Max Kandhola – The Aura of Boxing, Part Two

Last Thursday, I took the afternoon off work and headed to Derby to see the final part of Max Kandhola’s Aura of Boxing show. You may remember from my previous post that the show is the realisation of Kandhola’s 17 year study into ‘the aesthetic and moral conflicts of the boxer within the spatial interior of the pugilistic landscape’.

The exhibition has been split across three venues:

Kandhola 1

The Chocolate Factory is an interesting space for such an exhibition. It’s an old industrial unit that seems to be without heating or any attempt to welcome its visitors, other than the cheery staff. It does allow the images to be shown at a scale that the artist wished and in an environment that is similar to those used by boxing gyms.

During my visit, the artist was leading a tour of the work, providing a valuable insight into his methods.
Kandhola 2

The images are again printed on canvas and glued directly to the walls, like the posters advertising fight nights that are featured occasionally – they look superb. Kandhola says that he presents his work without frames or glass to stop them becoming precious or ‘pieces of art’,  in turn, removing a barrier to the viewer.

The work, when presented at this scale and with the repetition of a contact sheet, becomes detailed and almost forensic.

Like the black and white images, only one boxer ever features in each frame. There are no fights, no ‘Mr Universe’ poses. Instead, it feels like a personal encounter with the individual athlete and gives us a taste of the dedication that the subjects show for their sport. We see the sport in its purest sense with all romanticism and gloss stripped away. As the title suggests, the work is about the aura, the feeling, the experience. Strangely, while he photographs around the subject, it takes us straight to the heart of it.

Kandhola 3

The contact sheets show us a little of Kandhola’s method and his discipline. He doesn’t take many pictures of each scene, photographing only what he ‘needs’ to to produce his vision and version of the scene. He isn’t distracted from that original idea.

Kandhola 4When speaking to Max Kandhola, that is the lesson that comes across most strongly, and one that I desperately need to learn. Discipline is essential in photography.

As Kandhola says:

whatever you’re shooting, shoot only that

 

 

Majid Saeedi – Life in War

In what would become four gallery visits in 10 days, this was probably the most surprising and rewarding. It was a show by a photographer that I wasn’t familiar with, being held in a space in Hinckley that I wasn’t aware of either.  And while admiring the bravery of war photographers, it is an area of the practice that I struggle to engage with, not only because it is so far removed from my experiences, but because I often find the images so disturbing that I’ll avoid them. From Don McCullin to James Nachtwey, graphic images of battle are often the ultimate example of the power that photojournalism can have. This show proved to be just as powerful a commentary on the devastation war brings, but without the blood, gore and images of death.

Majid Saeedi is an Iranian photographer (although he can no longer work in his own country) who has shot the various conflicts in the region for his entire career. This set was the culmination of the last four years that he has spent in Afghanistan.

Atkins Building, Hinckley

The Atkins Building, Hinckley

After visiting several galleries and exhibition in recent months, the Atkins Building had a refreshing lack of pretence (I didn’t see a single piercing or Smurf hat) and despite entering through the café rather than the show’s main entrance, the exhibition space was impressive. I had read little about the artist’s approach before seeing the show, but it soon became clear that his images were not to be the ones that we are familiar with from Afganistan, of western troops and the machineries of war. Instead, as inferred by the show’s title, it was about the people of the country and their efforts to live as normal a life as possible in the horrendous circumstances they find themselves in.

The artist says that ‘war is not the only thing going on in Afghanistan’, but it seems on this evidence that it shapes and informs everything in the country. The ongoing conflict and its effects are evident in every photograph. Several photographs show the children of the country and even when smiling and playing, their eyes gave away the experiences they’ve had in their short lives. The girls playing with the artificial arm belonging to a land mine victim or the children in domestic settings appear years older than they really are.

These brief glimpses of domestic life are interspersed with street scenes  and portraits shot against simple backgrounds, such as projector screens or black cloth. There are also portraits in context; of farmers and bodybuilders. The group shots of training Afghan forces or children in school each cleverly feature one person making eye contact with the viewer. Our eyes scan the images but then become drawn in to the life of the subject once our eyes meet.

But the images aren’t all shocking or difficult to look at. Several are beautiful compositions showing us the Persian culture and Afghan way of life that continues in these difficult circumstances.

Since seeing the work, I’ve read more about the photographer and his practice. I find some of what he says confusing. For example he says:

I have never been able to find out how much these people have been traumatised by life, as they have always remained impassive in front of my camera.

But then:

In 2009 I accepted an offer from my agency, and went to Afghanistan where I have been for more than four years now, reaping a harvest of bitter-sweet memories. Sharing a common tongue, I found that I could live alongside Afghan people, understand them, laugh and cry with them.

I would expect that Saeedi must understand their feelings having spent so long with his subjects (many of the intimate images he has taken must have had a degree of trust that only comes from conversation and time spent together) but he chooses to let the viewer do the work, implied by his statement:

I am very interested to discover the reaction of the people that see my images.

Several of the images are shocking. The boy being punished in religious school and those of the women who have burned themselves* are not the images of mass graves or dying wounded that we often see from war zones, but are just as powerful as we read into the pictures and begin to consider the day to day effects of living with conflict. As such, the photographer has achieved exactly what he had set out to do and given us a better understanding of a country that we are used to seeing only in news bulletins about ‘our’ latest casualties.

By the time I’d spent an hour with this excellent exhibition, the café had filled with Saturday shoppers taking a break from their morning’s work. Children were being filled with sausage rolls and Coke and occasionally someone would wander in to the area displaying the photographs. For the unprepared, the exhibition must have had quite an impact…

S. Kendall (Hinckley)

S. Kendall (Hinckley)

The presentation of the black and white images is of the highest quality. The framed prints had a full range of tones, with very black blacks. Several images had been printed at more than a meter square onto a vinyl/canvas and also looked exceptional, mounted against the restored brickwork of the former mill. However, with a low sun through the windows, several pictures did become difficult to view.

Congratulations to all at Charnwood Arts and Creative Hinckley for pulling off what seems to be quite a coup in staging this powerful show and again, I thoroughly recommend it it you’re in the area.

References.

Saeedi, M (2014) Majid Saeedi: In his own words [online]. Charnwood Arts. Available from: http://www.charnwoodarts.com/articles/2014/02/majid_saeedi_in_his_own_words [Accessed 24 February, 2014]

World Press Photo (2013) 2013, Contemporary Issues , 2nd prize stories , Majid Saeedi [online]. World Press Photo. http://www.worldpressphoto.org/awards/2013/contemporary-issues/majid-saeedi

*Forced marriage, domestic violence, poverty, and lack of access to education are said to be among leading reasons for self-immolation. Conservative laws and traditions in Afghanistan place women in a subordinate position. Some women find that setting themselves alight — as a form of protest, or in attempted suicide — is the only option that seems open to them.

Study Visit – Dayanita Singh

MCXC wee

Beneath the Southbank.

I saw a lot of photography on Saturday.

I went to London for my second study visit with the OCA, to see ‘Go Away Closer’ by Dayanita Singh at the Southbank’s Hayward Gallery. Making the most of the trip, and feeling like the wide-eyed boy from the sticks, I planned to see the Home Truths: Photography, Motherhood and Identity shows at the Photographer’s Gallery and the Foundling Museum, and Leicestershire by Mitra Tabrizian at Bankside. I’ll write more about each as I read, reflect and understand more about them. Five days later though, one particular artist’s work has stayed with me, above all others. In fact, it’s not so much the photographs themselves as the feelings and emotions that they generated.

Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus‘s Annunciation series formed a small part of the motherhood show at the Photographer’s Gallery. The title is an ironic play on the Christian idea of the Annunciation, where the virgin was visited by angels and informed that she would be giving birth to the son of God(!). Brotherus’ version catalogues her own repeated attempts to conceive through IVF. It shows a collection of self-portraits and images of the drugs and processes involved, revealing some of the mystery and taboo that only those that have been through the highs and lows of the process know about. The sharps bin, the broken vial of white powder, the blood in the toilet bowl; most strikingly, the calendars, with dates hopefully pencilled onto them. Images that without that appreciation of the work as a whole, mean much less.

In contrast, Dayanita Singh’s work was presented without context, title or caption. Singh explains that labelling reduces the image from what she wants it to be. “…the when and the where are a burden on photography” and “if people know why and where it was taken, they think they understand the image and can move on”. My feeling however, is that unless the work is deliberately abstract, this deprives the viewer who may not understand the artist’s idea and may misinterpret it, or pass over the work even more quickly. Dates, locations and subject matter are not necessarily required, but generally, some context is essential.

In his essay ‘The Art of Missing Information’ (the introduction to Will Steacy’s book ‘Photographs Not Taken’), Lyle Rexer writes that

…an image stands mute before the inexpressible delicacy, horror and associative complexity of our experience.

Brotherus’s ‘Annunciations’ are not offering us the experience, other than by a distant proxy. We are not experiencing what she has been through, but we’re sure that, after spending time with the photographs, we certainly don’t want to be where she has been and if we know someone that has, we’ll hug them tightly at the first opportunity.

The Brotherus backstory elevates her straightforward and simply shot photographs to another level. Trying to relate this to my practice, this level of exploration of the subject matter is something that I absolutely aspire to. The technical skills are far easier to learn than the subtle art of storytelling through images in such a powerful way.

References

Singh, D (2013) Go away closer. London, Hayward Publishing

Steacy, W. (2012) Photographs not taken. USA; Daylight Community Arts Foundation

The British Journal of Photography, October 2013

Exercise – Positioning The Horizon

Last weekend my wife and I spent the weekend in the Lake District. Early on Sunday morning, I went to take photographs along the shores of Ullswater. Conditions were perfect with blue skies, white clouds and spectacular autumn colours. As I looked down the lake from Pooley Bridge, I remembered that one of my forthcoming exercises was to do with positioning the horizon. As I’ve done previously on the course (and subsequently regretted), I shot the pictures that my shaky memory told me were required to explore the subject. In this case, positioning the horizon high, low, centrally and a couple in between.

Since then, I’ve had the bright idea to save the course material onto an old Kindle (the original, all grey version) and to keep that in my camera bag so that I can refer to the notes BEFORE I take the pictures, and maybe get closer to the point of the exercises.

The pictures I took feature an horizon that isn’t flat or straight. They also have the boat and its pier to attract the eye and take our attention away from the rest of the frame, lessening the importance of the horizon’s position. Oh well…

Central Horizon

Central Horizon

The first picture, with the horizon dividing the frame in half makes for a pretty dull composition. The sky has a few wispy, white clouds to lure the eye, but the flat, calm water doesn’t delay us in the lower half of the frame.

2/3 Up

2/3 Up

By moving the horizon the a position 2/3rds of the the way up the frame, we open up the foreground, drawing attention to the lake and making the mountains feel more distant. It has become a picture of the water and not just the general view.

High Horizon

High Horizon

Taking this one stage further means placing the horizon at the top of the frame, leaving only the smallest amount of the sky visible. This positioning, like the guy walking out of the frame in a previous exercise, becomes eccentric and needs some justification. For example, this version would only really make sense if it accompanied a story about The Beast of Ullswater…

1/3 Up Horizon

1/3 Up Horizon

Relieving the claustrophobia caused by the previous view, placing the horizon 1/3 up from the bottom of the frame feels much more natural. Because I have a range of hills at the end of my lake, I almost have 2 horizon lines to consider (one being where sky meets land and the other where water meets land) and so applying Fibonacci’s division, geometrical division or even the rule of thirds becomes tricky. Apply it to the horizon and that dark band of the hills sits too low in the frame. Either way, this positioning gives a stability to the image. To me it feels like the version that most closely matches how I see the world and in this case at least, is the most satisfactory positioning of the sequence.

Positioning the horizon 5

Low Horizon

Finally, I positioned the horizon low in the frame. Because of the boat (and how unnatural it would feel to crop its reflection), the horizon isn’t as low as it probably should have been for the purposes of the exercise. As with the opposite version, with the horizon at its highest, it draws attention to to the area that takes up most of the screen. In the case of a distant view like this, it adds to the feeling of space, light and airiness.

At yesterday’s study visit to see the work of the ASCO Collective, and with this exercise in mind, I saw this set of portraits and found the position of the horizon really distracting. It variously decapitates the subject or enters one ear and leaves the other. The pictures show the importance of positioning the horizon, even when it is is an incidental feature in the background.

Lesson learned.

Positioning the horizon (1)

Ullswater Tree, November

As usual, here’s another picture that I took on the same walk that wasn’t part of the exercise – an exposure of over three minutes through both a polariser and a 10-stop ND filter.