Thursday, 18 October 2012


It may only be the result of having outlived the tedium of Sundays in the 1950s and 60s but, somehow, I seem to have been handed a belief that boredom is character-building; an experience to be overcome by direct engagement, not evaded.  An odd belief, really, and clearly not one based on encounters with pub bores.  A truly dreadful example used to haunt our local in Bristol, whom we dubbed "Red Alert" -- as soon as he was spotted, all eye contact ceased, and any seating space at every table mysteriously vanished.

Of course, true boredom is in rather short supply, these days.  There's a big difference between the princely ennui of today's kids, fed up with the shrink-wrapped sameness of their diet and diversions, and the kind of soul-sapping dullness which makes setting fire to a neighbour's cat or tattooing one's own knuckles with a pin and a biro seem like fun things to do.

Whenever my kids claimed they were bored, I would bore them further by telling them about mandatory Sunday visits to grandparents, where children were not so much "seen and not heard" as ignored and invisible.  On dark winter afternoons, I would slip into the pitch-dark vestibule between their back door,  broom-cupboard, and living-room door (known as "The Passage") and spin round until I had lost all sense of direction.  After the excitement of the sense of total disorientation had worn off, I would attempt to work out -- using all available sensory clues -- which of the three possible exits was which; hoping to escape into the rain, and maybe count the spiders in the outside toilet, rather than get a faceful of broom or, worse, stagger dizzily back into the stifling heat and dullness of the ancestral hearth.  If nothing else, it prepared me for the ordeal of the colour darkroom.

Oddly, over the summer I found I was bored with photography.  At first, I thought I was just bored with my own work.  It happens.  Perhaps I'd been repeating myself?  Maybe what had once seemed a useful focus -- to be confined by daily work routine and family responsibilities to a few narrow geographic and temporal opportunities -- had begun to feel more like a self-imposed prison than the "freedom of restraint"?  After all, there are no nappies to change now, or school lunches to pack, and within a short 18 months there may well be no university campus walls or windows to anatomize any more, either, as I hope to retire at 60.  The prison door swings open...  I did begin to wonder whether I was getting prematurely "demob happy". As I have said before, the borderline separating "project" from "obsessive-compulsive behaviour" is easily crossed.

But then I noticed that everyone seems to be getting bored with photography.  Contemporary photography has become boring.  Sure, there are some good new photographers out there, but their work is not compelling or even that new.  So much of it is a retread of work done in the previous 30 years. In the end, there are too many photographers, too many photographs, and not enough world.  It seems that most of the books that have grabbed my attention in recent times contain work by artists whose signature images were made a decade or two ago.

"Disenchantment" is probably a better word than "boredom".  So much work that is getting the attention at the moment seems a bit too easily won, and doesn't open any doors into the future.  So, do let me know if you've seen anything genuinely exciting recently.

Yawn...  One of the better spreads from the book I'm working on


Paul said...

Funny you should mention this, because I have really been enjoying the Pentti Sammallahti book you recommended. (How does he come across so many stray dogs? Is it the countries he visits?) Do you like the work of Gerry Johansson? Ulan Bator and Pontiac were very good, and I'm looking forward to Deutschland. How about Koji Onaka ( Paul

Mike C. said...


I see you're a man of taste -- one had to turn up, sooner or later...

PS's dogs are a mystery. My theory is that he travels with a pack of trained hounds. How else to explain the perfection of their presence? According to Martin Parr, the postcard photographer John Hinde use to travel in a bright red car, which he could place strategically within otherwise dull British landscapes.

I'm aware of Johansson, as I'm on the Mack mailing list (keenly awaiting Jem Southam's new release!)-- lovely work, but it didn't hit the spot for me. I find monochrome is no longer the "neutral normal" for that kind of work, and it feels like he's channeling older photographers (like Sammallahti, for example).

Onaka I didn't know, and there you have my attention, I'll check him out. I suspect you might enjoy Peter Bialobrzeski, if you don't know his work already.

Of genuinely new and astonishing work, Jamey Stillings' Hoover Dam project stands out for me -- totally of its moment and perfctrly conceived and executed. Breathtaking. I'm quite keen on the work of Andreas Gefeller at the moment, too -- the "Supervisions" series is outstanding.


Paul said...


Thanks for alerting me about the upcoming Jem Southam book. I really like his eye. The "Supervisions" series by Andreas Gefeller stopped me in my tracks when I first came across it.

I haven't yet bought anything by Bialobrzeski, although I've often looked at his books in shops.

One book I often return to is "European Fields" by Hans van der Meer. And I'm not even that crazy about soccer/football.


Mike C. said...


I have followed Jem's career with interest for a long time, and did a workshop with him back in the 90s -- he's a very nice guy.

However, I think he's got a bit stuck in a rut since going over to large format. It's no coincidence that his recent books are easy to find at moderate prices, whereas "Raft of Carrots" is unobtainable, despite being a fairly crappy object in itself -- all the work in it (and "Red River") was done with one of those folding Plaubel Makina medium format cameras. I'm hoping the new book will be a fresh start.

Looking at Amazon, I see Bialobrzeski has been a busy boy -- I only have "Neontigers" and "Heimat". I suspect he may be over-extended...

Yes, "European Fields" is a great use of photography, countering all those sports porn cliches to show a recognisable reality.


Graham Dew said...

I couldn’t agree more Mike, contemporary photography just seems so uninspired and uninteresting. Increasingly I’m more interested in multiple image photography, such as Noel Myles’ joiners, or the sequences and collages of people like Ger Dekkers and Jan Dibbets, which I admit is rather obscure and retro. Probably the best book I’ve bought recently is the John Stezaker catalogue from his Whitechapel exhibition, and he’s not even a photographer himself.

But where can one find really good work these days? The curators of the big galleries seem to have their own agenda, and I’ve not found a good photography magazine since the sad demise of Ag last year. Online, only Lens Culture and SquareMag are consistently interesting.

Mike C. said...


I presume you're on the mailing lists for people like Photo-Eye, Center in Santa Fe, Mack, Steidl, Nazraeli, etc.? I find that this keeps me up to speed with what's happening in the English language, though I wish I could find a European and Japanese equivalent of Photo-Eye (i.e. a dedicated online retailer with excellent current awareness and a policy of proactively "pushing" out their knowledge).

Magazines have never been much of a way of following new work -- too expensive to produce, too slow turnaround, and too dependent on middlebrow tastes. Though "Creative Camera" in its day was an exception, and "Portfolio" has been OK in the past.