Refugees: back to the Middle Ages


Some of the photographs coming out of Turkey and Hungary at the moment are as striking as some of the pictures that emerged from the Vietnam war. My eye was caught by this NYT front page, for example.

Just look at the detail:


Not only is it ‘painterly’ in its texture, but it could be part of one of those allegorical paintings from the 1650s. Except that it’s much more moving. These are not creatures from a long-distant past, but our fellow-humans.

The printer’s art


This astonishing illustration comes from Sarah Coleman’s lovely essay on the vanishing art of analog printing and the artistry of Pablo Inirio, who is the Master Drkroom Printer at Magnum Photos in New York.

Two things are striking about the print. The first is the detailed mark-up: the numbers indicate the amount of dodging, shading or burning the printer had to do to get the best out of the image. The second is how near Cartier-Bresson got to Martin Luther King on that memorable day. Note also the expression on his face. He’s carefully assessing King as a photographic subject.

I always found printing difficult. Now I know why: it’s a serious art and I never mastered it.

The posthumous fame of Vivian Maier


Vivian Maier was one of the great street photographers of our time — as a visit to or a dip into this beautiful book will confirm. She was possibly also the most mysterious photographer who ever lived, and all her fame is posthumous because of the remarkable efforts of John Maloof, who stumbled on her work after buying a box of negatives at a public auction and who has since done an amazing job of rescuing and publicising her work.

Vivian Maier was a nanny who lived and worked in Chicago for over four decades. On her days off — and on the days when she was caring for kids — she always carried a camera (a Rolleiflex) with which she recorded the streetscape of the North Shore of Chicago. In her lifetime she took 150,000 photograph which cumulatively provide one of the most comprehensive visual visual record of urban life in mid-20th-century America. And the strange thing is that nobody knew: she never published her work, and doesn’t seem to have shown it to anyone. She died in 2009, a lonely and solitary figure, an unknown genius.

I’ve just watched a terrific documentaryFinding Vivian Maier — made by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel which tells the story of Maloof’s painstaking quest to uncover Maier’s identity and piece together the story of her troubled and puzzling life.

It’s an amazing story which leaves one with two thoughts. The first is that to be a great artist one needs to have — in Graham Greene’s words — “a sliver of ice” in one’s heart. Maier’s photographs of the people she encountered on the streets of Chicago are often unflinching (though not heartless) photographs of people in distress or under stress. And Maloof’s revelations of her reclusive personality and strange obsessions (she was an Olympic-class hoarder of newspapers, for example) suggest someone who had been damaged in some way by experiences in her early life.


The other thought is a reflection on what a remarkable camera the Rolleiflex was. The technical quality of Maier’s images (as the prints in the book show) are often stunning. Those Zeiss Planar and Schneider Xenotar lenses were — and are still (I’ve got one) — superb.


But also the fact that it was a twin-lens reflex camera meant that she was looking down into the viewfinder rather than interposing the camera between her and the subject and this enabled her to focus and frame the shot, and then to maintain eye-contact with the people whose lives she was recording while she pressed the button.

Ou est La Seine?


It’s been very dry in France this summer. But I hadn’t realised how dry until I came on this bridge in Châtillon-sur-seine, which is quite near the source of the river in Burgundy.

Three generations


One of the really nice things about being on holiday in Provence is the number of extended families who appear to be holidaying together. In a restaurant last night there were were several family parties, one of which appeared to have four generations present.

Van Gogh: texture, colour and light

There’s a lovely passage in Julian Barnes’s review of Ever Yours: The Essential Letters of Vincent Van Gogh

We have a problem of seeing, just as we often have a problem hearing (or hearing clearly), say, a Beethoven symphony. It’s hard to get back to our first enraptured seeings and hearings, when Van Gogh and Beethoven struck our eyes and ears as nothing had before; and yet equally hard to break through to new seeings, new hearings. So we tend, a little lazily, to acknowledge greatness by default, and move elsewhere, away from the crowds discovering him as we first discovered him. But if, seeking silence and untrammelled Van Gogh, we then retreat into the art book, we are let down differently: however faithful the colour reproduction, the flat page always suppresses the urgent impasto of the paint surface, an impasto so thickly wet that the painter was sometimes kept waiting weeks before he could safely post off his latest canvas to his dealer-brother Theo. Julian Bell, in his useful short biography and appraisal, aptly describes Starry Night over the Rhône as ‘closer to a sculptural relief than a reproducible flat image’.


Every Summer, on our way south, we try to spend a night in Arles, and when the Foncdacion Vincent Van Gogh first opened in 2014 we made a beeline for it. And the first thing that struck me was the brilliant way the gate to the gallery captures that “urgent impasto” of the surface of a Van Gogh.

Barnes also writes very well about his use of colour:

No one did colour more blatantly and more unexpectedly than Van Gogh. Its blatancy gives his pictures their roaring charm. Colour, he seems to be saying: you haven’t seen colour before, look at this deep blue, this yellow, this black; watch me put them screechingly side by side. Colour for Van Gogh was a kind of noise. At the same time, it couldn’t have seemed more unexpected, coming from the dark, serious, socially concerned young Dutchman who for so many years of his early career had drawn and painted dark, serious, socially concerned images of peasants and proletarians, of weavers and potato-pickers, of sowers and hoers. This emergence, this explosion from darkness, has no parallel except for that of Odilon Redon (who was prompted into colour more by internal forces, whereas Van Gogh was prompted into it externally – first in Paris by the Impressionists, and then by the light of the South).

For decades I couldn’t understood Van Gogh’s use of colour — and it wasn’t for want of trying: I lived in Holland in 1997-8 and often went to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The fog only lifted in the summer of 2003 when I came to Provence for the first time. We flew in to Montpellier after dark, and drove to our destination through a tunnel dug by the car headlights into pitch-black darkness. Then, after a restless, hot night trying to sleep, I got up at dawn and opened the shutters — and looked out on a valley full of vivid ochres, yellows and greens, illuminated by a kind of light I’d never seen before (and, as a photographer, I pay a lot of attention to light). And then, finally, I began to understand Van Gogh.