Friday, 2 February 2018

The Political Portrait

Tommy Robinson, political activist, co-founder, spokesman and leader of the EDL.

When preparing work for public view, it increasingly becomes evident that the edit is a vital component in the development of work. The representation of a person or event is manipulated by the photographer deliberately and accidently in many different ways in the moment. The audience, who do not necessarily share the views of the artist or subject, project thoughts and feelings into any interpretation regardless of original intent.

When attempting to select an image that in some way represents a politician or political activist, there is a consideration that the subject is already infected with multiple memes attached to their persona. The very act of publishing an image irrespective of its implied critique or celebration can feed the cult of personality around an individual who uses the powers of politics to enable their pursuit of personal power.

An image can be presented in any context that changes the way it is viewed. I recall photographing Peter Tatchell and his distrust of me as the photographer in representing him by a certain camera angle or lighting that he perceived as critical. With my portrait of Peter Mandleson and Alastair Campbell I managed to circumvent their cynicism through representing myself as something I was not.

The experienced politician is continually vigilant and cautious of agreeing to any intimate session with a photographer. The only time that they are exposed to any uncontrollable scrutiny and potential manipulation is in public appearances and there are many great examples of revealing images that have defined careers positively and negatively in these fleeting moments, usually engaging with the ‘great unwashed’.

With Mr. Robinson, this cautiousness with the media does not apply, there is no image in all my files of him (and other representations of him online) that damage the persona. The shouty, ranty Tommy both satisfies the expectation of the liberal left and the far right. Posting any attempt to reflect his humanity feels like a betrayal of the expectation of me as a liberal leftist. Everything is infected with propaganda. The primary image I have chosen to share follows the classic Italian fascist aesthetic, a pastiche of a Mussolini bust, half enveloped by the darkness. Perhaps I am judging him as a white, slightly puffy man with a crew cut as satisfying some of the visual criteria that might lead one to a stereotype. Photography can do that, there is always an objective element, a documentation of a subject's choice of representation.

As audience we can chose to interpret this image as accurate or see it as a discussion on the unfair representation of a political activist expressing their right to free speech. To be fair to Tommy, this image is taken out of context; it was shot as part of a composite image with a known extreme Islamist who I shot separately on the same day (a decision was made not to have them in the same room for the same reasons I would have done so). I am an artist under the guise of a portrait photographer so I am not uncomfortable manipulating and distorting the context of truthful representation it is my USP clearly set out in my statement.

Beyond the fact that Mr. Robinson is in the news at this moment, the question to be asked is why am I not showing the image of the radical Imam? Perhaps I hold Tommy to a higher standard but I feel a sense of disappointment in those who respond to perceived threat with an equal and opposite reaction and in the process loose the high ground.

My interest is Mr. Robinson himself. What is clear is that being in the room with anyone who represents a dangerous concept as part of their very persona, commands the attention and influence over others whose views are less than nuanced and who has become used to being exposed to the most dangerous of political forces, is uncomfortable and therefore of great interest to me on a human level as a portrait.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Made in Britain

Here is a series of portraits taken of some textile workers in Manchester, England.

These subjects work in a hectic, traditional factory. We invited them onto the backdrop set up on the floor and during their breaks they sat for a few moments. It is interesting to observe and record a subject out of context of their environment and then re-apply the narrative in a different form i.e. text or statement. The emphasis has shifted from a documentary convention to a study of human response to events. The direct flash is uncompromising but the images are more of an honest documentation of the effects of life and labour. The plain background helps to isolate them from the environment which whilst informative is a distraction from my interest in the effect of life experience on each unique individual.

Untitled #4577, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett

Untitled #4601, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett
Untitled #4636, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett
Untitled #4670, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett
Untitled #4691, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett
Untitled #4733, Made in Britain © Richard Ansett

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Children of Grenfell

These images are from a series presenting 5 children who survived the Grenfell Tower Fire, shot on the eve of the 6 month anniversary.
The definition of a celebrity is ‘being well known’, in the ‘public eye’ or ‘famous’. The word itself implies a celebratory element but there are different forms of attention, ‘wanted' and ‘unwanted’. When the spot light falls on us it can be both destructive and chaotic as well as therapeutic, some of us crave the attention and others withdraw. It is impossible to pre-judge the reaction.
All of us are exposed to events in childhood that alter the shape of our adult relationship to the world. It takes time to separate the behaviours that have moulded our genetic blueprint, especially those that limit our ability to realize our full potential. There are no short cuts, we can only start to work on an injury when it is realised.
It is so complex and often impossible to isolate any one reason for a limiting future behavior and give it a simple label. But, here there is an inescapable event for blame, an undeniable dark monolith and not just a personal private experience to it; there must be a relationship to the public and historic disaster also. Whilst all these children are survivors and share connections to the event, their response is and will be entirely unique. Their lives are indisputably altered.
View all images here: #ChildrenofGrenfell
Amiel's mum prepares him for his photograph, from series 'Children of Grenfell' © Richard Ansett 2017
Danel, from series 'Children of Grenfell' © Richard Ansett 2017 
Megan, from series 'Children of Grenfell' © Richard Ansett 2017

Monday, 16 October 2017

August ends in October

The great curation of the collection of August Sander prints as part of the exhibition at Tate Liverpool ended last week. It explored the relationship alongside Otto Dix to the Weimar Republic but was much more than the sum of its parts.

The presentation of the Sander archive in one room reminds me that the deliberate nature of portraiture can existentially challenge established notions of reality. Although Sander is working with a much more conventional creative process, the relentless presentation of the prints had the effect of working as an illustration of 'the rejection of a perceived logic and reason' espoused by the Dada movement of his time. The curators found evidence that Sander wished his work to be viewed and presented along side a timeline of events from the humiliation of Germany through to the rise of National Socialism. Sander's images are so solid and certain in their structure that they interrupt the timeline to create these pastiches of humanity; the subjects captured in amber like mosquitos. 

The 'subject experience' of entering into a contract with an objectivist is to consider our relationship to the world and at a time of extreme political polarisation (sound familiar) there is a documentation of the human response to events in the faces and body language of the sitter. Sander offers us something close to ambivalence, walking a fine line (as does Dix) between acceptance of status quo and mockery. He uses convention to challenge convention and speaks to an esoteric audience in one language that may be read entirely differently by another. The portrait of Dix himself and his wife is without doubt and for no good reason, genius; it is brimming over with powerful, unidentifiable memes as well as acting as a vital record of when both artists were present in the same timeline.

The answer to the argument that it is impossible to be objective is that the artist as objectivist must always be open to that impossibility as part of their practice. As a portraitist I observe and record a subject but I must always keep in mind that I am capturing the sitter as they observe me with the same scrutiny and we see this relationship in the eyes of Sander's subjects. In these formal poses there is evidence of the pressures and fears of the time, which communicate a different historic insight than traditional documentary record.

With the volume of work in his archive, the 'sitter' becomes less relevant than the message..the immediate narrative of 'portrait of farmer' or ''portrait of artist' is an excuse to explore a wider demographic response to the era. There is a reminder of the value of a single human existence equal to each other as the the timeline moves relentlessly towards the worst imaginable outcome.

Today it seems every personal statement by photographic artists discuss the paradox of photography and reality but rather than seeing this as some trite, collective plagiarism, it could be an indication of the constant of 'our' modern times; we find ourselves in a phenomenological existence even if we don’t know what it means.

There is something to be said for the relentlessness of a practice, the dogma is unwavering in the face of encroaching catastrophe. Applying objectivity to the human condition does reveal a truth in the subject relationship to that dogma. I am observing the fearful defiance of the oppressed leftist intellectual and the equal but terrifying self confidence of the far right, they are both responding to the same events. I am standing in front of a portrait of an SS officer and imagining what it might be like to be in the same room as someone who has the power of life and death over me.

As we might consider Mahler as the father of modern music, in terms of photographic portraiture, perhaps we should consider Sander in a similar light.
The Painter Otto Dix and his wife Martha circa 1926-6 August Sander
August Sander at Tate Liverpool

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Governor Kay Ivey (Rep)

Portrait of Governor Kay Ivey, Montgomery, Alabama © Richard Ansett 2017
(Detail) Portrait of Governor Kay Ivey, Montgomery, Alabama © Richard Ansett 2017
Kay Ellen Ivey (born October 15, 1944) is an American politician who is the 54th and current Governor of Alabama since April 2017. Ivey, a Republican, served as the 38th Alabama State Treasurer from 2003 to 2011. She later became the 30th Lieutenant Governor Alabama, she was the first Republican woman elected in this state, serving from January 2011 until April 2017. Ivey is Alabama's second female governor. (Wikipedia)

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Love on Trial

Lauri & Sylvia, London Studio © Richard Ansett 2017
Here is a new work of computer hacker Lauri Love and his girlfriend Sylvia, part of a commission by The Telegraph Magazine out today.

He is appealing against extradition to the US where he will stand trial on charges, which could see him jailed for life. He is diagnosed with some mental health conditions, most significantly in terms of his defence, Asperger syndrome. I attempted to capture him in an editorial way outside the old grey MI5 building and we took so long that they closed the shutters and the office workers (spies I assumed) could not get back into the office with their sandwiches. The police turn up predictably but the heady mix of known provocateur and me as representative of the 'mouthpiece of the establishment' was a little confusing even for them and they more or less left us alone. Its a free country after all, right?! Afterwards we went round to my studio.

Not since Thatcher, it feels like the political landscape is changing and new lines are being drawn, there is a sense that it is possible once again to protest against 'something tangible'. Meeting this new generation, the beautiful creatures of the revolution, there is an energy and hope that "if you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito." (1) I am reminded of Satyagraha, to have nothing is to have nothing to loose and that freedom to hold onto any truth is dangerous to a state that blackmails us with our investment in society.

I am as much the hypocritical, liberal elitist as anyone else I know, so I greatly appreciate these grubby knights who dare to take on the state on my behalf, we should be grateful to them, they are exposed to powerful hidden forces and in photographing them it feels more like an act of ennobling rather than mere documentary record. I recall the photograph of the naked Alan Ginsberg and his life partner by Richard Avedon, natural in their defiance. Avedon had fine tuned his craft by then and understood the power of merely recording a moment for then and now. The subjects have done all the work in imbuing their image with their achievements, that's what celebrity portraiture is. 

This image is in my mind's eye and the nakedness in our portrait feels like a similar metaphor. I feel this is a perfect offering to The Telegraph. It is a game, a dare to publish and we are collaborating in this little act of provocation and in so doing creating a portrait, which is most representative of their relationship to the world.

Alan Ginsberg & Peter Orlovsky, 1963, Richard Avedon


1) Betty Reese, Leadership: A Publication of Christianity Today (Carol Stream, IL), vol. 16, no. 2, Spring 1995, p. 67

Monday, 26 June 2017

The Emperor's New Clothes

A news story of an escaped Lion in Essex in 2012 gave me the opportunity to explore the influence of how our perception influences the world and how we record it and how the gallery environment can enable a flirtation with the predominance of subjective influence. As an accidental objectivist I am at odds with what I perceive as a contract of delusion between artist and viewer.

Polaroid from 'Lion Hunting in Essex' © Richard Ansett
The fine art practice is most commonly described as 'a singular and personal response to the world infront of the lens' and so therefore semantically much of the work is and perhaps should be inherently esoteric. Something that appears to be ‘nothing’ to one person is 'something' to another (very often only the artist). We as audience are invited to empathise with this alternative state of mind within the boundaries of the gallery space.

A conventional arbiter of success is in some form of connectivity to the 'hive' mind. To the photographer that wishes their work to be successfully received, the line between our personal view and the audience must be considered and who that preferred audience maybe in our minds eye at all points of the creative process, but most importantly at capture and edit. Alternatively, if our works are overtly propagandist or provocative, we must accept that an audience is essential and therefore we are not as nihilistic as we would like to think. To be freer of influence is to accept that we are continually exposed to forces internally and externally that are influencing us.

Criticism of art (and fine art photography especially) is that much of it acts as a form of dog whistle or password, (it's a form of self harming passive aggression) and to belong, one feels one must agree to be part of it. The success of this form of golf club mentality inevitably excludes those 'not sufficiently evolved' to grasp the subtle complexities of this hidden language of those invested in the pursuit of 'favour at court'. Both groups of people appear on the surface to be so far removed from each other to be considered an entirely different species. I know because I consider myself both a progressive secular leftist elitist liberal and an earthy peasant, face pressed against the gates. But I accept responsibility that my psychology and glass ceiling is to be suspicious of belonging. It does however give me a unique perspective on tribalism with my detached adopted perspective. So, super ironically, I am destined to always challenge any status quo that I attain. From this permanently objective perspective I see that much of any understanding of reality is driven by a misguided sense of our empathic ability but the trouble with empathy is that everyone thinks they have it but it is not for us to decide. It can only be determined by those that are receiving it.

As much as in the creation of work and interpretation of space, I am observing the influence of state of mind on finished works. Very often the more open and potentially ambivalent a work appears, the more easily it is subject to the emotional projections of others. In a section of society where direct expression of feelings has become an anathema and to some extent terrifying, the artist and the artist space is a safe place to connect and feel something. A screaming and laughing addict masterbating into the lens of my camera (attached) is not something one would feel at ease with confronting whilst returning to one's Audi with one's weekly shop from Waitrose and may still even be too visceral for a gallery space or certainly above our dining room table (if not carefully contextualised or juxtaposed). Much rather the calm ambiguous landscape with some hidden primal tension under the surface. I get it.

Ambivalence ultimately is the key to a successful work. 'Successful work' safely explores and exploits the 'world out there' under the guise of some patronising misplaced empathy. The very worst examples play artistically with desperate and dangerous documentary themes re-framed as art, virtue signalling with a political agenda.

Because I am childless I believe I have re-appropritated a sense of legacy, projecting it towards my archive. Legacy is the enemy of weak work, the practice of nothingness and egocentric banality maybe a fad and future tragic-comedy document of how we lived now. How embarrassing, when the work of the early 21st century is pondered over by future audience and the context from which this work has been inspired is nolonger present and we are left with innumerable, content-less landscapes, thousand yard stares (guilty), endless photographic reinterpretations of paintings from art history (guilty), in now clearly tragic attempts to imbue the photograph with the gravitas of ‘real art’. The gate keepers of the photographic industry increasingly disdainful of the pure medium and the photographers so desparate for the glimmer of success dance along to the piper’s tune to the edge of the cliff. The photographic art community is so urgent in its need to be recognised as part of the art world that the pudding is over egged and our own self doubt is exposed.

So when a friend of mine says with anger in his eyes at my 'Lion Hunting in Essex’ private view that he just doesn’t get it and that these are just pictures of bushes, little does he know that he is the child in the crowd shouting ‘mummy mummy why doesn’t the king have any clothes on?’ I can't tell him of course it would spoil it but also no-one is listening, we are all too invested in maintaining our position in the club but what we fail to see as the leftist progressive middle class (of which I am clearly one) is that we are passively patronizing those that dare to call us on our hypocrisy and our failure at any semblance of civilized engagement with a wider world.
Ritchie, from series © Richard Ansett