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The Indefinitive Moment

Much of the vocabulary around photography is about stopping time for us to examine it, that decisive moment notion that the purpose of photography is to capture the fleeting and from that flows the idea that there is some ownership of what is in essence a coincidence.  This is further compounded by the notion that there are some special photographers whose shutterclicks are some how more precise, more intelligent, more special than those of mere mortals and with that magical gesture they are better at seeing than the rest of us.  Well permit me to say, that is just bollocks.

I am currently in the process of writing a long piece about work that I showed at Revela-T this year and that work is itself about taking photographs, and because I don’t like writing, I found myself reading an article about Chris Killip in the rather marvellous Huck Magazine. The sheer graft he put into the body of work In Flagrante in the 70s and 80s is breathtaking in it’s doggedness.  He has form in this area, it took him 7 years to get the seacoalers of Lynmouth to talk to him for another project.  Imagine that, being kicked back for 7 years and still not giving up; I get one form email from something I’ve applied for saying thanks but no thanks for my submission and I can produce a sulk so corrosive it could be used to etch granite.

In Flagrante Two Chris Killip

I think that is one of the interesting dichotomies of photography. Taking a photograph is not difficult. Taking an interesting photograph isn’t difficult either. Understanding why you might take a photograph and to keep loading that film in order to articulate that, well that is absolutely hard.  Killip makes that clear in the Huck piece:  ‘great photographers need determination, not talent’.

Another problem with photography is the immediacy of the image for the viewer.  You look at this or that and move on, even the most stunning images infrequently have us stock still gasping at the content and that can make commentators lazy.  In Flagrante is often used as a touchstone to illustrate the awfulness of the Thatcher years and the dissolution of the industries that had employed Killip’s subjects.  This casually glosses over the fact that the work was made under successive Conservative and Labour governments.  You can look at that skinhead boy on the wall, scrunched up and see some lad doubtless between visits to the dole office with his UB40 swapped from an apprenticeship, the problem is the photograph was taken in 1976 when the self same Thatcher was the leader of the opposition and her main claim to fame at that point was having been responsible for the ending of free school milk.  Not such a decisive moment.  Still a very good image in a properly impressive body of work that really should be seen in context in order to do it justice.

Taking photographs is work and it requires effort not least because of the complexity of the tools and digital is just one option.  In the article Killip says that with film you don’t actually know what you are going to get in the end.  Choosing a film to shoot on is something you can only do with considered practice.  Loading that film is an act of faith; faith in the factory that produced it, the way it was kept by the retailer, faith in your camera’s inner workings, faith in the battery on your light meter. The list is pretty long. And if you think that digital has done away with all of that, you are forgetting sensor size even before you start considering the myriad other geegaws that clog up your app store of choice with filters, lightmeters, editors, film emulators, dog noses, cat ears…  Even with a slight engagement with the discipline, you are still required to make decisions about what and how you photograph before you get the picture.

I’m not saying some photographers aren’t better than others but that is more about the aesthetic peccadillos of the observer than the abilities of the shutter jocky, in the same way some accountants are effective and others less so.  It is important to be good at your job, otherwise you just let down your colleagues.  If you are a corporation of one, which is what most photographers are, then this attention to detail and willingness to go revise and revisit is all the more important.  You need to actively engage with a process to conjure up the picture.  Which is why the notion of nimble fingered gimlet eyed photographer trapping the decisive moment in pixels or film rings hollow because it implies a preternatural ability to nail the shot and move on.   The most interesting photographers are engaging in a thought process and that underpins the work.

And part of this is being willing and able to speak about this work once it is finished, or as finished as it can be.  This is the really hard bit.  I’m writing this now because I have failed to draw together the strings of associated writing that I have been doing about my own work and believe you me, there are a slew of bookmarks and underlinings in books an articles that should make it easy to compose.  I have this banging tangent about MR James and haunting but I’m having real trouble getting it out of the whumpa whumpa in my brain and into something a human might want to plough though.


This isn’t a suntan and I haven’t been on holiday

spot the me

Me and my brothers after roughly the same exposure to the sun.

So I got my first “You’ve got a lovely suntan” of  June yesterday. The person who asked me realised half way through that she was asking a potentially problematic question and veered off into the world of holidays and sunshine, but the damage was done. It didn’t help that I was at an opening and the people I was with had been at the sauce for a while so their I’m going to pretend I don’t know how much that pisses Tina off faces didn’t quite coalesce fast enough for my new friend to not catch it and start looking a bit panicked.

I’m sure the person was being nice when she asked me, but the fact that she would ask me and that people ask me this all of the time, well it grates.

While I was in Barcelona last week (I was not on holiday), I got asked by a few people so when I got quorum I played the you get three guesses and if you win, I buy you dinner in the most expensive restaurant you can think of but if you lose, well you just lose, game.  They lost.  On reflection I think I need to tighten up the stakes here and start rewarding myself a slap up meal or maybe a book token.

I can’t help what I look like, I am here because a woman from Sunderland and a man from Mogadishu bumped uglies without sufficient precautions  in the early 1960s.  I was born, fostered and then adopted into a white family in one of the whitest parts of the country. My suntan has been a topic of conversation since forever and, my god, it is not the most important thing there is to know about me.

I’ve only really come to terms with my skin over the past couple of years.  By that I mean come to terms with being public about just how much looking the way I look means to me and how I am not prepared to accept some thoughtless person telling me that I am lucky to be this colour.  I took years of abuse  for this wrapper as just part of the territory I had to inhabit because I was told I had to inhabit it by people who could never really be arsed to stop for one moment to consider what it might be like to be me.  People often sympathised, thanks; but sympathy isn’t empathy and that’s the pathy I most needed.

So I kept it to myself.  In as much as I was ever able to keep that kind of thing to myself.  It was going to Open School East that made me realise that it is possible to have not only a public dialogue about skin colour but to bring it into the work I make.  When I think about why I am standing hand holding a pinhole camera for an extended period of time, I know that I am doing it in order to be present in the image too.  I’m not just showing you what I decided to photograph, I’m giving you the experience of my body taking the image because my body is all of me, not just the skin, the colour, the bones.  Nobody has the right to cherry pick the bits of me they like and denigrate, underestimate or flat out ignore the rest.  It’s rude people, really really rude.

These days I am thinking more about portraiture again.  When I photograph a person, it’s because I am fundamentally interested in that person, in their experiences and what makes them inhabit the world in the way they do.   What I am not interested in is the colour of their skin in terms of aesthetics because that way lies madness and disappointment.

Over the past couple of years, I can see a change in my facebook feed and twitter stuff.  The majority of what I post or repost is related to race because I’m a transracial adoptee and I grew up in a white household in a white place and I have white friends and for years I have been looking at their interests without ever really engaging with my own.  I’m probably a bit too far the other way these days for some of them, but hey imho, wet plate collodion is frequently boring and yes Vivian Maier was an interesting photographer, but she is not the only woman to have ever walked the street with a camera and certainly not the best and I’d much prefer to talk about stuff like that.

An Elizabethan Poem in an Unexpected Place

So I am sitting next to my semi-conscious mother on the medical assessment ward and I suddenly find Thomas Wyatt’s “they flee from me that sometime did me seek” sloshing about in my head.  Until now I had always thought it the self dramatising lament of a roué in his cups having just been knocked back by a teenage waitress.  But right now it seems entirely appropriate.

Most of the patients on the medical assessment unit are old.  Properly old. My mother will be 90 on Wednesday if she survives, and I am not sure she is the oldest.  Everyone is moved around on wheels, on gurneys, in wheelchairs, even a special stand that moves them from bed to chair and back. Everything has some mechanism that raises, lowers, angles, enables positions to change from a to b because the subject cannot do this on their own.

Each one of the patients looks old. Oversized ears, saggy skin in various shades from blue tinted, pink and grey and yellowish. Dalmatian spots on the skin, great welts on brown and black that look almost brindled where it is creased and folded.  Some have blankets of fat that now just hang where before they would have tightly wrapped the frame. Everything sags and slackens and time seems to be pulling them towards the centre of the earth.  In fact there is so much collective time in those rooms it is surprising the mass of all this experience, hundreds of years, thousands of experiences all bundled up into sepsis fractures and various stages of dementia doesn’t drag all of us with it.

But the most surprising thing is the solitude. At this stage in their lives when they need other people most the supply is depleted especially that of familiar peers. My mother is the only one with constant company or at least the maximum regulations allow. The woman in the next bed will be collected by a friend because it is too late for the professional careers who normally look after her. She is being discharged into the home of someone who neither a child or any other family.  This doesn’t help. There may be me and then my brother and then my sister in law and then another brother and another sister in law and eventually my eldest brother who is her primary carer. But despite this band of the familiar, intimate and loving, it is difficult for any of us to tell what she is asking for when she tries to communicate. We can guess, me least well of all because I live so far away. I just do not really know her day to day requirements and nor do I understand all of her ticks and gasps.

Later, thinking about this; I recall that on the first night she started to kind of speak and I think she said mother and also her sister’s name and maybe also husband. She was involved in some story that we could only see the temporal side of.  This seemed to distract her until my brother and I   decided it was time to leave and she became visibly upset so she was more conscious than we thought. So we waited for her to slip back into sleep before we left.

On the whole she was comfortable and calm because of us. She was lucky that the silk she had spun between us was strong and stretched so far. Having love that cannot be reflected back is what makes us difficult, unlovable, lonely.  I can only express my gratitude at the kindness and gentleness with which the staff treated someone they didn’t know at all.

Which made the Wyatt make sense as it is about having a broken heart because the object of his affection has told him to sling his hook. We’ve probably all been there. Dumped and exiled from out happy place. The only thing that will fix it is a return to that person who doesn’t want us back doesn’t want to come back.  Then what we need is a high dependency unit for emotional wrecks.

I am not an atheist, however…

I just had a ‘discussion’ with an american christian on twitter. He ended up asking me if I was a liberal theologian. I have never been asked that before. I’m liberal, I’m educated and particularly interested in history and religion because they are so intertwined, but the very idea that I would have to be a theologian to think the way I do about faith and god and all of he other stuff was kind of shocking and completely hilarious if you know anything about the way i was bought up, which was as an atheist, not a ranty dawkins type, just a bog standard, show me a talking burning bush and I’ll be more than happy to eat my words rather than this delicious M&S prawn and mayo sandwich which I paid for with my credit card. yeah, seafood and usury, you may be surprised how much bible I know.

Surely everybody who has faith and certainly anybody who uses that faith as the foundation of all of their actions, especially in the way they treat others or encourage them to be treated, surely everybody with faith should be prepared to challenge it. Otherwise you don’t really have faith, you just have tasks.

I just do not understand how a man sitting in Washington who I suspect speaks very little aramaic or greek or even latin could seriously tell me to read my bible without thinking, heck that sounds properly dumbassed, 140 characters tells me very little about this other human being.

I just want to kick people who say things like ‘it’s in the bible’ and have never even tried to learn another language, any language. Because if they did they would understand what a minefield that book they cleve to so strongly is: a translation of lots of other bits and things, with its historical jumps and metaphors, its ambiguities, conceptual problems, social world view and mystical explanations for things we understand as general shit that happens in the world these days. Read the bible? I have read a lot of the bible and much of it makes no sense at all if you try and transfer it to now with even the best will in the world.

But the sukiest bit of the bible II are the judgemental rantings of ex pharisee (google them, they were not the nicest people) St Paul who was of course the one my twitter pal said i should read. You see, the initial argument had been about homosexuality being a sin, which is arrant bollocks and nobody gets away with telling me it is in the bible when we all know it is in the bits of the bible where they also tell you not to eat prawns – I am speaking as an omnivore here…

I have looked a few times for various reasons including homosexuality and I can tell you in bible II jesus is properly silent on this, with a pinch of salt you could say that when jesus discusses marriage he says that is for a man and woman where they become one, but as that is part of a discussion about divorce and thus property, not about love which is not the same as property but is something that the gamut of sexualities all have in common.

When pointed it out my american pal said the apostle paul is very clear on that particular subject. I said apostles are not generally seen as the son of god, unlike jesus (I’m not saying this lineage is fact, I’m quoting the, errr, bible). The upshot of my argument was why would you bother with the words of the monkey when the organ grinder’s son is in the house, unless you are looking for a way to legitimise your anti leopard rhetoric. to strain the metaphor while increasing the animal imagery.

the bible is not a historical document that was written in english so taking it at face value in translation is the act of a credulous fool. The person who uses this translation to further hate or judgement is far worse than that and you do not need to be a liberal nor a theologian to see that.

He made me cross.

Which may be ironic, though I definitely won’t be using Alanis Morissette as my source on that one.

My Mother’s House

My mother lives in a care home. She sits in a chair with her back to the window alone watching television all day. My brother recently put one of those convex blind spot mirrors so she could see out of the window like the The Lady of Shalott. Her life is arranged on two shelves and in various draws in an area of roughly 2 square meters. She refuses to go to the communal rooms because ‘it is full of dotty old people who can’t talk sense’ and that is to some degree true as there is everything in this place from advanced Alzheimer to a broken hip in need of some rest. The thing that unifies them is their inability to look after themselves left in this place that serves to meet that need and nothing beyond. Each one of these unique individuals is lumped together like fleeing refugees from disparate places, in a holding pen united in ruin and chaos and processed at pretty much the same level of care which is sometimes excellent, usually good but sometimes petty, mean spirited and on more than one occasion vindictive.

Before she moved to the care home, she lived in her own home that had been adapted to enable her to return there after 15 weeks in hospital . I photographed this home over a period of two years, partially because I was bored watching middle class white people kill each other in differing ways in multiple time periods on ITV2 but also because I thought it would be interesting to use a disabled camera to photograph the home of a disabled person. I put the photographs on my website and people would say they like them and also say how clearly they were the home of an old person. That wasn’t just the apparatus that enabled her to live there, but the things, the colours the absurd number of nested tables and the back of the Daily Express thimble collections. This is a recognized habitat, these are the signposts and culture of recognizable group of people with a set of values and beliefs that I do not share but is what she most wants to go home to.

Sometimes my mother can be a mean and bitter old woman. I’ve seen her be rude to the carers in a manner that is totally out of character for her. But then she’s held prisoner by her body in this place she hates a 15 minute walk from her home that is still filled with the things in these photographs but it might as well be on the moon. And I’m nostalgic too. I’m in no real danger of war or terrorism, but I am getting older. There can be no comparison between the horrors that have been going on in Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Ukraine and countless other places. But my body, like my mother’s body is sprung with booby traps, I don’t feel fragile but I know with each passing day I’m heading in that direction. We think of refugees as people fleeing from some cataclysm but in truth we are all heading towards our own potential exile. It should make us more circumspect when we think about our habitat and more willing to share it with those who are denied their own.


My practice went to Barcelona and all I got was this tiny badge.

A badge for all seasons

I have been on an artistic exchange in the Catalan village of Vilassar de Dalt as part of the Revela-t analogue photo festival with nine other artists and it was great. Well the first night when we almost had to walk 10km back to hostel wasn’t a high point and if I am honest sitting through a movie in Catalan subtitled in Spanish before that was also not a high point and I won’t bore you with the details of the full English tribute breakfast I had for dinner which to be honest was definitely not a high point, but all in all with the series of challenges the residency threw up, plus getting to meet and work with some totally wonderful people from places as far away as Bolivia, Colombia, France, the Netherlands, Spain  and, er, Barcelona (via Argentina) was pretty damn good.

The village of Villassar de Dalt had been a cloth mill town much like those you find along the Calder Valley in West Yorkshire in Lancashire even including tied houses for the workforce.  It suffered the same fate and the factories that had closed one by one until the last had become a pale wraith of itself where crude and smutty messages were screen printed on t-shirts shipped in from who knows where for sale to the heirs of the English working classes on their two weeks of sun sand and sin in Mallorca.  Eventually that too collapsed and they left in what appears to have been some sort of a hurry leaving an empty building with a remarkable cache of abandoned silk screens, empty barrels of inks and a fair amount of book keeping scattered across the top floor.

Low art

Classy Stuff

I had intended to do one project but due to some logistic flim flam I ended up deciding to do something else entirely in a disused factory.  It was sound but derelict with crusty wads of dust everywhere and birds flying about in the frequently windowless rooms. On the ground floor was a massive exhibition of some really good contemporary analogue photography part of a huge group of exhibitions spread across the entire village.  Above was two further floors of the kind of picturesque decrepitude that would cause a hipster to cash in their trust fund and start a creativity hub.

I cannot describe the pure pleasure of being told here is it, knock yourself out.  The other photographers did things with wet plate and dry plate and collodion, handmade pinhole with instant film, Lieca and Hasselblad.  I did stuff with string and cloth and rubber bands and a holga pinhole camera.  I’m like that.

This is what the factory looked like

And this is some of what I did.  But if you want to see the results, you are going to have to wait a while because this stuff is going to take a while.

The other artists on the exchange were:

Ana Tornel

Juan Blas Leal Lopez

Joaquin Paredes Piris

Marie-Noëlle Leroy

Camilo Sabogal B

Paula Rae Gibson

Francisco Gómez

Pierre Van de Vliert

Wara Vargas Lara

Christine Rendina

The aye’s have it

I was on my way somewhere yesterday and I saw this.  There is something more powerful about the crude the scratching out of the eyes of a human form in an image than most other forms of alteration.

A photo posted by Tina Rowe (@tinarororo) on

Thinking about it, I reckon most forms of interference with the eyes turns things sinister with immediate effect.

Sarah Koponen‘s image of George Bush, although powerful, lacks the creepiness that the other two images have.  This image appears to me to depersonalise the president, more a criticism of the role in general.  It isn’t creepy, it seems a little contemptuous of it’s subject, but mostly it seems to be showing him as foggy and insubstantial.

Of course defacing faces isn’t new and it isn’t just political.  Many of the remaining medieval church paintings in England have undergone various assaults and the faces are the areas that seem to suffer most damage.

While I was writing this post I did a bit of searching around the idea of defacing portraits and came across the work of Caroline Jaine who has what I think is a rather superb group of portraits here: un-portraits

Cue Credits

The show is up at Open School East, there is only one more full day to go, then it comes down and that’s that, I’m done with artschool, in a less ignominious manner than in 1980, but just as done.  I’m tired, I have been feeling sick for a couple of weeks and I have had a headache since September.  Apart from that, actually no, there is no apart from that.

Have a song from the 1970s that isn’t related really , but it is kind of cute and a mighty fine performance from Johnny Mathis and Denice Williams.

60 Minutes with Tim Andrews

About a year ago, I had a fight with my husband and, I went off to the park with the polaroid back, my hasselblad and a pack of fuji instant film.  In the course of an hour I shot the pack, screwed up two in the process and felt pleased enough with the results do some more.  So, in the last 12 months i have done a little set in some properly unrelated places including my mother’s kitchen, speakers corner and a tiny town at the end of a small gage steam railway in Brazil.

If you asked me why I was doing it in the first place, I would have said something unuseful like because I want to. And it is true, that’s why I shoot all the stuff I shoot.  Is there a better reason?  However, with a little more thought, and being at Open School East is making me think a lot about the whys and wherefores of work, I realise that I am making decisions about the content.

Strewth Tina, you might say, after all these years I would have thought that you knew why you have been spending all this money on cameras and associated balix.  Well yes I would reply, I know why I do it, and it is the difference between liking cake and knowing how to bake the actual cake you personally like most of all that turns out the way you expect it to every time.

Is that vain?  I am not saying I make the best cake in the history of cakes, or even that this particualr cake is the photographic equalivant of a cronut.  It is just the cake I want to make.  The whole cake metaphor is apposite because I had every intention of using a wide angle pinhole and a couple of off camera flashes with Tim Andrews for a particular effet before I met him but when he walked into my studio I realised that he isn’t the sort of person who should be summed up in a single shot, he needed a few angles.  So out came the polaroid back 10 shots happened between chatting about stuff which informed the shots I took.

I do think about photographs a lot, I spend time thinking about the composition I want and the subject, Tim was the first person I had photographed in a proper formal (kinda) sitting.  I hadn’t met Tim so it was difficult to imagine taking a photograph of him, to work out a place that he belonged in the frame.  I had looked at the work of other photographers in his project and there was a wealth of different interpretations of him as a human and as a canvas.  They didn’t really help because they are all so different.  Just talking to him made me drop the one idea and persue the other.

A to B Invisible

After my last post about privacy I feel I should fess up that I also have a dog in the fight that goes a bit further than photography: I made a short film, ostensibly to learn Premiere Pro, but also because I liked a song and didn’t like the way it was on shown on YouTube.  I made the film using short sequences shot on a Nexus 4 mobile phone, mainly on the London Overground on my way to and from work.  The shots are of people who are for the most part looking at their phones.  I liked the symmetry.

I’ve been drawing, photographing and filming to various degrees on London Transport since I got here in 1987.  I’ve never been challenged about it but I am aware some people don’t like it.  This is not going deter me.  I don’t like ketchup, seriously, the smell really does make me gag and I’ll return any food that I discern it in.  I wouldn’t threaten someone with arrest or violence because of it.  If someone says no, then I stop.  Like ketchup, photography isn’t illegal and long may it be so.

I had a friend in Poland who spent some time in London in 1990.  She found the tube a weird and silent place where people avoided eye-contact at all costs, except for one occasion when the driver announced that Prime Minister Margret Thatcher had resigned.  Newspapers dropped below eye level and people made eye contact and then, the unthinkable, they started to talk to each other.  She said it was the weirdest thing and it never.happened.again.

That’s the charm of the tube.  I’ve taken buses and undergrounds all over the place and have ear-wigged on conversations about all manner of things.  Frequently people do not say much, but they do acknowledge each other.  But London seems to be the daddy of pretending nobody else exists at all, people seem to travel in a little private bubble and all manner of things can happen without anybody batting an eye.  The mobile phone has made things even more insular as you can be reading the Spectator and listening to death metal while someone else stands sobbing in the carriage right next to you.  I was interested in what it takes to make us intervene or attempt a conversation but my limited research came up with no answers.  So I edited the clips from my phone together with a song by Paul Mosley and put it up on Vimeo.


how does anyone meet anyone from Tina Rowe on Vimeo.