Tag Archives: 1984

Alexander Gardner

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Alexander Gardner –
Visionary Photographer of the American Civil War
By Keith Steiner
Matador – 25.00

How does a camera lie? In this naming of parts, the ways are legion. Most would not question the facts of the doctoring, editing, adjusting of photographs in the modern age of sophisticated airbrushing. The term to ‘photoshop’ is synonymous with contemporary photography in the same manner as to ‘hoover’ is synonymous in domestic management. The alteration of photographs either pre or post exposure is now commonplace, and is not broadly regarded as a breach of ethical standards. The new trope takes its place in a world teeming with smartphone and tablet authored photographs. These photographs engage in stylised composition and promulgate a number of common tropes. Their number renders their imagery indistinct and sometimes invisible.

                                                                                                        (‘The Fallen Man’)

With the advent of fake-news currently marauding the airwaves like an out-of-control tyrant from fake-hell; just as much could readily be applied to photography – could it not?

Along with every schism and trajectory thereof.

Just two, highly in-depth qualities which Keith Steiner address, head on might I add, throughout  Alexander Gardner – Visionary Photographer of the American Civil War.

 

A rather lavishly put together book, which takes both the reader as well as the fan of the photograph on something of a magical mystery tour that’s deeply embedded within some of the most perplexing confines of politics, psychology and photography.

The above quotation ought to send many a curious mind unto perpetual motion; the final terminus of which, as Steiner reminds us in the chapter ‘Reflections on a Looking Glass: The Tragedy of Lewis Payne: The Enigma of Identity,’ invariably reads: ”At risk are the very notions of personhood, selfhood, integrity, identity and personal agency. Readers may recall the blood freezing discarnate incantation which transfixed Orwell’s Winston Smith in Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1949) at his moment of greatest intimacy, privacy and personal realisation – ”You are dead.”

From the tragic Rose Woods of Gettysburg to the equally tragic destruction of New York’s Twin Towers, this book’s powerful assimilation of photographs (and I do mean powerful within the catafalque like context of poignancy), truly are something to behold.

If not believe.
If not try and eventually come to terms with.

As such, the 165 pages of Alexander Gardner – Visionary Photographer of the American Civil War are unsurprisingly special.

As Elizabeth Rigby (later Lady Eastlake) once said in 1857: ”Photography has become a household word and a household want… is found in the cell of the convict… and on the cold brave breast on the battlefield.”

David Marx

Prepared For The Worst

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Prepared For The Worst – Selected Essays and Minority Reports
By Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books – £16.99

Apart from the fact that the standard of writing really is second to none, Christopher Hitchens, was, still is, renowned for taking his reader on a lively and most intellectual journey that can only be described as a combination of mordant wit and provocative prowess.

Each of Prepared For The Worst’s five sections is simply uber-jam-packed with the sort of dissectory analysis akin to that of say John Pilger, only without quite so much politicised, social commentary, and perhaps more flair for a variety of subjects that range from Graham Greene to Thomas Paine (”Merely by stating the obvious and sticking to it, Paine had a vast influence on the affairs of America, France, and England. Many critics and reviewers have understated the thoroughness of Paine’s comment, representing him instead as a kind of Che Guevara of the bourgeois revolution”), Pat Robertson to Albert Camus (”Camus had a knack for noticing grotesque things – not just in individuals, but in attitudes”), the questionably unresolved Watergate Scandal to Kim Dae Jung to one of my all time favourite writers, George Orwell, in an overtly thought provoking essay.

Aptly entitled ‘Comrade Orwell’) it begins: ”Orwell has been smothered with cloying approbation by those who would have despised or ignored him when he was alive, and pelted him with smug after-thoughts by those who (often unwittingly or reluctantly) shared the same trenches as he did. The present climate threatens to stifle him in one way or the other.”

This alone sets the literary, semi-politicised pace for what’s to follow, which, for all intents and persuasive purposes, is an essay littered with a number of sentences that are simply tailored made for academic questioning and further analysis:

”Orwell seldom wrote about foreigners, except sociologically, and then in a hit-or-miss fashion otherwise unusual to him; he very rarely mentions a foreign writer and has an excessive dislike of foreign words; although he condemns imperialism he dislikes its victims even more.,” – Discuss.

”It would be dangerous to blind ourselves to the fact that in the West millions of people may be inclined, in their anguish and fear, to flee from their own responsibility for mankind’s destiny and to vent their anger and despair on the giant Bogey-cum-Scapegoat which Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four has done so much to place before their eyes.,” Discuss.

”He was a materialist and a secularist – particularly hostile to the Roman Catholic heresy – but had a great reverence for tradition and for liturgy.,” – Discuss.

As Hitchens himself contends of this superb collection of essays: ”I suppose that, if this collection has a point, it is the desire of one individual to see the idea of confrontation kept alive.” And who, with the possible exceptions of George Osborne and those who work in either insurance or advertising, would want to argue with such razor induced profundity?

Prepared For The Worst is a terrific book and first of a number of Christopher Hitchens books I shall be reviewing in the near future.

David Marx

George Orwell – English Rebel

George Orwell English Rebel

George Orwell – English Rebel
By Robert Colls
Oxford University Press – £25.00

In ‘Last of England,’ the penultimate chapter of this refreshingly vibrant and all round excellent new book, George Orwell – English Rebel, its author Robert Colls writes: ”[…] Orwell’s best hope is a woman, and his England begins to look increasingly feminine after 1940. Being inside a whale (and what a whale) is like being inside a womb.”

To what extent the reader will emphatically agree or perhaps disagree with such a double-edged thought process – is surely open to debate. For like many an Orwellianism (and there were many), there’s no denying its translucent sentiment and quintessential complex clarification. What’s more, it’s just a tiny tip of a literary iceberg that readily brims with the ”crystal spirit” of Orwell’s idiosyncratic writing(s) and complicated, if not sanguine, personal life – a life delicately reflected upon throughout (”Their wedding menu was splendidly English: Roast Aylesbury Duckling and Sherry Cream Trifle. In 1938 they submitted photographs to the British Consulate prior to their trip to Marrakech. He looks handsome and she looks pretty, both in an an English film-star sort of way”).

Indeed, from his early frustrating days at Eton to the eye-opening five years in Burma; from his overtly influential Wigan period through to Barcelona and Catalonia; from the Luftwaffe filled skies of London during the Blitz to the twentieth century classic that is Nineteen Eighty Four, these eight chapters make for nigh mesmerising reading. And they’re so dense yet compact. So pivotal yet simultaneously objective.

Admittedly, I haven’t read every book on Orwell – who has? But English Rebel is as much a stimulating read as it is inspiring. Although more importantly, it’s acutely informative.

According to Melvyn Bragg: ”Rob Colls has taken on the man’s Englishness, his personality, warts and all, and the elusive notion that he was a rebel in his own land.”

I can’t help but agree, as from the very first chapter ‘Angry Old Etonian,’ the author immediately leans towards said rebellious notion wherein he most adroitly writes: ”He loathed nationalism, but defined Englishness for a generation. He was an enemy of the right, but had little to say in favour of the left. He was no friend of the left, but tried to work within it. He was violently opposed to totalitarianism, but had little interest in political parties. He didn’t write well about women but tried, in one novel at least, to write about being a woman, and in his last novel he invested his best hope, such as it was, in one woman and (almost) all women. He did not trust intellectuals, but mixed with them, was one himself, and never tried to pretend otherwise, though sometimes he conveniently forgot the fact.”

The final line here, does suggest that Colls isn’t afraid to shoot from the hip so to speak, although one cannot help but commend the ever so deft consideration of the above. As it’s all true.

George Orwell was, and to a certain degree, remains, all that which the author has written – and a whole lot more besides; which, in a round-a-bout sort of way, is re-confirmed a little later in ‘Angry Old Etonian’: ”Orwell was against all the major world systems of his day, including nationalism and Catholicism. Apart from an early gut attraction to a sort of folk Marxism where ‘the oppressed are always right and the oppressors are always wrong,’ he did not believe in political ideologies either.”

The latter is perhaps a little ironic, especially given that Orwell is still considered (by many) to be ”the most significant British political writer of the twentieth century.” In and of itself, this continues to be re-substantiated in countless ways. One of which is the simple fact that he has an entire square named after him in Barcelona – a wonderful, yet inexorable/political/contentious hotspot in Catalonia/Spain if ever there was one.

Replete with eighteen black and white plates in the middle of the book, these 235 pages are, to once again quote Bragg: ”full of zesty prose, fine insights, and a freshness of interpretation which made it a pleasure to read. It’s a major achievement and a major work on George Orwell.”

That, it most definitely is.

To say George Orwell – English Rebel packs a mighty mean punch to the political solar plexus of both naïve distraction and myopic conformity, is a colossal understatement. Then again, as a publication, it is helped along its way by the simple fact that it’s subject ”believed that telling the truth was a revolutionary act.”

David Marx