Brian Griffin and the best photography book in the world

great british photographers

The other day I picked up a signed first edition of  what’s been called “the best photography book in the world”, for £15. “Work” by Brian Griffin, published in 1988, was named the best photo book in 1991 and in 1989 Brian was named as photographer of the decade by the Guardian. Shortly after these events, Griffin turned his back on photography and spent the next couple of decades shooting TV commercials and music videos. It’s a stunning example of the way that fashion and style can influence the reputation of photographers and the value of their work. Maybe this is why Griffin says that photography is incredibly hard and that to have had a career that’s lasted over 40 years in photography is incredibly rare: there’s a wonderfully revealing interview in this National Portrait Gallery film.

Quite often I’m staggered by the prices of some photobooks that have made it onto a list as being collectible: books that just a few years ago were selling for £10 or £20 new or second hand are now worth hundreds of pounds yet you can pick up a first edition of something equally significant but not so obviously collectible for less than £10. In recent months I’ve bought books by Lee Miller, published in the 30’s, or from Fay Godwin, published in the 80’s or 90’s, for well under £20.

Brian Griffin was a bit of a rediscovery for me: I’d been vaguely aware of his work in the 80’s when he shot album covers for bands such as Depeche Mode, REM and Iggy Pop but hadn’t followed his career.

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Then recently I ordered  a copy of David Moore’s “Pictures From The Real World” and Amazon suggested Brian Griffin as another author I might like…. Amazon was right. I bought “Work” and also Brian’s latest book, “The Black Kingdom” and began to dig around on the internet to find out more about the man who made these gently surreal and distinctively odd pictures.

What I found was a body of work that I think is uniquely British, and a combination of distinctly surreal vision with  superlative technical  control. “Work” was a perfect introduction to Griffin’s photography, as the working life of the British industrial man seems to have shaped not only his own work but also his life.  The pictures in this book were taken during the building of a massive development in London called Broadgate. Griffin chose to photograph the site like a medieval ruin and to shoot the the workers as if they were fallen Crusaders on their tombs or as heroic statues against the sky.

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Griffin’s photographic career grew out of his early working life. He was born in the Black Country, the industrial heartland of Britain, in an area that was famous for chain making. Leaving school he was apprenticed to a metal engineering factory and was encouraged by the foreman to join the local photographic society. In interviews Griffin recalls seeing the rats running along side the canal and realising that’s pretty much what life had in store for him – a lifetime of routine and work that he’d seen his parents endure. Griffin applied to and was accepted by Manchester Polytechnic’s School of Photography. It was here that he learnt the crisp technical skills that have made his images some of the most precise and clear of any photographer working today.

After leaving college, Griffin went to work as a photographer on a business publication called Management Today and here he came under the influence of an Art Director called Roland Schenck: Griffin says that Schenck would send him back time and again to take pictures or shoot portraits until he returned with something fresh, stylish and distinctive. When London became the centre of a business boom, Griffin became a highly sought after photographer for corporate clients, shooting major projects for businesses. It is from this period that the photographs in Work were taken. It’s also worth noting that between 1978 and 1988 he self published 8 books, two of which one major awards.

George_Melley_s160_1590After this Griffin moved into shooting a wide variety of commercial work including album covers for bands such as Depeche Mode, Iggy Pop, REM, Elvis Costello and Peter Gabriel. This work led him into the world of music promos and directing TV adverts and he virtually turned his back on the world of stills photography for a couple of decades.

His fascination with photography but slight despair at making a career in the business are clear to see in the National Portrait Gallery film mentioned above. There’s a lovely short film about his recently re-invigorated career, which sees growing recognition of his work and a move to creating gallery exhibitions, as well as a major retrospective of his work: Brian Griffin – Face to Face.

There are a couple of informative articles here:

Brian Griffin & His Industrial Revolution – also has a good interview with him

Digital Photography Review – Brian Griffin

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Robin Maddock – photographs that matter?

great british photographers

Robin Maddock is an English photographer, based in London and San Francisco and he describes himself as a “social documentary photography … for now”. He’s published two books – Our Kids Are Going to Hell (Trolley, 2009), and God Forgotten Face (Trolley, 2012). Born in 1972, he studied archaeology at The University of Wales before going on to take an MA in Photographic Studies at the University of Westminster: he says that not only is photography a means of expression and a way of making sense of the world but that it can “connect us to the past and help us think differently about the future”.

Amongst other honours he’s been nominated for the Deutsche Börse Award in 2010 and selected by Martin Parr as one of the ‘rising stars of photography’ for the Smithsonian Institute:  “Maddock’s views and snatches of life are both surreal and individual. He has the enviable ability to turn nothing much into something quite profound.”

He first came to wider public attention when he published Our Kids Are Going to Hell in 2009. This book was the result of 3 years following the Hackney branch of London’s Metropolitan Police as they raided the homes of suspected drug dealers in the borough. At a talk at the Whitechapel Gallery,  given by Robin Maddock and Hannah Watson of Trolley Books,  Robin came close to defining himself as a ‘Hackney photographer’ citing other photographers such as Stephen Gill: indeed the book was prefaced with an essay by Iain Sinclair, legendary Hackney writer and champion of photography and film. The power of the book’s images lies in the fact that the photographer has ignored or edited out the usual pictures of doors being smashed in, or police in riot gear – the images of newspaper reporting or television documentary – but instead focuses on the absurd – the policeman using a rainbow coloured disposable camera to record the crime scene, the shattered aftermath, the police boots on the family worktop.

God Forgotten Face, is a series of pictures taken over a number of years in Plymouth, a city in the west of England that was heavily bombed during the Second World War and subsequently the test bed for radical 1050’s utopian reconstruction. The target of the bombing raids, the Dock Yard, was drastically downsized in the 80’s with the loss of nearly 30,000 jobs.  Maddock chose the city because of personal ties (his father was born there) and ” a desire to do a project about England”. Another factor was the fact that he “felt quite outside and alienated by the city.” There’s a video preview of the book here:

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Looking at his pictures, some of which like Our Children Are Going to Hell,  are reportage and some of which are street photographs, is like reading an Alan Bennet play. The camera has caught snatches of conversations, moments in the dramas of people’s lives, parts of events that are unfolding.

The book even includes snippets of  overheard  remarks or snatches of conversations with the photographer: beside a portrait of a striking young woman, the text reports,”On our first date ,getting cash out, you’re old but, you’re hot, guy behind, you’ll need a lot more than that mate.” Or next to a dark shot of an luxury boat floating off a dock is “We make boats for wealthy people we can’t be seen in a book with prostitutes.”

It’s this story telling ability that gives the book its joy and humour and also reveals Robin’s remarkable ability to insert himself into situations or people’s lives and reveal something common about human experience. It’s a skill that’s rare among photographers working today and invites comparison with Nan Golding, who drew insight and art from her own life and circle of friends.

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In many of his pictures you’re given the sense that a story is being told and that Robin has caught the essence of that story in a single frame. He rarely goes for the visual pun or joke that many street photographs rely on and this means that many frames bear repeated viewing or continued examination and that the viewer can reconstruct the event or imagine alternative versions of the stories that might be unfolding.

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In a shot of two couples in a tea room in the alleys behind Plymouth’s Barbican, you’re free to imagine at least 2 versions of the story: that the Elizabethan couple are caught in a waking dream of the future or that the bearded man is determinedly imaging away the modern world with its plastic chairs and tourists.

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A shot of an unmade bed, a hole punched into the wall conjures either a passionate night in the purple sheets, that produced an ecstatic lashing out, or  darkness filled with nightmares or even anger and domestic violence.

It also asks, what was the photographer doing there – was he the one who slept in the sheets, did he make the hole in the wall? The book is dedicated, “for and against Bianca” – apparently Maddock’s (now ex) girlfriend at the time. Or did he simple observe the scene in a visit to someone’s house?

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Other frames capture moments of  small drama that with wit and warmth reveal intimacy or absurdity. A shot of middle aged couples  line dancing on the Hoe, shows not only the concentration and commitment of the dancers but also the slight absurdity of a dance imported from the southern USA, via television to the far west of England.

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An older couple, captured as they sample the buffet in what appears to be a civic function room, reveals a moment of unthinking, perhaps  even bored intimacy and familiarity, as the wife offers her husband a taste of something from her finger.

Neither looks at the other, both concentrating on the food in front of them: an odd little gesture that reveals what must be e a practiced and familiar habit, allowing us to read something of the essence of their relationship. Is he a fussy eater, who needs to be tempted with small tastes? Is she worried about unfamiliar food and needs his reassurance? Or are they just enjoying sharing the flavours of the snacks on offer?

On his blog – http://robinmaddock.com – Robin posted an essay he wrote for PhotoDoks about achtung/danger in photography and also links to an essay by Francis Hodgson “on the strange business of mattering“. Taken together they might offer an insight into the thinking behind his work: both essays try to understand what raises an image beyond the banal or the mundane and makes it a picture that ‘matters’.

Quoting Gary Winograd, “We should risk failure every time we press the shutter”, Maddock notes that it’s risk and the element of failure that lifts a picture from the mundane or prosaic and gives it individuality and perhaps meaning “work which lacks any risk is commerce, repetition of the same, that which had worked before.” It’s left to the reader whether that risk is personal safety or artistic failure but he in a video for the Smithsonian Magazine, he says that one of the reasons he chose to shoot in Plymouth was that he found it ” a strange and terrifying place, and that energy of terror was behind the reason to work there.”

Perhaps this is why his pictures matter to us, because they mattered to him, that the risk made it worthwhile. Francis Hodgson :

“The vast majority of pictures just don’t matter. The photographer had nothing to say, or has been unable to say something meaningful. Often it will be of the treatment: the subject is trivial, but the way it has seen (and shown) it grants it a pull on my concentration which it would not have otherwise had.

If it matters enough, it seems, the mattering is communicable. And that is pretty close to the heart of photography.”