s great. And Don says his work hasn’t changed anything, well it changed my life. It made me do what I do.
DMcC If I can just go back to Giles: if I had suffered what Giles has been through, I wouldn’t feel the way I do. He is justified in pressing that button more than me because he’s actually paid this appalling price. He knows the price of pain. If I’d been through what he’s been through then I wouldn’t have this guilt about pressing the button [while knowing] I can walk away, get on an aeroplane and go back to safety.
GD I always have that trump card! I was walking around Mosul in a hospital a couple of years ago and people had lost their legs. I was joking: “Well it’s only one leg, what are you fussing about?” I’m one of the few people who get away with that. But I remember before I got injured, photographing a boy in South Sudan who’d been shot in the stomach and kidneys and I was just alone in a little mud hut with him, because the doctors had left. I pointed my camera and took a photograph and almost vomited afterwards because I felt so sick at what I’d just done. You think you’re there for the right reasons because it’s important that the story is told. But pointing a camera at a dying person, if you did that in London in the street, people would think you’re the most vile person in the world. So why is OK to do it because we’re abroad? It’s not a human thing to do.
DMcC I think really where we pay the price, or me personally, is at night time. When I go to bed, if I allow the trigger to switch on, it all relives itself with such clarity. A lot of people say: “Oh, the picture you did of the albino boy starving” [must have been the worst moment], but it wasn’t the worst experience I ever had. I never even took a picture of the worst experience I had. I found a man once in Salvador, when the rebels had captured this small town, who’d lost the whole of the lower part of his face from his nostrils, all the jaw had gone, the whole lot. He’d been hit in the face with a couple of bullets and ripped all the rest of his face.
Giles, can I ask you an amazingly dangerous question? Well, it’s more personal than dangerous. But I can’t understand to this day why you got injured when you were in the hands of the American army – what do they call it? Embedded?
GD Yes, embedded [attached to a military unit involved in armed conflict]. It’s interesting. You’re under fire and you have to go where you’re told. In South Sudan, and Congo, I was used to always being on my own. When you’re with a group of soldiers like that you actually lose some of your gut instincts and the way you normally work. I certainly wouldn’t blame them, but it’s interesting that the time I got injured was when I was not fully in control of what I was doing.
DMcC They were responsible for [your] injuries, in my opinion, not you.
GD But then in a lot of places that you have been, say, Vietnam, you might have been with American troops but you wouldn’t hold them responsible for your safety?
DMcC No. But in those days, you weren’t embedded. You got the rank of major, jumped on a helicopter and went where you wanted. They didn’t care if you got killed. I have to say, my son was in Afghanistan with the Marines, only for six months, but all the time he was there I was thinking of you and I thought, it’s such a selfish thing for me to say, I didn’t want him to come back horrendously injured the way you did. He came back and, he was fine, he’s happy. I was making out it didn’t worry me, but I was worried to death.
You were thinking like a father. Giles has paid a huge price, but also, you have to reflect on the part that luck plays…
GD Well of course. I see myself as the luckiest man in the world. Only 20 people in this country have even survived being blown up and losing three limbs. Eighteen months later I was back in Afghanistan working. I’ve travelled to 14 countries in the last year on my own. I have everything I ever wanted in my life, plus a lot more experience, a lot more understanding of life and death, my empathy, my connection with people.
It’s clear from your autobiography, Don, that war photography is not a great career choice in terms of your private life?
DMcC It can ruin you. That is what happened with my first marriage, although my children have come back to me in a very generous way and forgiven me. We’re a very close family but photography – it’s not all good.
GD No. And even if you are forgetting the dangers, it is just the amount you’re away. Something else might be planned and then you just go off… It is selfish. I mean there is no way around that.
DMcC It is a dangerous mistress, and it’s one of those love affairs that never ends, you know. It just never ends. You’re totally captive to photography once it gets a grip of you.
GD I don’t know if I’ve ever told you the story of when I flew back to Birmingham from Afghanistan, three days after I was injured. They wheeled me off the plane doped up on morphine and my sister said: “He’s trying to say something.” They took the oxygen mask off and she thought these were going to be my last words (they had said I wouldn’t make it through the night). My poor sister bent over and was expecting me to say” “I love you” or” “I’m sorry.” I whispered to her: “I’m still a photographer.”
You both do wonderful work in black and white – it’s almost a hallmark for you, Don. What does black and white have that colour lacks?
DMcC I’ve done a few colour pictures, but I think in a way it starts kind of glamming it up a bit. You see colour, you think of Hollywood. But black and white is not truthful, is it? I mean, we don’t live in a black-and-white world. We use black and white as a weapon because it will shout and scream at you. You won’t miss the black and white, but you could walk past a colour picture.
GD For me, there is no truth in photography. It’s all our interpretation. If you stick me in a room and I look in one direction and take a picture, it’s different from what’s behind me. So in a way, black and white is saying it’s not true. It’s saying, this is an artistic statement of it. When I see a lot of colour photographs of conflicts…
DMcC … especially on digital…
GD Yes. It’s saying: “This is exactly the reality.” But it’s not. A photograph is still a fake thing. It’s one second I’ve taken out of the whole day; my version of reality. Black and white for me is honest, it’s saying, this is obviously not reality.
The pictures I find most powerful are a bit like hauntings. They hang around.
DMcC They should. That’s what we try to bring. If I can haunt people with my pictures I have done my job.
Both of you had dyslexia as boys and I wonder whether your brilliance at photography was a way of finding a different, powerful way of communicating?
DMcC I suffered for being dyslexic. The schoolmasters used to knock seven bells out of me because they thought I was skiving. I took some terrible hidings from sadistic, Victorian schoolmasters who were the last of that legacy.
GD When I was 13, I was held back a year at school. When you’re that age, to be told you’re stupid and have everyone make fun of you leaves a huge imprint. So when at 18 I discovered photography, found all these photographers’ work, it was like discovering poetry or literature.
DMcC That’s what makes us so different, Giles. You had this amazing kickstart into culture. At the age of 15, I was working on a steam train going up to the north of England, washing up in the dining car. I was living out a raw life. I was watching nude shows! I used to sleep in the sheds in the railway sidings outside of Liverpool – Edge Hill – and I met this boy there who took me to this shabby old theatre in Liverpool. The women were naked – only from the waist up in those days – and they were not allowed to move. It was all done in a tasteful tableau.
Looking to the future of photography now, we are a culture saturated in images: are mobile phones and Instagram a menace?
DMcC Not a menace at all. Take the white helmets who risked their lives in Syria: phones were the only means of us getting information out. Photojournalism has had its day, though. When did you last see a really serious great set of pictures? Newspapers, even great newspapers, they’re almost running tabloid-type material of film stars and footballers and crap like that.
GD Photojournalism has died because the outlets are just not there, but photography has evolved into something else. Citizen journalism is great. It’s great that anyone can take a picture. “Image fatigue” is a phrase that gets used a lot, but I don’t think it’s true that people cannot still feel the impact of an image. You put me into a school, which I love, and I show one photograph and tell the story and you’ll see these 15-year-old kids in tears. It’s not that people have lost the ability to take imagery in, it’s that they see so much and out of context. But if you [look at] it in the right space, let people have that time, then a black-and-white photograph, with those eyes, somebody looking at you, it has the same impact it has always had.
What about the work you do when you’re not photographing terrible things abroad? I’m thinking of your cooking Instagram pictures, Giles, and your pictures of the Somerset fields around here, Don.
GD I actually reached a point with the documentary, humanitarian work, I ended up photographing everything I hated in life. It sounds silly, but going back and starting to do some portraits again, I started enjoying photography in a different way.
DMcC I get a lot of letters – and you must get the same – saying: “I want to be a war photographer”. I say to people that’s fine, but there are just as many wars going on in our cities. If you want to be a war photographer, go out and help yourself. My best story wasn’t in a foreign war; my best story was the homeless story I did in the 1970s, in Aldgate, on the periphery of the great moneymaking part of this country, the City.
And that’s going to be in the Tate exhibition, isn’t it?
DMcC Yes. I’m more proud of those pictures and I’m more proud of the social pictures I did of poverty in the north of England than I am any of my war pictures. I’m not proud of my war pictures at all.
How do you feel about the Tate show?
DMcC It’s uncomfortable. We have to be careful what we do because if we do it too well we’re turning our work into icons. The word “art” – I absolutely hate it being associated with photography. Most American photographers now want to be called artists. I could come under a lot of fire for [being in Tate Britain] really, but I’m in an art gallery because I’m not in a newspaper. I have 60,000 negatives in this house and I have a really good collection of about 400 pictures I’m really proud of.
GD Yes, what’s the point in taking a photograph if nobody sees it? You have to find it, whether it be in a gallery, whether it be in a newspaper.
I can’t resist asking you, Don, about how the Observer became the paper to commission you?
DMcC Yes, I started my career with the Observer, although the word “career” disturbs me, it’s a vocation. The paper published some pictures [of Finsbury Park gang the Guv’nors] that I sent on spec and then later the picture editor, Bryn Campbell, said: “Would you consider going to the civil war in Cyprus?” I [felt like] I was actually able to levitate; I thought I was really lifting off! I went with the Observer’s ecclesiastic correspondent, who was later killed in Swiss Cottage on a rainy night on his Vespa, to the city of Limassol. And that’s where I had my baptism of fire – I was in the Turkish quarter and there were all these bullets. I was just running around like a mad hare, I didn’t know what I was doing; I wasn’t focusing. And then I calmed down. That was my first time in war.
Finally, I wonder what it would actually mean for you both, to give up photography?
DMcC It will be the day I die. That’s when photography will be stolen away from me. I don’t intend to die yet, by the way. My most exciting time in my life is coming up on Monday at my exhibition. I don’t know why, I’ve had lots of exhibitions and all of a sudden I can’t sleep at night thinking about this one.
GD I made that comment about the words I said when I was taken into hospital. If I hadn’t been able to take a photograph again then I would rather have died in Afghanistan. Photography, it’s me. It’s my voice. Simple as that.