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The Emperor’s New Clothes

November 13th, 2010

Everyone said, loud enough for the others to hear: "Look at the Emperor's new clothes, they're beautiful!", "What a marvellous train!", "And the colors! The colors of that beautiful fabric! I have never seen anything like it in my life!" They all tried to conceal their disappointment at not being able to see the clothes, and since nobody was willing to admit his own stupidity and incompetence, they all behaved as the two scoundrels had predicted.

Hans Christian Anderson from 'The Emperor's New Clothes'.

As the last weekend of the Brighton Photo Biennial passes, I am left still considering the strange episode that started the festival, the shooting of a photographic series by Carmen Soth the daughter of the established photographer and publisher Alec Soth.

For those that don't remember, on arrival in the UK with his family, Alec was refused permission to work in the UK and was unable to complete his commission for the Brighton Photo Biennial. Instead of chalking this up to experience, and finding a suitable alternative, it was decided that his 7 year old daughter Carmen should carry out the photography.

Now it could be considered that this was a bit of fun and not to be taken too seriously even if the British tax payer was footing the bill for the juvenile artist. But subsequently the South East UK based Photography organisation Photoworks published a book of the young Carmens photographs...

Brighton Picture Hunt book by Carmen Soth £15

Brighton Picture Hunt book by Carmen Soth £15

...and then released a limited edition print available for £150 unframed...

Limited Edition Print by 7 year old Carmen Soth produced by Photoworks

Limited Edition Print by 7 year old Carmen Soth produced by Photoworks

This monetization of the young 7 year old Carmens photographs is the interesting part, it represents the art worlds arbitrary ascribing of value, both artistic and financial to these juvenile snaps. I don't think I am the only one to see the art worlds mask quite obviously slip in this episode, Photoworks were swept along by the big artistic name of Alec Soth and taken in by his solution to the work visa problem without question, instead of using common sense and their own eyes and saying 'The Emperor is Naked' they went along with the ruse, published a book and limited edition prints effectively proclaiming "Look at the Emperor's new clothes. They're beautiful!".

Ironically, in Hans Christian Anderson's fable it was actually the innocence of a child that unmasked the pretense of the Emperor:

"A child who had no important job and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him, went up to the carriage and said "The Emperor is naked".

The unique exclusion from art world acceptance that street photographers have long experienced is increasingly becoming street photography's greatest strength rather than its weakness, episodes like the one above, where art photography's institutions and established characters play slight of hand tricks in order to create financial value out of nothing, become publicly transparent. The Street Photographer and the Photojournalist are virtually alone in being unsullied by such games. That integrity is at the heart of street photography, no festival curator, arts organisation or doting photo celebrity father can tell you which street photograph has value, artistic or financial. The value or not of a candid street image is evident, attempts to weave artistic mystery or ascribe artificial monetary value inevitably fail. There is no money to be made which is why I suspect there will again be no contemporary street photographs hanging in the stands of the big galleries at Paris Photo again this year. Symbolically, street photographs will, this year, be displayed outside the Paris Photo venue in shop windows around the Canal Saint Martin area. Maybe it will be the year that we see street photographs exchanging hands for hundreds of pounds inside the venue that we will actually need to be concerned that street photography has lost its way.

It takes great courage as a practicing photographer to stand up and call the art world out like the small child in Hans Christian Anderson's story but as street photographers we are in a unique position as we have nothing to lose.

I leave you with the work of a new undiscovered French based artist, all these images are available as digital C types in editions of 25.

Dead Snake, France 2010 by Etienne Turpin age 6.

Dead Snake, France 2010 by Etienne Turpin age 6.

Village Waterworks, France 2010 by Etienne Turpin age 6.

Village Waterworks, France 2010 by Etienne Turpin age 6.

Daddy Damming a Stream, France 2010 by Etienne Turpin age 6.

Daddy Damming a Stream, France 2010 by Etienne Turpin age 6.

The Artist

The Artist

37 Responses to “The Emperor’s New Clothes”

  1. Simon C

    ‘Value’ in the art world is always arbitrary. And how people judge the commodity value of a physical reproduction may have little to do with how much they value its artistic merit.

    In this case, I enjoyed Carmen’s photographs. I found them refreshingly naive. In terms of their commodity value, as mentioned above that’s got relatively little to do with the quality of the art. It’s the quality of the back story that matters – and in this case the back story has got legs.

  2. jacques philippe

    Well… I don’t follow you here.

    I can understand you feel somewhat frustrated by this episode. But finally, who are the very first responsible for that show ? I think it is Martin Parr (who curated the Bienniale) and Alec Soth himself in the first place, not a supposedly established “Art-World”. And speaking of the “monetization of the young 7 year old Carmens photographs” I am sure that the parents are in the first line for that, and they must be (speaking generally) – whilst I doubt that Alec Soth did that for the money.

    So… instead of accusing the “Art World” I think it would be more fair to directly challenge Alec Soth what he intended to do with that show and book. Or to think about what he intended to do. There is probably something interesting behind that…. or not.

    Was it a sort of pastiche ? I don’t know…. What I believe though is that Alec Soth is a smart person. And he was probably aware of the risks that this endeavor might imply. For his own reputation and also, to a certain extent, that of his daughter. So he must have had solid reasons to do that.

    I am sure that there were some people from the so-called “Art World” who thought like you “What the hell is that ?” and feel embarrassed by the situation. Instead of the whole Art-world singing in choir “Halleluhah”.

  3. Scott

    Is street photography really the only exclusion from the art world? I wouldn’t say it’s unique. What about fashion? I also often take a look at the forums at largeformatphotography.info and they’re full of moans about a lack of art world acceptance of traditional, black and white large format work, usually landscape or portraiture.

    I’m an artist working in a documentary style, I show my work in contemporary art galleries and publications, and even I find my type of work outside of the preferences of art communities in my area. I have no real problem with this, I see trends in the art world to be very cyclical, different styles fall in and out of fashion. 8 or 10 years earlier my work was probably the dominant style (until galleries and curators became sick of it), as it is in other parts of the world currently. Maybe in the future my type of work will come back into fashion, and will fall out of favour in other areas.

  4. Hernan Zenteno

    I coincide with you. Art world need some anecdote to add value for the art market. In the past i believe that art was something out of the marketing thing. But i learn that all is in the opposite side and several people live thanks to this market. But one knows when we are in front of an excellent street photo. I can´t see the show, only the photos that were showed in several blogs and i don´t found nothing in particular. Someone can say: yes for a child of that age. But not something that need a show and a book. Maybe i am blind to the Emperor’s new clothes. Or maybe I am an insensible one.

  5. Nine

    Quit it with the “Us” vs “Them” argument for street photography as if the genre is so hard done by.. it’s immature and it’s tarnishing your reputation Mr Turpin.

  6. Alec Soth

    I think Etienne’s pictures ‘Dead Snake’ and ‘Daddy Damning A Stream’ are excellent.

  7. Nick

    My criticism is not really of Alec Soth or his daughter but more of those like Photoworks and the Biennial organisers that allowed this episode to unfold as it did. Alec’s projects have been exceptional, he is deservedly respected as a photographer and having him make pictures in an English seaside town would have been an interesting exercise. But when it was discovered that he did not have the right visa to carry out that commission it should never have been passed to his daughter. For Photoworks to spend money publishing a book of her work and attribute her prints the value of £150 is in my opinion a more widely revealing act. It sheds a little light on the way the Photo Art world, of which Photoworks is without question a part, operates. Photography, especially for a state funded organisation, should not be all about the limited edition print, there are a plethora of private galleries that deal in that market place…but because organisations like Photoworks and The Photographers Gallery are only interested in that editioned print market they only promote large format conceptual photography.

    This is one of the reasons in-public were proud to show our 10th anniversary exhibition at Photofusion because they are open to proposals from all kinds of photographers and not just dazzled by established names or their daughters.

  8. Nick

    A reply over on Conscientious

    http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2010/11/who_is_pointing_at_the_emperor/

  9. blablabla

    I wish the art world did have secret handshakes and the like, maybe they could agree on showing better work with more substance. I’m with you on your thought/argument Nick. For me going further to say i find it a bit wrong on many different levels and Alec’s work of late has been a bit whicky, whicky whatever. You can see he’s being brave and experimental to his credit, but nahhhh….

  10. Blake

    I agree street photography has been shunned by the mainstream photo world but I wouldn’t say it’s unique in that. A lot of other photography has been pushed aside as well. I think the art world moves according to inscrutable and unpredictable forces, and in fact that is the type of art that’s usually championed. The more inscrutable and “new” it seems, the more likely it is to be favored. Of course the Emperor has no Clothes. That’s part of the game, ever since Duchamp. If someone says it’s art, and if you can get someone else to pay $$, it Is art. All of which should be no big deal for street photography which operates under slightly different parameters. Why should we care about art? We care about photography?

    Curious about Soth’s motives here, whether he is playing the game or taking aim at it.

  11. Zisis Kardianos

    The Emperor was naked not only as proved in the case of the little Carmen but as was also the case of a mid-career established Japanese artist Rinko Kawauchi (another Parr’s protigi) who was called upon to produce a Brighton based project on commission.
    Now I can understand the risks involved with limited time commissioned projects and that the result might not be in par with the artist’s reputation, but this cannot justify a work of a very poor quality.
    I have seen quite a few of the images – the best I suppose – in the relevant Photoworks magazine feature and are as pointless and void as little Carmen’s…and maybe even worst.

  12. Alec Soth

    Why when I leave a comment isn’t it accepted. Doesn’t the Emperor get to say anything?

  13. jacques philippe

    “(…) but because organisations like Photoworks and The Photographers Gallery are only interested in that editioned print market they only promote large format conceptual photography.”… But that is exactly what they did NOT do here, by publishing Carmen Soth photographs. They can’t be considered conceptual, and are not large format, are they ?

    Maybe you have a good point on saying that “a state funded organization, should not be all about the limited edition print, (since) there are a plethora of private galleries that deal in that market place”. But isn’t that a completely different topic ? and in what way does it deal with the kind of work they want to promote or not ?

    More generally what I don’t get here is the articulation you make between that episode (which IMO is interesting in itself and would deserve to think a little more about it – and I would really like to read Alec Soth elaborate on that) and your concern about the Art World ignoring contemporary street-photography.

    Could be that the Carmen Soth case is vaguely revealing something about how the Art-world works, but I doubt there is something new under the sun, nor do I believe it can be connected to the art-world status of contemporary street-photography.

  14. Sara

    I think this is brilliant. Photographers have to get over their complex that the art world doesn’t take them seriously. Instead of doing their thing, they feel threatened by a 7 year old.

    I have two children (4 and 6) and I have given them a camera and they take some really brilliant photos. They may not understand the technical ideas yet, but they have the wonerful imagination of a child. Picasso himself said “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”.

    I think this idea reveals more about photographers and their complexes than it does about the art world.

    ‎”Photography has always reminded me of the second child trying to prove itself. The fact that it wasn’t really considered an art; that it was considered a craft has trapped almost every serious photographer. ” – Richard Avedon

  15. David Gibson

    I find this debate very interesting and the actual event quite troubling. I also find it hard to pitch my comments just right and maybe the actual debate is the point but am I right in thinking that Alex Soth has remained fairly silent on the whole thing?

    Are his actions a protest or is he trying to make a serious point? Is he just having fun, or is he disrespectful to photography including perhaps his own photography? This debate is also about responsibility because surely the Brighton Photo Biennial are being disrespectful to photography because their event is about photography taken by adults. Most respected artists / photographers tend to be adults – they have worked at their craft over a number of years – and Yes, they are precious about their work, they are not flippant and ultimately I think the Brighton Photo Biennial have made a mistake. Carmen Soth’s photographs should go in children’s photo festival.

    Alex Soth on his website says that he likes ‘to take photographs and make books’ and I wonder if he just delights in collecting photographs and is not precious in some ways about who took the actual photographs. Is he a childlike himself, just being playful or is it all a clever protest?

    And limited edition prints by Carmon Soth at £150! Swear words come readily to mind here. Come on. Respect photography and respect the audience.

  16. jacques philippe

    In the little vid where Soth speaks with Martin Parr he start saying he has mixed feeling about the kind of quick commissioned work he was asked to do for the biennial. One of the point raised is that the outlook of such a work can be skewed by his relative (mis-)understanding of the place to document, its exoticism, as opposed to the place one knows well.

    I believe it is one key of the Carmen Soth project, at least in Soth mind. Seeing is daughter photographing anything without preconception, and snapping things that he is not interested in the first place could be some sort of stimulation, or revelation for him, in the process of approaching a place or whatever context you know few of and that you have to document. In the vid Soth is specific about that. I thing he partly did the project as a kind of experimentation for himself, but furthermore I believe the Carmen show should be seriously considered as Soth very contribution to the biennial, as it was originally planned before the work visa issue.

  17. Peter Marshall

    As I wrote on 13 Oct at http://re-photo.co.uk/?p=1140
    “Commissioning new work is always a gamble, and here I think the dice have rolled to give Brighton an near minimum score. Of course, having given commissions, the commissioning body is more or less obliged not only to show the work but to praise it inordinately whatever. But I found it hard to believe in emperor Parr’s new clothes.”

    Of course I wasn’t just talking about Carmen’s work, and I

  18. David Gibson

    Thinking about this more…offering limited prints taken by a child for £150 is just plain riduculous. How many have been bought I wonder?

  19. Peter Marshall

    Sorry, didn’t mean to finish my post at that point, but WordPress seemed to decide otherwise. But I won’t bother to repeat the rest of what I wrote there or in my other posts about the Brighton Biennial and Soth’s little difficulty.

    But I think Soth didn’t want to do Brighton. Otherwise he would have done it whatever the guy at the airport said. Photographers are flying into the UK (and other countries around the world) in hundreds every day and I can’t think a single one coming to the UK has ever had a work permit. I recall another Magnum photographer telling me he always travelled as a tourist.

    As for the book, I’d suggest waiting for ‘The Brighton Bunny Boy’ (by Carmen, Alec & Gus) available shortly from Little Brown Mushroom. For me it was one of the highlights in the show at the Museum in Brighton, although not of great photographic interest. I’ve seen many worse prints than Carmen’s for sale at higher prices in galleries, and on the evidence above she is rather more accomplished than E Turpin. And though I was disappointed not to see a proper Alec Soth show this did at least provoke some thought.

    I’m not at all convinced that the term ‘street photography’ has any real meaning, though most if not all of my work has been on the streets, but I’ve always considered the work of people like HCB, Frank, Winogrand, Friedlander etc to be at the core of photography, and you will find plenty of that on show in the stands at Paris Photo – probably something by most of those who get a mention in ‘Bystander’. As for more contemporary work I expect to see pictures by Trent Parke and a few others that I admire on show there.

    It doesn’t worry me too much what dealers sell and the art world validate. I’ve long felt we don’t really need them, though it annoys me to see public money going to that kind of thing rather than what I think of as real photography – which certainly includes what’s good in street photography. But we can keep on doing our thing, publishing on the Internet and through Blurb (the Brighton catalogue was Blurb) both giving us opportunities for sharing work that weren’t available only a few years ago.

    Looking through the shows in the ‘Mois’ there are quite a few that contain work that is in the tradition celebrated in Bystander. But one of the things I’ve learnt about Paris is that much of the best work is always in the Off, and I’m looking forward too seeing a reasonable proportion of the roughly 100 shows in the next week – including that actually on the streets around Canal St Martin. I’ll probably even take some pictures. Good for you for getting it there.

  20. Geraldo

    “The unique exclusion from art world acceptance that street photographers have long experienced is increasingly becoming street photography’s greatest strength rather than its weakness”

    Couldn’t agree more.

  21. Dan Gerber

    I guess I find a bit of confusion of points on this piece, stating that Photoworks is suddenly representative of the entire photo art world is a bit narrowminded. I understand if you don’t agree with the work, and the fact that it may have been funded with public money, but this stance you are taking is no different than many people here in the states who want the NEA to go away.

    I also find this a bit interesting after reading a bit about who you are:

    “Nick is a campaigner for the protection of the right of photographers to make pictures in a public place.”

    So, this doesn’t apply to 7 year old daughters of successful photographers?

    And about the fact that prints are for sale: If you don’t agree, don’t buy one! Pretty simple concept there.

  22. Blake

    Alec Soth says he’s tried to comment on this post but for some reason they haven’t been accepted. It would be interesting to get his take. Any idea why comments didn’t go through?

  23. jacques philippe

    “Thinking about this more…offering limited prints taken by a child for £150 is just plain riduculous”
    Thinking about it more, if Carmen Soth one day becomes a renowned photographer, or much better, a hugely successful pop star or actress I think it is not that ridiculous at all…

  24. David Gibson

    That is true. Carmen Soth may well become a renowed photographer one day and who knows what she might then think about her ‘early work’ attracting high prices but the decision to enter her work was very, very likely not hers but her father’s. That’s the whole point. And we don’t really know what point her father was trying to make. Sorry Alec Soth…half the problem is that we don’t know the whole story.

    By the way, I don’t rate Etienne Turpin’s early work that highly either but he is very good with Lego. On-line debates! I don’t normally get involved, I usually just lurk.

  25. jacques philippe

    David, you are absolutely right when you say “who knows what she might then think about her ‘early work’ attracting high prices”, whatever the career she finally will decide to have (my point was merely to argue that buying “art” is often just a bet done on return on investment). That is why I said before that Mr Soth must have a solid reason for this project, otherwise than just a sort of joke, because he must be aware of the risk for his and his daughter’s reputation… But I am just rambling and yes, we know half of the story.

  26. Dan Gerber

    I will say that one nice interesting side-effect of this dialogue is that we get to see some work that the children of photographers are doing, and I think it is refreshing! They have such an uncontrived view of the world around them.

    I also admit that not being a “street photographer”, some of the issues within the particular genre are probably lost on me. I agree to the comments that there are also many different types of photography and art that are overlooked in favor of what is popular at any given time frame in the larger art world.

  27. John Wilson

    The Work Permit story just doesn’t add up. If Soth was prevented from working in the UK because he was an alien without a work permit then how was his daughter allowed to “work” in the UK? Surely editing images is as much working as making them in the first place and as Soth selected and edited the images he was working.

    It smells like a publicity stunt for the Brighton Photo Biennial to me.

  28. Tim Mitchell

    A brilliant debate!
    What we could do with now is someone from photoworks joining the discussion to give their side of things….

  29. pierre yves racine

    I think Alec Soth remains the co-author of this work as he accompanied his daughter during the project, and she drew a list as he usually does. More importantly, I think he is the one who selected and sequenced the photos and that is so so important..

    But maybe they did it together ? It would be interesting to have Alec’s insight on this.

  30. Martin Hanna

    It all feels like a comedy of errors. Soth arrives in Heathrow and is surprised to find he needs a work permit. He explains that to Photoworks and somehow to save everyone’s embarrassment Carmen finds herself the artist. At no point did anyone call time out on this farce and just accept it just wasn’t meant to be. No, once it gained momentum, no one wanted to look stupid and call it out for what it was.

  31. J. wesley Brown

    Joerg’s (who may or may not see this) examples of street photographers who’ve been accepted are laughable. Of course they were accepted…back then! But not now. You really think a photographer could shoot varied how Eggleston does and have similar success these days? I highly doubt it, especially having seen his retrospective, but I’d love to be proven wrong.

    There are no more Szarkowski’s and THAT is a huge problem. The last time a unique, standout, and unknown photographer was promoted and vouched for in the way Szarkowski did for many during his tenure, was the Whitney with McGinley in 2003.

    Nice post, Nick.

    A quote I see as related from Jack Levine:

    “I felt from my early days that good and bad weren’t simply aesthetic questions,” he told American Artist magazine in 1985. “You have to defend the innocent and flay the guilty.”

  32. skippo

    Parr was hoping for great work, but was given stuff scraped up from the bottom of the bucket. All the work at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery was disappointing. Down hill Mississippi. And the starlings? How many do you want: http://www.google.co.uk/images?hl=&q=brighton+starlings&rlz=1B7GGLL_enGB378GB378&um=1&ie=UTF-8&source=univ&ei=cJflTMGkLJK1hAey95iHDQ&sa=X&oi=image_result_group&ct=title&resnum=2&ved=0CCsQsAQwAQ&biw=1681&bih=930 . Carmen was the best of the lot, bless her, but really, this is the Brighton Photo Biennial and if she were older I don’t think she would want to be piggy backing.

  33. skippo

    Oh and Stephen Gill, playing the same old damn record – pretty

  34. Skippo

    Interesting how you are deleting legitimate comments!

  35. Matt

    It’d be interesting to hear Photoworks on this. A note on chronology – the books were evidently prepared in advance of the exhibition, as they were available in the shop of the gallery where Soth, Kawauchi and Gill’s work was displayed. If Photoworks is still selling them, it could well be surplus stock, or else print-on-demand as they already have the book layout finalised. The print sale – well, if you don’t like them, you don’t have to buy them, though given that theprintspace charges about a tenner for a print that size, the price seems a little eyewatering to me. How much of that is down to Photoworks, though?

    That’s the money side – and I’d agree that the prices seem inflated. But the underlying critique seems a little tendentious. Is it really the case that money has distorted the work? It seems to me that the photographers have carried on in their usual vein, just in Brighton as required by the commission. Soth’s little videos on the NYT site are equally opaque and intriguing, to my mind, and usually generate the same negativity in the comments as seen here. Personally I rather liked Kawauchi’s work, as I found it rather evocative even if it was a little hit-and-miss.

    And at the same time, there’s been hardly any comment here on Gill’s work, which I found to a pretty pointless, mastubatory exercise in doodling with a camera. Instead everyone’s attacking Soth and Kawauchi, whose work you may not like but at least had a point to it and some aesthetic appeal. Gill’s work consisted of fairly bland scenes barely discernible behind the junk he had rattling around inside the camera body, and I struggled to find any way to engage with it at all.

    And finally, a lot of the comment on the Parr-curated Biennial has been focused on the two most famous photographers exhibited there. Far larger were the exhibitions of vernacular and lesser-known photographers — and they were also by far the most interesting and stimulating part of the Biennial. Which makes me wonder how much of the criticism of the big names stems from, to be frank, jealousy – or at least, anger that the kind of photography that was headlined in the media coverage was not to the viewer’s tastes. I don’t know.

    But I find it interesting that a blog that on the one hand lauds the fact that street photography has been kept out of the mainstream of art photography is so critical of an exhibition that went out of its way to explore the more unorthodox trends in contemporary photography – instead of giving us yet another repetitive display of the starving and the bed-ridden, largely in Africa, in Natchwey-esque grainy B&W, which would probably have met with much more critical approval. Particularly given that public funding usually means catering to the lowest common denominator, it was commendable of the organisers to take a risk on Parr as curator, and commendable of him to take risks with who he chose for the exhibition.

  36. Nick

    Skippo, not deleting anything except spam, the first comment from a new visitor requires moderating, the comments you see appearing straight away are from people who have commented previously.

  37. Daniel

    Matt – a good comment. I agree with some, but not all.

    The Biennial was a very broad mix. The gritty photography was there in patches, but it was happily eclipsed by exhibitions such as the vernacular one and the one at the old co-op. The Stephen Gill photos were an interesting leader into his site specific work. I have since bought a copy of Field Studies and can recommend it to any photographer, street, traditional, or whatever. You learn a load about observation and commitment to a theme, all bundled up in a nice looking book (as are pretty much all by Chris Boot).

    The point of Brighton was to show work that wouldn’t be seen on the circuit at other photo festivals. It was to give people something to talk about and give a platform to established photographers, but also many lesser known ones. The photos by Soth’s kid are a perfect example of this. Soth helped her come up with the lists. He walked around with her. He helped with the editing. He has brought her up. She will see with Soth-ish eyes (if that’s makes sense), in the same way that Turpin and gang see with a combo of Henri Cartier Bresson’s eyes and many other street photographers before and since.

    The whole thing has presented a couple of interesting questions –

    Which other Magnum photographer could have got away with curating such a show?

    And which other Magnum photographer could have got away with exhibiting photos by his kid?

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