Lucy Bentham on England / Brussels
The parcel arrived wrapped in delicate brown paper, but adorned with FRAGILE tape in such a way that immediately suggested what was inside was going to be FRAGILE beyond its materiality. There are no words to accompany this zine; no indication of what we are about to look at and not even a hint of who has made the work until the end. Then a handwritten note on a scrap of lined paper falls out from the packaging:
Hands with money
and a fair society
what a wanker!
suits on the phone
old hands hold tighter
10/19 C. Mear
Both front and back cover images depict men in suits, ignoring the camera, the photographer, everyone else. Presumably the suits on the phone are those Mear mentions in his note. The results of photographing people from behind gives me a sense of distance from their company, forever left out. Alternatively, considering how the subjects might feel, Susan Sontag talks of photographing people as ‘violat(ing) them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically posessed.’ 1 Is this how Mear feels? Is he exposing them? Does he want them to see who they are outside of their own constructed personas? What part do they play in this narrative? As it turns out, they play the lead role.
Briefly perusing the zine for any text reveals the longest sentence, and the biggest clue, at the end:
These photographs were made between England and Brussels (Belgium), between 2016 and 2019.
A fact. Placing the work, and nothing more (unless, of course, you may have heard about the EU situation?).
The narrative begins with a high-contrast monochrome photograph of three hands, each holding two coins (one from each nation), the ‘Hands with money’ from Mear’s note. Begging? Demonstrating all they have? Offering? Perhaps this is symbolic of their journeys between the two places, that they belong in both places, that the places are not so different from each other. Then, we are plunged into four pages of darkness. There is already a strain here, between the men in suits and the others. The men in suits symbolically represented in the light, the hands with the coins in the darkness.
The first image of a ‘man in a suit’ is strewn with indicators of his persona: a plastic bottle of water to be drunk from a plastic cup (this man does not drink from the bottle or care about the environment), a mouse connected to his laptop (nor does he use his track pad), his outfit a stiff suit (to be completed by the casual bucket hat in case of inclement weather), and his phone charging (presumably he’s been on it all day talking about particularly crucial issues). He is thoughtful and concerned. Elsewhere, other men in suits are holding their phones, two are almost holding hands. They clutch paperwork, briefcases, umbrellas, their own chins to help them think, their own importance.
Those on the other side, in the darkness, hold onto coins, beers, hope, bags for life, and their empty pockets. Hide under hoodies and show their cool, they’re cool, with hand gestures that call the men in suits all wankers. They travel around, staring out of windows on public transport at the landscape that is being changed, they don’t know why or how much profit is in it for the men in suits, but that’s not for them to know. That’s up to the wankers.
Are we witnessing an interplay of class and power distribution? The men in suits are boldly trying to sort out everyone else’s lives while everyone else bumbles around, gets bossed around, struggles with their coins and the shopping, under the control of the ‘men in suits’, the men in power with their briefcases and significant phone calls, playing their lives like a game of The Sims, ending in disaster.
With so much reference to men, I cannot ignore the fact that the majority of people depicted in this zine are men, if not purely because, from the words of John Berger:
‘A man’s presence is dependent on the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence.’2
That these men in suits rarely fill a majority of the frame suggests that their promises are weak, defective, and yet they hold the power. Paradoxically, the ‘other’ men fill more of the frame, with their bellies, their attitudes and the sense of presence emanating from the older man standing outside of a charity shop. The suits have their backs turned, are ignorant, too busy. The others are questioning, direct eye contact, defending, piercing.
In Mear’s work, there is little sign of the photographer himself. He is positioned at a distance from the men in suits, framing them in the light that surrounds them and, yet, his proximity to the others is close, investigative and involved. One image of a man in a suit is particularly striking, he’s made eye contact with the lens – is he happy about it or too busy to care? To me, the look is penetrating and I wonder if Christopher feels comfortably distant enough to not be hit by it. An additional sense of his presence is that of something being said, and in rather a definitive manner; it seems quite clear on whose side he is.
To finish, the zine plunges us into darkness again before a black crow completes the series and asks ‘am I bad luck and death, or good fortune and prophecy?’. It is for the viewer to decide with whom they stand, on which side of this FRAGILE channel they reside.
- Published by Photograd, 2019
Lucy Bentham on Coalville Photographed by Graham Ellis
At first glance, the cover of this book gives little detail as to what might be found within the pages. A series of eight QR codes are neatly arranged above the title suggesting, perhaps, that this book contains a cold, technological study of something, well, cold and technology based. The reality is quite different.
In fact, the book contains fifty images made by both the author and the photographer he has collaborated with to construct this narrative. Mear has followed a fellow photographer making photographs in his local area in order to become closer to the place and this has resulted in a deeper understanding of both the place and methodology. Initially, this method of documenting place becomes twice removed from the subject as Mear puts himself of the position of the documenter documenting the documenter. I am drawn to this notion in the way that if only we could document ourselves as we undertake a project, our methodologies would be in the spotlight, and what becomes of our chosen subjects?
It is clear, throughout the book, that Mear is continually questioning Ellis about his methods and position as a photographer and vice versa:
‘How much do you want to be an ‘excellent’ photographer? Is it something you want to do or is it something you’re going to do? But what’s the difference?’
Ellis asks this of Mear and Mear asks a number of questions pertaining to photography as an art with a series of interspersed quotations from famed photographers throughout.
We pursue Mear following Ellis during the series of moving images (found on YouTube via the QR codes) and, if you can see around the few technical issues – like the increasingly maddening flatlining sound from the van, or the obstruction of road noise drowning Ellis’ voice – then these monochrome records deepen our connection with Ellis. In contrast to the sense gauged from the book, the moving image additionally distances Mear from his associations with the place, presenting mostly as the cameraperson with a few indications that he remains as the camera occasionally wanders off to the side to look at something he is interested in, not Ellis. Because of this apparent distinction, I question whether the book and the moving image are unified from the perspective of the viewer. The moving image existing without the book makes Mear invisible and puts him in the sole position of the cameraperson – yet his presence is palpably felt within the pages of the book.
This book, and the project it contains, is achingly familiar as a documentary project of place. But it goes much further in positing a breadth of questions regarding the role of the photographer and the relationships held between practising photographers. Especially considering those making projects about the ‘same’ place or subject, it has to be noted that this book also defines the distinctions between how crucial the position of the photographer is, how our subjectivities are central to what we see, and the varieties of experience we bring to each enquiry or investigation.
- Published by Photograd, 2014
Maurice Maguire on Just Passing By
This book is the third part of a progressive collection of photographs that sets out a number of stark and intimate images of Coalville, with a focus on Snibston Colliery and Snibston Discovery Museum and people passing by in 2014.
It was commissioned as part of the Transform Arts Programme established to 'change the image of Snibston' in 2010. It represents a further stage in a journey of exploration of the area and its importance by the photographer Christopher Mear who began his association with Transform as an apprentice in 2011.
Just Passing By is a narrative of place - picking up on the feelings, memories, stories and perspectives of local people who have offered their take on the current nature of this area and how it has altered over its recent history. It offers us all a new understanding of place based on the ingredients that hold and connect us to a location, and the way that people engage with it to build new meanings and understandings. Place is a rich and complicated interplay of people and environment and this idea is captured in the work presented here.
Chris has worked tirelessly to edit to a selection of images and viewpoints offered by local people in response to the idea of capturing the feelings of this place at this particular point in time, we are all just passing by - for a short while the custodians of our habitations. His own narrative is interwoven in the process of developing his perspectives of Coalville and its surroundings over his lifetime in the area and he blends this well while allowing other voices to tell their small part of this larger story.
As this book is published the Transform programme comes to its natural end having commissioned a significant body of work, of and about this place and the collections of the museum, which inhabit Snibston Discovery Museum today. This book is something of a farewell too, but it also looks to a future as well as celebrating or bemoaning a past - it is after all just set in a moment in time.
Just Passing By successfully marries together individual views to build a collective story - not a polemic, but a story which suggests a strong sense of ownership and loss.
Chris has also worked closely with Tom Box, a designer, originally from Coalville and a regular part-time worker at Snibston in his student years. Their collaboration and skills provide a keen and perceptive study in print.
Just Passing By is a fitting final project output for Transform, and does what the programme aimed to achieve, offering a different perspective and indeed changing the image of Snibston.
- From Just Passing By, Published by Snibston Discovery Museum, 2014