In the early 1900s, Paul Thulin’s great-grandfather settled on the coast of Maine, reminded of his homeland of Sweden. Thulin’s family has returned to Gray’s Point each summer ever since, and Thulin has been working on a project there, called Pine Tree Ballads, for over a decade. Initially inspired by his grandfather’s photographs, he hopes it has “a subtext of struggle and hope that mirrors my narrative sense of self and heritage”.
BJP: How did you first get into photography?
PT: My journey into photography started as a way to rebel against my growing contempt and frustration with the limits of language to effectively communicate. In 1996, I returned from a stressful year of studying Philosophy in a Master’s program at Syracuse University and I remember wanting to escape into the mountains to possibly join a Zen monastery. I wanted to meditate and remain silent in an effort to really just experience the world.
This desire led me to discover the writings and images of photographers Minor White, Frederick Sommer, and Emmet Gowin, as their mystical and spiritual use of photography intrigued me. Before I knew it, I borrowed a 35mm camera to try to make meaningful images of my own and I was hooked.
2019 marks a quarter of a century since Val Williams’ curated her seminal exhibition, Who’s looking at the family? at the Barbican in London. In photography, a lot has changed over 25 years, including the introduction of new technologies that have reshaped the way in which we make and consume images, and the changing definitions of what constitutes a photographer.
“On the one hand I thought it might be interesting to speculatively chart that development, but also to rethink notions of the family at the same time,” says Tim Clark, editor of 1000 words magazine and curator of this year’s Photo50 exhibition at London Art Fair. “The idea seemed to chime with a lot of people. I think that’s the key point about family, it’s a great unifying subject. Everyone can relate to it.”
Growing up, photographer Tom Roche learned about his Romani Gypsy heritage only through fragmentary stories and speculation. “My great, great uncle was stabbed in the heart with a wooden stake because he owed money for land,” says Roche, a recent University of the West of England graduate. “Then I had one aunt, aunt Liz, who used to pick crops, one aunt that made baskets, and another who sold pegs – or so I’m told; I don’t have any images, records, or concrete facts of my ancestors.”
“Tish believed that photography was an important form of visual communication that could stimulate discussions about real life situations and captured accurate records of the world we live in. She was trying to force people to look at the truth and learn from it,” explains Ella Murtha, the daughter of the documentary photographer. In honour of her mother’s memory, Ella has put together a new photobook, Youth Unemployment, which gathers Tish Murtha’s work photographing poverty-ridden communities in Newcastle in the 70s and 80s. Raw, powerful and emotional, Murtha has captured youngsters trying to survive turbulent economic times, when they had limited prospects – something which has recently come full circle as a new generation has had to deal with the global financial crisis.
“It was also about reshaping that American icon: everyone thinks of the cowboy as this white American hero who has come to slay Native Americans. Actually the word cowboy is a racist term. It comes from when slave masters called all their slaves ‘boys’ and so the cow boy was the boy who looked after the cows and the horse boy was the boy who looked after the horses.” Cian Oba-Smith journeys to Philadelphia at a politically charged time during the 2016 U.S. election to meet with an infamous group of horsemen dealing with this ingrained racism on a daily basis.
“Before photographically-illustrated magazines or newspapers, before television and Facebook networks existed, in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, picture postcards were sent by the hundreds of millions worldwide,” writes John Kasmin, introducing his series of five photobooks on postcards published today. Kasmin is an art dealer who most notably works with 20th century abstract painters, but he’s also an avid collector of early postcards. First popularised in the late 19th century, postcards were an early way to send “images of peoples, places and events to inform and entertain the recipients”, and their use peaked in the early 20th century as printing costs reduced. Some of the subjects may surprise contemporary viewers, and the five volumes of Kasmin’s photobook series are divided by unexpected theme – Elders collects postcards detailing the older generation around the world; Scrub focuses on washing rituals in various societies; Meat is a bloody volume showcasing slaughterhouses and the butchers who worked there; Size shows people of all shapes and sizes going about their lives. The fifth volume, Wreck, shows intriguing, sometimes tragic, …
“This portrait does not simply show a man who earns a living as a tattoo artist but the reason why that living is so important to him – his family,” says Jamain Gordon, reflecting on the portrait of Ricardo and his daughter outside their home and tattoo parlour in the South American country of Guyana. “It was Ricardo who wanted to have his daughter in the photograph and the warmth of their relationship can clearly be seen.” The image is now featured in a photobook, One People, One Nation, One Destiny, which shows the traditions and culture of this small but proud country.
“The beautiful blooms seemed lonely and desolate. Sadly, it reminded me of the fact that soon it would be razed to the ground, into dull but common urban landscape with standing skyscrapers,” says Lv Meng. His photograph comes from the series Urban Fringes which explores the growth of megacities as the slowly expand outwards and take over the countryside.
“There was Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the American occupation but also the uprising of students and farmers against the seizure of land for Narita Airport. It all unleashed the desire of the young generation to say that they had enough,” says Manfred Heiting as he introduces The Japanese Photobook. In a century of vast changes, from traditions to technology, empire to war, the photobook became an institution in its own right in Japan, documenting the history of the country as it happened.
A young boy who became a French resistance fighter as just a teenager; a German fighter who lost an arm; a Kazakhstani field nurse; an Indian deployed to fight the Japanese in Burma; a Holocaust survivor who is today a Donald Trump supporter. Sasha Maslov’s photobook Veterans travels the world to meet with some of the last surviving servicemen and women of the Second World War, a conflict whose impact is still being felt some seven decades after the conflict finished.