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Posts from the ‘Art and Architecture’ Category

Understanding a Photograph

Understanding a Photograph - John BergerUnderstanding a Photograph – John Berger

I first came across the Brazilian photographer Sabastião Salgado on the tube advertising his upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy. At Oxford Circus I was greeted by a poster of a Nenet of Northern Siberia turning from the wind toward the camera. The image was black and white. The sky more textured than the land. The Nenet’s cloak was parting open with the swirl of a dervish. For several weeks I saw more of these images on the tube – each black and white like a snapshot taken with the half open eye of a dreamer – each image lodging in my mind for future reference.

So it was with great pleasure that I found an interview with him towards the end of John Berger’s excellent critical introduction to photography. Before reading this book I had struggled with photography as art, trying unsuccessfully to separate photography’s ubiquity from its artistic merit. Photography, Berger argues, is not artistic because it does not interpret or manipulate perception but captures it. It is unique among visual crafts he points out because its “raw materials are light and time” or as Susan Sontag notes in On Photography, “Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood.”  Henri Cartier-Bresson: “A while back I was offered an award for my ‘creative career as a photographer .’ I told them I didn’t believe in such a career. Photography is pressing a trigger, bringing your finger down at the right moment.”

Salgado appears in the book (as he does in his photography) as a man on a mission. In the interview, entitled “A tragedy the size of a planet”, he says: “All the migrants I photographed once lived in a stable way. Now they suffer transition, and what they have with them is just a small slice of hope. And it is with this hope that they are trying to get another stable position in life.”  

Looking at his work again through the lens of this interview, those sleepy snapshots of the half-waking eye seem all the more compelling. Rather than dispelling my perception of his work, reading his interview crystallises it as his world view. His photographs are a literal representation of his view of the world. I have always found novelists and their work to be divorced yet this interview and those pictures are married and in reading one and looking at the other I feel I have met the man in a way that I have rarely felt an interview with E.M. Forster, Ernest Hemingway or Doris Lessing (for example) to have reinforced my view of their books.

On the civil war in Rwanda: “I know these people from Rwanda from long ago. I came to Rwanda the first time, 1971, as an economist. I came to work in the tea plantations, and the tea plantations had a very equilibrated way of life. Rwanda was not an underdeveloped country, not a poor country, was a developing country. When I came back to this tea plantation recently, all was burnt, all was destroyed. All the effort that all these people made was lost. These people were in the road, in the death. And up to that point, until the days I took these pictures, I was sure that evolution was positive.”

In reading Salgado’s interview I realise the most important thing about photography is not the photograph nor the photograph. It is not the act of representing the image that we celebrate in good photography, unlike in painting or writing, for there is no act of imagination, leap of creative ability in producing a photograph.

More often than not the most striking photographs are taken in the most difficult conditions or are the most unlikely confluence of geometry, timing and luck. Salgado’s images are arresting when pasted on a wall in Oxford Circus, as much because they are striking images as because they are portals to Salgado’s effort and bravery in travelling to Northern Siberia to take those pictures. And in appreciating his effort and bravery in seeking out the picture, we are made aware of the effort and bravery of the subject of the photograph whose life we have shared in for those few captured tenths of a second. Each image a single chance to freeze the world and examine it for everything that it is or as Berger notes of Salgado’s images: “In a strange way in all these pictures, one feels in your vision the word ‘Yes’, not that you approve of what you see, but that you say ‘Yes’ because it exists.”

The Editors

La Serenissima

5369757294_fbefe6e16dWatermark, Joseph Brodsky

A History of Venice, John Julius Norwich

Having read your entry of September 17th entitled “We are here” you have emboldened me to provide a similar two-for-one contribution. I must admit that I have not, until recently, been a great lover of fiction in its broadest sense. I tended to read for fact – and as there is so much of it that I do not know I was content on my course. Recently things have changed. I am now pursuing a business degree and I do nothing aside reading for fact. At times it feels as though I am a good way through Harvard Business School’s oeuvre, which is neither true nor entertaining for the most part. My summer break gave me some much needed time and space for escapism. A late summer started with The Master and Margarita, regressed to The Idiot and then brought me to A History of Venice. Why the curious final stop? There are many reasons but possibly the easiest to describe is that I have completely fallen in love with the city. At first sight I was besotted and, having been lucky enough to live in Italy for a year, my feelings have deepened in exponential proportion to my many visits more recently. I understand that this is rather tragic (colloquial). Anyway, as anything that I love, I tend to like to learn as much as I can about it/them so that I can make the most of the relationship.

A History of Venice is a (rather lengthy) history book detailing the very beginnings of La Serenissima, The Most Serene Republic of Venice, in the 8th century through, Doge by Doge, to its forced conclusion at the end of the 18th. Whilst I understand that this might not be the standard content discussed on your site I can only encourage friends and acquaintances to read a chapter or two the next time you are in a suitable bookshop.

As a clear lover of the City and its history Norwich charts a purposeful course through time. Reflections on the city, the character of the inhabitants, aggressors in the form of Spaniards, Milanese, Holy Armies, Genoese, Neapolitans, Florentines, Hungarians, Austrians, Ottomans and French are treated with utmost objectivity and as a result this book is an absolute pleasure. This history is no indulgence for its author, it is written with the reader’s education in mind at all times and as a result it achieves its aim with aplomb. Not only is this achieved but it is also written rather beautifully. Norwich writes in classic British prose whilst never being verbose. Nor does he allow himself lengthy digressions into architecture, art or beauty where accusations of pomposity would be easy to level. That being said he does allow flashes of humour, certainly enough to enliven the read at more academic moments. In response to the secret expedition to Alexandria in order to steal the remains of Mark The Evangelist, Norwich proposes that “history records no more shameless example of body-snatching; nor any – unless we include the events associated with the Resurrection – of greater long term significance”.

In fact this book is so well put together that by the time that you reach Part Four: Decline and Fall your spirits sink with the book and with the city. As she loses Cyprus and Crete as colonies you are resigned as a reader to the conclusion. Then at that conclusion, Norwich’s excellent description of Napoleon’s schadenfreude toward La Serenissima leads you to yearn for the end, you imagine that your feelings are closely aligned those of oligarchic states creaking under the weight of wealth, loose morality, laziness and corruption that it experienced in its dotage. The author asserts near to the end that Venice “like any great beauty, she was acutely conscious of the effect that that beauty had on others; and she used it to the full”, and through his skilled commentary that beauty continues to bewitch the reader. Or at least it did me.

Following Norwich’s tome, I took on the altogether easier challenge of reading Brodsky’s Watermark. This book is a collection of short stories, a poem or any other classification that one would care to make. At a length that would make Of Mice And Men look like a leviathan it contains brief thoughts, reflections and anecdotes from the author’s many winters spent in Venice. Similar to Norwich, but very much like me, he is a clear lover of the city although no historian. A good proportion of the focus, if not all of it, is on the city’s effect on the eye and the eye’s metaphysical significance in its role as conduit-in-chief to its beholder.


I allowed myself to read some criticism of Watermark. In fact I sought it out primarily as I have so many conflicting feelings about the book. To some, the historical and cultural errors of the date of the aforementioned body-snatching and references to churches as cathedrals is enough to denounce the content. Other readers take issue with the uninitiated attacks on Ezra Pound, his widow or indeed the fairer sex in general. That being said, the majority clearly support and appreciate these candid and at times beautiful tales of a great writer in the greatest city.

Watermark is the antithesis of A History of Venice. It is pure indulgence, unadulterated dogma, subjectivity and frequent portentousness: “My notion of Eden hinges on neither weather nor temperature. For that matter, I’d just as soon discard its dwellers and eternity as well. At risk of being charged with depravity, I must confess that this notion is purely visual, has more to do with Claude than the creed, and exists only in approximations. As these go, this city is the closest”.

I asked myself why I should bother reading another man’s thoughts on Venice. Well, Brodsky’s are certainly better articulated than mine even if he was writing in his second language! Whilst his arrogance (he suggests that Watermark’s publication might have profound impacts on Venice’s success as a tourist destination) is at times insufferable, there are enough splendid passages to keep the reader interested. There are a beautiful couple of pages where, beginning from the Book of Genesis, he deduces in mock-scientific logic a true quality of the city:

‘And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters’ to quote a famous author who visited here before. Then there was that next morning. It was Sunday, and all the bells were chiming…I always adhered to the idea that God is time. Or at least His spirit is. I always thought that if the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the water, the water was bound to reflect it…It is as though space, cognizant here more than anyplace else of its inferiority to time, answers it with the only property time doesn’t posses: with beauty. And that’s why this water takes an answer, twists it, wallops it and shreds it, but ultimately carries it by and large intact off into the Adriatic.

Whilst this rambling, at times repulsive, little book with its terribly abrupt conclusion may not exactly endear the author to its reader, it contains some of the wonderful thinking and writing that in conjunction with a visit to the city (preferably in Winter) is an essential companion. And if you find yourself disliking Brodsky too much, you can at least comfort yourself in the knowledge that he was no prophet. His strong assertions in the book about the financial health of Kodak and of the prospect of the Biennale and Venice as a center for modern art have proved to be embarrassingly incorrect.

 Matt Bradley

The Poetics of Space

The Poetics of SpaceThe Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

I have recently started a new day job which has transformed my understanding of London. London, it transpires, looks like any other city I have seen from the top of a tall building when looked at from the top of a tall building. One of the chief most impressive aspects of London from a height is the height from which it is viewed. The other cities that I have seen from great heights have all had views that looked out across deserts which is why it struck me as a shame to view London (for viewing’s sake) from a great height. London is a charming, rambling, low-rise city to rival any other. It’s alleyways, nooks, churches are villages ossified into urbanity and are delightful because London is a place of so much narrative. To exchange London’s many stories – which reveal themselves best by feel through the soles of the shoes – for viewing from a great height (many ‘stories’) seems at first to disentangle oneself from the narratives of London and to view the city only for its bricks and mortar, impressive though much of that is.

I say these personal things by way of introduction to Gaston Bachelard’s sublime piece of literary, architectural and philosophical investigation: The Poetics of Space. Through this book he explores the psychological world that exists in the objects we, as a species, bring into being – their roots in nature and their reflections in literature: “wardrobes with their shelves, desks with their drawers, and chests with their false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life. Indeed, without these “objects” and a few others in equally high favour, our intimate life would lack a model of intimacy…a wardrobe’s inner space is also intimate space, space which is not open to everybody.”

In marshalling his arguments, which are both whimsical and carefully made, he calls on Rimbaud, on Spyridaki, on Caubere, on Michelet on a whole new palette of continental writers for the English reader to discover and to luxuriate. He tackles the house, first as a whole (‘the significance of the hut’) and then through a series of objects and psychological experiences: ‘nests’, ‘shells’, ‘corners’, ‘miniature’, ‘intimate immensity’ and finally ‘the dialectics of inside and outside’. This is a book that has shot to the head of my favourite books in a very short space of time. For anyone who has lived in a house, or a home, who has imagined as a child the existence of other beings inhabiting space with them, the presence in a wardrobe, a door handle, a cupboard of personality that is greater than the materials from which it is made then this book is a delightful meditation on the nature of those areas of the world that are to many comforting and largely unconsidered. By interpreting the house, by giving it narrative coherence Bachelard not only draws out the beauty of the most simple aspects of the spaces we inhabit, but gives his readers the tools with which to beautify the world they live in, to better understand how to make a home and why to live a life. The book is the antithesis of the Ikea catalogue. In Bachelard’s world the home stems first from the imagination and then from material objects. It is a place of perfection and beauty through self-restraint and not uncontrolled expenditure.

As he says of nests:

“when we examine a nest, we place ourselves at the origin of confidence in the world, we receive a beginning of confidence, an urge toward cosmic confidence. Would a bird build its nest if it did not have its instinct for confidence in the world? If we heed this call and make an absolute refuge of such a precarious shelter as a nest – paradoxically no doubt but in the very impetus of the imagination – we return to the  sources of the oneiric house. Our house, apprehended in its dream potentiality, becomes a nest in the world, and we shall live there in complete confidence if, in our dreams, we really participate in the sense of  security of our first home.”

Perhaps then, it is wrong to say that there is no narrative in height, my aversion to the height is to other places, other things, a rejection of something other than the height of the building which is, objectively, impressive – certainly someone has dreamed the building and burrowed deep and reached high to raise it from a dream into an edifice in concrete and glass – in my heart I know I am at root a creature of the ground and the sea.

The Editors

You can buy the book here.

In praise of shadows

In praise of shadowsIn praise of shadows – Junichiro Tanizaki
I turn 27 next week. Birthdays have always held a reflective fascination for me and as is often the case, I found myself perusing a few old notebooks and diaries to discover what had become of my former self – what was gone and what remained. The pages of these books are slightly dog eared and old. They have passed through time since they were written with less plasticity than me, with more traction in their present than I ever have in mine; being disconnected, as they are, from any past or any future and formed primarily from the fact that they were written and survived. The ‘I’ who wrote them is gone or is become the ‘me’ who reads them.There is nothing melancholy in a reflection on the transient and changing nature of the world around us – the thought that what is truth and life today may be surpassed and changed tomorrow is not a dark one. It is comforting in many ways that, on the eve of my 27th birthday, I am not the young man who, aged 21, wrote my journals and diaries – that he has not passed in tact through time with me, though the journals have. He is but a mirror for me to look in and to reflect upon – a catalyst for change. Yet I am the same person now as I was then: how much of me must have remained undocumented, unwritten, in shadow.This is the spirit of reflection in which Tanizaki undertakes his delightful essay on the importance of shade, shadow and natural light. The subtleties of shadow are echoed by the subtlety of the thought, ranging from the pleasure of “a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves” to the lost treasure of Japanese No puppet shows “a distinct world of shadows which today can be seen only on the stage but in the past it could not have been far removed from daily life.”

Self-reflection for Tanizaki is not a painful or unpleasant process but it is contrasted with the stark nudity of electric light which is become a destroyer of the subtleties that had been treasured by Japanese culture for centuries before (the essay was written in the midst of widespread electrification in Japan in 1933). The brightness of a lightbulb is in contrast to the traditional Japanese aesthetic that Tanizaki savours; its palette of tarnished metals, grainy wood and soft luminescent paper screens. The essay is a lament for a culture of tranquility and reflection lost out to the Western aesthetic of examination, of inquiry, which in brutalist, post modern, industrial architecture – the architecture not of design but of conversion – includes prominent display of vents and fans and piping; so much in contrast to the purist, gentle, Japanese aesthetic of perfection and beauty through extreme self-restraint:

What incredible pains the fancier of traditional architecture must take when he sets out to build a house in pure Japanese style, striving somehow to make electric wires, gas pipes, and water lines harmonize with the austerity of Japanese rooms […] The purist may rack his brains over the placement of a single telephone, hiding it behind the staircase or in a corner of the hallway.”

The essay is itself a mirror from another time and culture for us to look into, a lovely treatise on the power and importance of natural light, a challenge to the necessity of constant and increasing electrification. Re-reading my journals reminded me that writing down often hides more than it reveals but Tanizaki’s essay is a reminder that as we progress unrelenting into our future selves we may come closer to understanding our present selves and the world around us if “we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.”

The Editors

You can buy the book here.