Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ssssshhhh! I'm Taking a Thoughtograph...

Fascinating article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about Ted Serios, a Chicago bellhop who, whether true or false, produced 'psychic' photographs or so called 'thoughtographs' during the 1960's and thereby, perhaps, taking photography to the next level.

The article states that Ted produced his images 'by holding a Polaroid camera and focusing on the lens very intently, producing dreamlike pictures of his thoughts on the film'.

Now that I'd like to see...

Images © Ted Serios

There's an exhibition entitled 'Psychic Projections/Photographic Impressions: Paranormal Photographs from the Jule Eisenbud Collection on Ted Serios' at the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County for anyone who's nearby...

Thursday, February 24, 2011


Photo © Nick Wilson 2011

Articles such as 'The Long Tail' and 'Why the Future Doesn't Need Us' are regarded as landmarks of Wired magazine's long history of trailblazing articles and this month's cover story, rather worryingly titled 'Your Life Torn Open: Sharing is a Trap' further adds to that canon. Wired has something of an uncanny ability to distill our collective consciousness into something succinct and readable and Andrew Keen's article is a perfect example.

Keen's story is at times a scary, dystopian vision of social networking, comparing the loss of privacy that comes with our Facebook profiles to Josef K's nightmare in Kafka's 'The Trial'. At other times however, he sees the social media boom as relvelatory, claiming these times we are living in are akin to the Renaissance or other 'game changing' eras in the history of man:

"While social media,"
he writes "for all its superhuman ability to see through walls, might not quite guarantee immortality, its impact is certainly of immense historical significance, equal, in its own way, to the early industrial revolution."

More relevant perhaps, and more timely certainly, is a quote he pulls from Katie Roiphe who states that "Facebook is the novel we are all writing" and I would like to extend that by claiming it's not only 'the novel we're all writing' but also the film we are all making and the photos we're all taking.

Wired's cover story could not be more timely.

As "The Social Network" presses for Oscar glory in a couple of days, cinemas host the slightly creepy "Catfish", making viewers rush to set their Facebook profiles to private and the furore over Michael Wolf's World Press Photo Winning images continues to rage, it seems the impact of our socially media-ized society is beginning to feel it's way into our cultural discourse.

We can only imagine that this will only become the way of the future for filmmakers and photographers; projects that are directly integrated with the way we live our lives: no doubt we will begin to see a plethora of projects that contain nothing more than movies of our mornings and exhibitions of our afternoons.

Keen observes this current 'tipping point' as a time when our "data-driven 'links' economy is being replaced by Facebook's people-powered 'likes'."

In the world of the visual arts only time will tell how many of these types of projects continue to make it beyond the realm which they were created for and into the box office and onto the photo contest podium but for now it's a great indicator of where the film business and the world of the image maker are heading and - at least - a must read article.


Guardian: Why The Social Network Should Win
DVAfoto on Michael Wolf
Michael Wolf

Friday, February 18, 2011

Irish Eyes: Alen MacWeeney

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream
His mind moves upon silence.

That the topless towers be burnt

And men recall that face,

Move most gently if move you must
In this lonely place.

She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,

That nobody looks; her feet

Practise a tinker shuffle
Picked up on a street.

From 'Long-Legged Fly' W.B. Yeats, 1938

It's been a while since the last installment of the 'Irish Eyes' interview series here on the blog and no better way to kick off the new year (-ish) with the opportunity to catch up with Alen MacWeeney, photographer of a towering body of documentary work 'Irish Travellers: Tinkers No More'.

MacWeeney's images appeared to me at a time when frustration and a lack of inspiration were dominant in my photographic world. My usual tricks of poring over 'Dorchester Days' for motivation had begun to fail me and the short days and harsh, dwindling light of Irish winters were only adding to my laziness and my yearning for the photographic exotic; somewhere, anywhere else.

And then I found it, this exotic, in the most unlikely source, close to home. So close to home in fact I wondered how I had never seen these amazing pictures. It was true that the great American photographers had been here to snap pictures of the Irish Gypsies: Dorothea Lange and Mary Ellen Mark among others, but MacWeeney's images were something different, filled with pathos and intimacy.

Not only was the photo book laden with heartbreaking images but also a series of recordings of the Irish Travellers from Cherry Orchard and other 'gyspy' campsites that Alen had gathered during his time photographing 'Tinkers No More', documenting perhaps the most important thing about this unique culture: it's oral history. Songs and conversations, poems and voices spoke from inside caravans from an era long since disappeared. Romantic Ireland was indeed dead and gone.

In essence what Alen managed to capture was a certain interior migration that fundamentally changed the Irish Traveller culture and experience forever, something that does not exist in history books, anthropological studies or any other documents. An essential piece of work by any standards, it's a great pleasure to be able to hear Alen discuss the project in his own words...

'Child with Cellophane, Cherry Orchard.' by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

First off, I’d love to get a bit of background to ‘Tinkers No More’. You were living in the US at the time and starting your career as a photographer. What was it like returning to Ireland with a camera in your hand? Things have changed so much there, can you give us your impressions of ‘going home’…

Before my involvement with Travellers, going back in time after a year of assisting Richard Avedon in New York in ’62, I returned to Ireland with an idea of making portraits of the men and women of the Catholic Church, the priests, the nuns, and the church leaders who control the church in Ireland.

But, I failed to find support, or indeed have the wherewithal myself at 22 years of age to manage the underpinnings needed to gain both access and recommendations for the project. At that time there was no hint of scandal attached to the church.

So, I put my Hasselblad aside, bought a Leica, and went out into the streets to photograph for the best part of the next two years in Dublin.

Unlike portrait photographs, which involve choosing and directing not only the subject, but the situation and everything else; I chose street photography which is dependent seeing an image in a myriad of moving parts. And, in essence requires synthesizing a confluence of elements, to make an image in a moment.

I returned to New York in 1964 as a place to find work and where photography found a more supportive audience in a country of limitless possibility. The centenary of the poet W.B. Yeats was in 1965. Harpers Bazaar magazine promised me some pages based on my proposal of a photo essay about the poet and his sources: of the kinds of people, places and things in his poems. With the help of others, I left New York for a year long stay in Ireland to begin this project.

'Woman in a White Dress, Dublin.' by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

'Watching: A Dublin Street Scene' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

'Glowing White Pony, Ballinasloe Horse Fair' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

Did you know that working with the Traveller community was something you wanted to do or like all great photo essays was it something you just stumbled upon?

I was out one day looking for a Tinker woman to photograph as part of the Yeats essay, and by accident (as I am convinced is the best way to begin anything) I came across a big sprawling field that was a Traveller’s campsite on the scruffy outskirts of Dublin, opposite Cherry Orchard fever hospital.

I went through a gap in the hedge and into a hut and met with Joe Donaghue there, the self-styled leader of the camp. We talked (or rather he talked and I listened) and he gave me a well rehearsed monologue over the next few hours of the injustices the Travellers had been subjected to by the authorities in Dublin and aided by the church. After our initial meeting, I brought up a tape recorder the next day, which became my passport, it lent an air of seriousness and purpose to the interviews. The tape recorder was my ally and helped me to interview many other Travellers in the years ahead.

'Joe Donoghue and Olivene, Cherry Orchard.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

What I found there in Cherry Orchard would occupy me for the next five years was a deep well of a hidden Irish culture. The Travellers went to Dublin to collect the dole; before ’63 there was none. They could now send their children to school, and due to an increase in motor traffic and restrictions to camping along the roadsides it was difficult for them to maintain that older way of life. By accident, I coincided with the exodus of Travellers from the country into the city.

'Building a hut, Cherry Orchard.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

'The Ward Family, Cherry Orchard.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

Now that Traveller culture is set to hit a kind of vogue with the success of the documentary 'Knuckle' and other projects, can you give us an insight into the community at the time you were shooting ‘Tinkers No More’?

I was alone, with a camera and tape recorder, there were no other photographers about, nor were there tape recorders or radios among the Travellers in Dublin then. With the advantage of being able to play back the recordings of the music and songs which began spontaneously one evening and quickly evolved into dense gatherings of children, women and men, singing ballads, playing the tin whistle and telling stories in Joe Donahue’s hut for all the nights I was there that year. The excitement of course centered on the Travellers hearing the recordings of themselves played back for the first time.

As a photographer my presence was welcomed as an unexpected explorer might land in a new world in another era from another place. After a few weeks I began photographing and was treated with little suspicion and accepted into a world completely unknown to me, but gripping. The Smithsonian magazine noted: I “became the first amateur anthropologist of Traveller culture, - by accident.” Accepted and treated as familiarly as another family member, or better. I returned to Ireland in 1999, to co-direct a feature length documentary film, (Little Bird Productions), that was about what happened to the lives of the people in the photographs that I had taken 35 years earlier. Many of my Traveller friends had died or moved away, but others reacted as though I’d only gone to the corner for a bottle of milk. Our friendships have endured and always will.

Your images seem like something from the era of the Farm Security Administration era but you were working at the time with Richard Avedon, presumably not in the field of documentary photography. Did you feel like you were making something original for Irish photography at the time?

I am aware of the Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans quality to the photographs, which may find an answer in that the Travellers were not all that different from the tenant farmers of the American depression, - being also poor, white and dispossessed.

I thought the Travellers were breathtakingly beautiful, with remarkable features; a raw dignity and a fearlessness about them. Of course their raggedy clothes framed and only emphasized their features. And, yes I did feel I was making something original. Irish photography did not exist at that time in my opinion, except for anonymous work.

'Bridget and Paddy Furey with their children, Loughrea.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

'Julia and Bernie McDonagh, Cherry Orchard' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

'Tommy Hutchenson and girl, Cherry Orchard.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1965

What happened to the series after you had finished working in Cherry Orchard, did you maintain contact with the families who lived there? How were the images received?

I have maintained friendship with many families. And yes, the photographs I can only describe as being received as treasured items. That was in 1966 and 1971. I’m sure it is different now, but so many Travellers could not read then and the photograph was an essential link to a family’s past.

Were you tempted to pursue a career in documentary photography and take a more photojournalistic course with your work?

That was my intention, but the failure to find a project of such personal discovery as the Travellers made me feel like an ill fitting hand in the glove of magazines that assigned reportage photography then, and their subsequent decline caused an unexpected adjustment of my future direction.

How do you feel about Ireland today, do you feel this series captured something essential about Irish culture that is now gone, especially regarding the ‘Tinkers’?

The Travellers represented an older way of life to me, as they were connected by a tight family bond. They are adventurous, resourceful and with a wealth of oral traditions they shared with me so willingly. My debt is to them for all of that.

'Ginger Navins (Paddy Rourke), Rathfarnam.' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1967

Title Image: Bill Cassidey and Kathleen Connors, Saggart' by by Alen MacWeeney. Copyright 1967

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Edge of Dreaming at Rubin Museum

I had the pleasure of meeting Amy Hardie, director of the documentary 'The Edge of Dreaming' some time way back in 2010 while she was charming festival audiences with her wonderful movie. I also managed to see the film while I should really have been having breakfast and despite being surrounded by what felt more like a casting session for 'The Golden Girls' than your average movie crowd, it was worth getting out of bed early for...

A review in today's New York Times also tells me that the film is opening at one of my favorite places in the city, the Rubin Museum of Art. It's well worth checking out for those loitering in the cold and looking for something to do and a seems like a perfect venue for the film with the Rubin's incredible collection of Buddhist art and preoccupation with all things spiritually esoteric.

Amy's film is one of those films that is personal and diaristic and makes you glad that someone had the courage to put themselves on camera and be a voice for the kind of gnawing thoughts that we have probably all had at one time or another. A unique film that I really loved. More links below...

Film Site

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Joyrider hits the New York Times.

It's true that readers of the New York Times may be becoming accustomed to seeing burning cars in the pages of their newspapers. After 18 days of riots in Cairo and the Middle East continuing to rupture; are photos of things getting trashed becoming passe?


Check out the great slideshow of my Joyrider series on the seminal NYT 'LENS' blog or click on the photo.

Many thanks to Dawn Lim, James Estrin and B.P. LaMotte for putting it together.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sierra Blanca, TX.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy New Year...China.