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Pick up a postcard

The RCA secret sale gets lots of publicity, largely because there is an outside chance of picking a an artwork by somebody vaguely famous. But it’s certainly not the only option if you are looking for distinctive postcard-sized pieces.

While the RCA event has finished, the inaugural Address Unknown is in full swing and is, in some ways, a better option. Unlike the RCA sale, which is limited to invited contributors and students, Address Unknown is a truly open international exhibition.

Anyone was free to submit up to three photographs they had taken in 2012. Sponsors Loxley Colour printed them for free, and then the postcards are exhibited and sold to raise funds for the PhotoVoice charity, which aims to help disadvantaged and marginalised communities represent themselves through photography.

The only requirement was that images were to be anonymous and photographers helped “Keep the Secret”. So postcards are viewed on their visual merits rather than as a product of a name. As the organisers. Melanie Gow and Gill Aspel said: “For a flat rate of £10 you will buy something because you like it, something that there will only be one of in this form.”

The physical exhibition is in Windsor, Berkshire. But if you can’t get to that all of the items can be browsed and bought online.
More than 70 cards have been sold since the exhibition opened this week. One of my entries, taken at the Olympics, was one of the first 10 to be purchased, so I’m allowed to tell you about it.

Olympic stadium

Two more of mine and another 500 others still remain, so there are still plenty of choices for you to pick up a unique card.

Common purpose

With the use of social media so widespread and so commonplace these days, it’s hardly a surprise that big institutions in London have taken to networks to try to cultivate and grow their audience. What is perhaps a little more curious is that most of them seem to adopt a catch-all approach rather than having some focus on specific groups.

Maybe it’s because “mummy bloggers”, for example, are perceived as a phenomenon while photographers and photography aren’t (though the price paid for Instagram should surely prompt some re-thinking). Perhaps the logic is along the lines that you can sell, either directly or via advertising, to the “mummy market”. While photographers are viewed as little more than a potential source of free images that would have had to have been paid for in the past. In both cases it feels like the traffic is one way.

There are some notable exceptions, but they are few and far between. One of the best (and possibly earliest) examples of what can be done happened in 2007. In conjunction with their Henry Moore exhibition, Kew Gardens ran a photo showcase to feature images contributed via Flickr.

James Morley, the website manager at Kew, offered free tickets to Flickr users for one day (and laid on tea and biscuits). The afternoon was a great success and the photos taken helped seed the group. By the time the exhibition closed more than 2,500 pictures had been submitted, with guest judges selecting a top 20 for each season – including one of mine – and an overall top 20 at the end.

At the time it seemed to be a novel idea that was cleverly executed. But, for whatever reasons, Kew never seemed to take it any further.

The following year the London Transport Museum did something similar, holding a mini-meet as part of their re-opening. Unfortunately, any goodwill the museum established is likely to have evaporated in the wake of the way photographers were treated at the recent Aldwych station open day.

So when I read that the National Maritime Museum were looking for active Flickr users to take part in a co-curation project I was curious on multiple levels. I come from a naval background but last visited the museum as a child. I’ve lived in Docklands for decades and have walked through Greenwich countless times but have never thought of paying the museum a return visit. And the project involved the Commons, a feature that Flickr and museums could, I think, put to much better use.

The basic idea of the NMM project is simple. Get a group of people to select a batch of photos to be exhibited for six months in the museum’s interactive galleries in the Compass lounge. Either from material already in the Commons, or from the museum’s own online collection and traditional archive. What gets chosen and why will also contribute to a PhD project by Bronwen Colquhoun, researching how the Commons is used.

The chance to get a behind the scenes look at the NMM archives was tempting enough. But I also have a vested interest in seeing the Commons developed. I’m working on a project with a local historian to put old images of London online for everybody’s benefit, so the more material that’s available from the greatest number of sources the better.

I didn’t set out for Greenwich with many strongly pre-conceived ideas about what I wanted to see. I wasn’t sure there was any point in looking at major historical events (the Battle of Trafalgar, for example, has probably been done to death) and I’m not a nautical nerd, so images of ships for their own sake weren’t likely to float my boat. I was looking for something “different”; something that made me pause and wonder about what I was seeing and the story behind it.

The first point to note, and this is a Flickr failing rather than a fault of the NMM, is that it’s not immediately obvious that the museum is a member of the Commons. Go to the list of participating institutions and you’ll find a page that appears to be arranged in a random order. It’s not until you scroll almost to the end that you find a link to the museum’s Flickr stream.

There are 800-plus photos to delve into on Flickr. What most people won’t realise, because there’s no obvious link, is that there are thousands more to view in the collections on the museum’s own site. I can understand that, because of rights restrictions, not everything can be placed in the Commons. But I think it is a structural failing that the casual viewer (as I was at the time) isn’t given any pointers to other places to look.

It’s when you launch into the stream that things starts to get interesting. I skipped over a page of mainly naval material before I alighted on this.

Staff at R & H Green and Silley Weir Ltd’s Blackwall establishment

Staff at R & H Green and Silley Weir Ltd’s Blackwall establishment

Group shots of factory workers (often on an annual outing to the seaside) are, I think, quite commonplace. So it must have been that the picture had been taken just up the road that made me pause. Perhaps there were still local connections? The rest of our group weren’t quite as curious, wondering whether it was “maritime” enough. You can understand why. The only description was: “Staff at R & H Green and Silley Weir Ltd’s Blackwall establishment”.

There had to be a reason that photo was in the museum’s collection. It only took seconds to establish that Green and Silley Weir were based at Blackwall Yard, a major centre for ship building and repair. The Wikipedia page noted: “…should not be confused with the nearby Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company…”. And there, suddenly, was an interesting course to follow.

I knew there had been ship building at Deptford, but clearly a lot more had been going on along that reach of the Thames. And I’d heard of Thames Ironworks, but only in the context of West Ham football. I didn’t know they’d operated on such a scale they had once been described as “Leviathan workshops”.

And just as ships arrived in London from around the globe, a Japanese warship started life on the Thames.

Launch of the Shikshima

Launch of the Shikshima

Notice anything interesting? Take a look at the flag flying from the building on the left. Now that’s not something you’d see very often in east London.

I wouldn’t be surprised to unearth a lot more intriguing images over the next few weeks of the project, and what gets chosen for the display and why will be interesting enough. But the spin-off ideas from this project – guest bloggers choosing their own favourite mini-collections perhaps – could lead a lot further. It is, of course, part of a museum’s remit to organise and exhibit material in a way that informs or educates or illustrates. But there are millions of objects and only so much time. Why shouldn’t other people be involved in selecting and promoting items that might otherwise languish unseen?

I’m a photographer first and foremost, who also happens to have some curiosity about social history. One of the things I found most revealing at this project’s first meeting was that not everybody else in the group would necessarily identify themselves as a photographer. They had interests in the sea or maritime history or found objects or other fields. For them, Flickr was more about a place to view images rather than display them, and to share knowledge with people around the world.

The museum can obviously see the potential benefits of harnessing that hive mind. Flickr’s management would also do well to heed what people use their service for as they face growing challenges from other photo sharing sites and networks.

It is, I think, about a common purpose. Rather than one-way traffic it should be a form of give and take. The museum gets the benefit of fresh eyes being brought to bear on its collections, which might help influence how scarce resources are used for digitising material. While people interested in the images get the benefit of having them made visible rather than gathering dust in unseen archives. And in the middle, Flickr get the kudos for facilitating the sharing process.

The Commons was, I believe, the brainchild of George Oates. After she left Flickr, the Commons seem to have languished rather unloved. It would be good to see the NMM project be a little kickstarter for institutions to have an intelligent dialogue with photographers.

Mail-order muppets

@TotalBlankMedia have just lost a customer. Which is a shame, because they used to be good once upon a time. I’ve bought a lot of stuff there over the years, and recommended them to other people. But there comes a point when enough is enough.

I needed another memory card. They had something suitable on their site at £39.99, post free, which wasn’t a bad price. Their shop is a leisurely stroll from where I work, so I wandered up there yesterday lunchtime. No point in doing it mail order if I could buy it for cash and take it home with me rather than risk the Royal Mail, which everyone in east London knows is a regal fail at the best of times.

“That’s £49.99,” sir.

“But it’s shown as £39.99 on your website,” I pointed out.

The sales assistant retreats to the back of the shop and has a whispered conversation with someone else. “Best price I can do it for is £41.99,” I was told.

“But it’s shown as £39.99 on your website. With free postage. That means it’s cheaper for me to buy it online than you to sell me that one you’ve got in your hand.”

“Yes sir.”

If you’ve ever visited their shop you’ll know that that’s where they ship everything from. It’s not as if they have a warehouse in the Channel Islands to circumvent tax, which is why there’s a price differential between the shop and mail order.

I walked out in disgust. And when I got back to my desk I ordered it online. To prove a point.

They could have sold it to me on the spot and had £39.99 cash. Or they could sell it to me online. Which means out of the same £39.99 I spent they’ll be giving a cut to the card-handling company, and paying for the packaging, and for the postage. You don’t have to be a genius to work out which would have given them the greater profit.

I got home this evening to find an envelope waiting for me. Sent from the very same shop that I’d been in the day before.

At a time when businesses are struggling and chasing every sale they can get, treating people like muppets is a really bad move. They shouldn’t need to be geniuses to understand that next time my money goes elsewhere. And their loss will be a rival’s gain.

Apologies for the outage

The boneheads at my hosting company appear to have broken the site again. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Strange Bedfellows

Do opposites attract? Or are they like chalk and cheese? And can things be the same but different? With Strange Bedfellows, just about every combination seems possible.

On one wall are the contrasts. Sebastian Rich’s “Homeless child Somalia” is paired with Nino Gehrig’s “Cooking 2008”. One child bordering on starvation, the other proudly displaying a cake made from a mountain of sugary sweets.

And George Kavanagh’s diver plunging perfectly into a pool hangs uneasily alongside Rich’s shot of a U.S. marine letting a hooded and restrained Iraqi prisoner of war drink from a jerry-can.

Food and water. Two essentials of life common to everyone. The haves and the have-nots. One of the great divides in the world. The problem is that the way the images are put together feels clichéd. Not so much strange bedfellows as obvious contrasts that are predictably poles apart.

While one side of the gallery explores suffering, the other could be seen as being more about sexuality. Here, Sue Golden’s curation of work from the London Photographic Association and Gallery 1839 is much more deft.

Now you start to see the bedfellows. Couplings that look like they are suited rather than being forced together to make a point. And the strangeness is more subtle.

Julie Cook’s “A.J. Men of Sapphire” could be a classic gay icon in his shorts and chaps. While Sukey Parnell’s “Johnny in Tu-tu” is equally fit and rippling, he looks somehow less sure of himself, perhaps bordering on shy of his physique.

Ginger Liu’s study of Fever Blister in her kitchen is beautifully brassy burlesque. Ilya van Marle’s “Dolly Twins 2008” is also deliciously domestic but considerably more coy. Now your eye is caught by the wigs and the iron and the almost matching girdles.

So one half of the exhibition is chalk and cheese. The other is same but different. But do all these oppositions attract? Not entirely, but there’s no denying that the strangeness does have some appeal.

Strange Bedfellows part 2 can be seen at The Assembly Rooms, 8 Silver Place, Soho, London W1F 0JU. The exhibition is open 10am-5pm Monday to Friday, November 3 to 19.

Julie Cook's "A.J. Men of Sapphire" and Sukey Parnell's "Johnny in Tu-tu" at The Assembly Rooms

Julie Cook’s “A.J. Men of Sapphire” and Sukey Parnell’s “Johnny in Tu-tu” at The Assembly Rooms

Down but not out

Apologies if the site appeared to be off-line for an extended period on Tuesday.

The hosting company had a major outage which, at the time of writing this, still doesn’t appear to be fully resolved.

Their level of service has left a lot to be desired recently, so plans are being made to move the site to somewhere that’s rather more reliable.

Pick and mix

I seem to be developing a bit of a sideline reviewing photography exhibitions. Here’s the latest one, written for

If you are in London this weekend and have an hour or two to spare then Jigsaw, a show by photography graduates from the University of the Creative Arts, is worth a quick look.

The exhibition is billed as representing “the finished puzzle of photography, people and individual pieces”. It’s certainly a puzzle, but more like a jigsaw where you are given of lots of random pieces in a box with no real clue as to what the finished item should look like.

Given the number of people being displayed that shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Perhaps “Pick and Mix” would have been a better working title because providing you don’t expect the parts to make a coherent whole and you are prepared to dip in and out of varying styles then you should be able to find something to interest you.

On an individual level, the work is hugely varied. The only real complaint is that some if it feels a little too experimental. Either the concept is interesting but the execution doesn’t quite come off, or the technique is there but the idea seems a little lacking. Work in progress rather than the finished article perhaps?

But the show does have some undoubted stars. “Are You Looking For Business” by Richard Fleming is an excellent piece of reportage. He’s done an excellent job in recording the sex workers in his town and the pictures ooze with the feel the meaner streets of Medway.

At the other end of the spectrum, Jenne-Rose Gardiner’s “Genetic Instability” is light-hearted but an equally fine example of social documentary. Her uncle and grandfather strike a series of comic poses. The photos are deftly composed and without any suggestion of the subjects being self-conscious about what they were doing.

“Architectonic” by Steven Pocock is also worth more than a passing glance. He’s resisted the temptation to portray tower blocks and housing estates as grim and gritty places. The way they are printed makes his pictures feel cool and light, bordering on graphic art.

Jigsaw can be seen at the Rag Factory, 16 Heneage Street, London E1 5LJ. The exhibition is open from noon until 6pm, Friday June 11 to Sunday June 13.

Last chance to see: Irving Penn Portraits

If you are at loose end in London this weekend it’s your last chance to see “Irving Penn Portraits” at the National Portrait Gallery. Although formal portraiture isn’t something I do, I’ve always thought that you can often learn by studying the way other photographers work. Here’s the review I wrote for

“We don’t call them shoots here. We don’t shoot people, it’s really a love affair”

Irving Penn’s approach was a million miles removed from that of the machine-gun approach of the modern-day paparazzi. But, as a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery shows, he was undoubtedly a master craftsman who loved photographing his subjects rather than a chaser after Z-list “celebrities”.

Penn started work at American Vogue in 1943 and when he rose to prominence soon after the Second World War, the Hollywood studio system was only just coming to an end. But rather than kow-tow to the people he photographed he was determined to take pictures his way.

Eschewing the styles favoured by the other leading photographers of the period, he wedged his subjects in a corner or placed them on a grimy old rug. Their reaction to this novel approach is often visible in their poses and expressions. One sitter had the temerity to object and refuse to pose until the studio was cleaned. Penn had no hesitation in sending them packing.

His publishers sent him to Europe and, with the benefit of natural light in his studio in Paris, this was the point from which Penn really flourished. By the end of the 1950s, he had been named one of world’s 10 greatest photographers in an international survey carried out by Popular Photography.

It wasn’t only the great and the good that passed before his camera. While a list of the people he photographed reads like a Who’s Who of the 20th century, Penn was also an astute observer of street workers in his “Small Trades” series.

Before turning to photography because he didn’t think he was good enough as an artist, Penn had studied drawing, painting and design. Possibly as a result, his sense of composition was impeccable. Both in group shots and in photos of individuals everything seems perfectly placed without being forced.

Irving Penn portraits, National Portrait Gallery

Irving Penn portraits, National Portrait Gallery

Perhaps this was because Penn was also skilled at still life (his first ever Vogue cover) and so understood how all the elements should be arranged to make the whole. Or perhaps it was because he had an instinctive eye and empathy with his subjects. The result is images that are simple and stripped down without ever quite feeling stark, even though the detail of every pore or wrinkle is often crystal clear.

Magdalene Keaney, the NPG’s associate curator of photographs, spent more than two years selecting and assembling the prints, some of which have never been exhibited before. The two things that stood out for her during her research were that Penn understood and could read a face like the words on a page, and that he often seemed to be exploring what was the least that could constitute a portrait.

Some critics have suggested that Penn wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Swinging Sixties, as another generation of photographers emerged. But as you study the work he produced over more than half a century there is a sense of a constant development and refinement rather than any huge leaps of style. The Grateful Dead and Nicole Kidman were photographed with just as much aplomb as Igor Stravinsky and the Duchess of Windsor.

And while other people were out partying Penn, ever the perfectionist, was hard at work in the darkroom, reviving and refining an old platinum and palladium process that would allow him to print his work with even greater depth of detail.

Interviewed by American Photo, Penn said: “I have always stood in the awe of the camera. I recognize it for the instrument it is, part Stradivarius, part scalpel.” This exhibition is both lyrical and an incisive depiction of Penn and his work, and should be a must-see not only for photographers and lovers of portraiture but also as an insight into recent social history.

Irving Penn Portraits is organised by the National Portrait Gallery, London in collaboration with the Irving Penn Studio, with support from Bank of America Merrill Lynch. It runs until June 6 and will then transfer to Rome.

Back again

Apologies for the recent outage. It looks like the Super Cache plug-in may have been the offender. The problem is still being investigated, but disabling the plug-in seems to have brought the site back to life.

Who needs fireworks?

It’s not that dislike fireworks. Just that most photographs of fireworks always look a little too similar to me. When making plans for last weekend, I briefly toyed with the idea of going to a big display, or perhaps finding a vantage point that looked out across London. I decided against, and headed out of town instead.

My reward was a pair of stunning sunsets, much more pleasing than any man-made spectacle. And probably better for the environment too; though it might be that all the smoke being blasted into the sky added to the richness of the colours.

Saturday at Capel Fleet and Sunday on Brighton beach

Capel Fleet sunset

Brighton beach

I don’t know whether Saturday’s sunset was isolated to that particular corner of Kent. But I’ve seen several pictures that show a lot of south-east England enjoyed Sunday’s spectacle.

Who needs fireworks when you can enjoy sights like those…