This is England

I managed to catch the last day of the Martin Parr exhibition Bristol and West at the M-shed in Bristol this weekend. It was an opportunity to see more than 50 photographs from the last 30 years of his career. Including images from his early projects like Cost of Living, 1980’s, and Chew Stoke: A year in the life of a village, 1990’s.

I live in a rural part of the south west of England. When I read the national papers or watch the news I rarely see the life that I know in the news stories they show. My life is much more ordinary than that. The reportage illustration that I see also captures world events, or at least London centric events: Veronica Lawlor’s capturing of 9/11, Olivier Kugler’s recent V&A award for his account of a trip across Iran, or drawings of the anti-capitalist protestors outside St Paul’s Cathedral or Wall Street. These are all amazing pieces of work. To be part of a major news story and to have the nerve to draw it is something I admire.

When I see work like that done by Kugler or Lawlor, I question the value of the drawings that I make. When the stories and details I observe and which delight me seem so mundane in comparison. I must go and live in London or New York I think; and document the real world.

But seeing Martin Parr’s work gives me new faith that the stories I see and the narratives I want to tell have value. He is drawn to ordinariness and the everyday and his vision is merciless, but it is also amused and affectionate. The details he captures, his use of juxtaposition and saturated colour expresses an ambiguity about contemporary life that I share with him. His work seems assessable and entertaining, but through this serious agendas can be expressed.

His 1980’s and 1990’s photographs of everyday life seem even more telling now than ever. The benefit of time and hindsight allows us to look at the society he captured then and recognise the huge social inequalities there were, to witness again the period of boom, before the bust. And wonder how we ended up here again?

Is Drawing Journalism?

Black and white Photograph of a man floating on his back in a swimming pool.

Sometimes when I look at my drawings it is hard to see an obvious journalistic or news angle to them. After all, images tell stories in such a completely different way to a written article. But I saw this amazing photograph by Karoly Escher at the Royal Academy exhibition Eyewitness: Hungarian photography in the 20th Century. Now I have a postcard of it on my studio wall to remind me of the unique, and multi-layered way that narrative comes from images, and of what I am trying to do with my drawings.

The title of this photo is The Bank Manager at the Baths, 1938. When you look at the image with this title you get one impression: of a well-fed, slightly smug, successful man enjoying some not too strenuous leisure time.

But when you look at it with the additional information: that after the First World War and the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, Hungary lost nearly three quarters of its territory. Tens of thousands of ethnic Hungarians found themselves resident in ‘foreign lands’, and moving into what was left of their country resulted in overcrowding, unemployment, poverty and political unrest. Over the next few decades their government became increasingly fascist and anti-Semitic and the Great Depression of 1930s can only have added to the struggle for survival of the workingman. Knowing this it is hard to view the corpulent bank manager in quite the same benign way.

The Importance of Rules.

A photograph of a page in my sketchbook with a table of rules to be filled out.
When I draw on location I often start by setting myself some rules. There are so many decisions to be made about what to draw: what subject, what angle, what to include in the composition, which materials, size and format? That the choices can be overwhelming. Setting rules about simple things like format, size, and limiting material choices before I start can really help. Restricting myself to a particular location, or theme can bring cohesion to a project.

In his lecture Drawing Me, Drawing You, Antonio Jorge Goncalves talked about his project Subway Life and the rules he set for himself. He visited Lisbon, Berlin, Stockholm, New York, Sao Paulo, Tokyo, Athens, Moscow, Paris, and Cairo, travelling on the city subways and documenting the people he saw there. His rules for himself included: only working in black line on the same square sketchbooks, only drawing people and not including their environment, he didn’t allow himself to choose who he drew instead it had to be the person sitting opposite him, or as near to opposite as possible. And his drawings had to capture the full time period that the trains ran, so he could capture the different people travelling at different times of day. His drawings form an anthropological study of the subways and the people who use them, highlighting the cultural differences and similarities between countries. The images that stay with me are of a square, matronly Russian women wrapped up warmly; in contrast to a scantily clad, slim, Brazilian women. Antonio’s rules give the project a firm structure from which a subtle and beautifully observed narrative emerges.