December 20, 2013

Friday Round Up - The Last Post for 2013

This week is the last Friday Round Up for the year. We wish you a happy and safe festive season. The next post will be on 17th January when we will also publish the next instalment in the Tim Page Unseen series; Sri Lanka.

Looking back it's been a huge year. I've written many feature stories from numerous interviews I've conducted around the world. I've written about luminaries like Sebastiao Salgado, Don McCullin and Tim Page, and younger photojournalists Muhammed Muheisen, Majid Saeedi and award winners Sara Lewcowicz and Robin Hammond. I've also reviewed numerous photography festivals here and in Europe. Visa pour l'Image in Perpignan, Unseen Photo Fair in Amsterdam and Noorderlicht Photo Festival in Groningen (The Netherlands) were all food for the soul. In Australia I covered our major photo events including Head On Photo Festival and Reportage in Sydney, as well as Ballarat's International Foto Biennale. And I reported on the demise of Australia's premiere documentary photography festival, Foto Freo. In addition I finished my thesis "Has the Critical Mirror Shattered? What is the future for professional photojournalism in the digital new age?" with first class honors and next year it will be published. So like I said, it's been a huge year.

For the final Friday Round Up for 2013 there's a little bit of rock 'n' roll, with my interview earlier this week with Tony Levin, bass player extraordinaire, who has played with virtually everybody! He'll be in Australia and New Zealand in January with his band, The Crimson ProjeKCt. There's also two book reviews - Naples A Way of Love and Top Secret - two books that are polar opposites. Enjoy reading this week's blog. Until 2014.

Tony Levin – King Crimson Bass Player Turns Lens on Fans
Alison Stieven-Taylor

Renowned as one of the most innovative bass players in the world, American Tony Levin has been performing since the 1960s and has played with everyone from John Lennon and Peter Gabriel to Paul Simon and Lou Reed. Throughout his career he’s always had his camera at the ready and has managed to photograph many of the musicians he’s played with as well as turning his lens on the audience.

I spoke with Levin this week via Skype while he was tinkering in his New York studio in between tour dates. He’ll be in Australia and New Zealand in June now (it was January) with The Crimson ProjeKCt, a band that combines his trio The Stick Men, named after the stick bass he plays, and guitarist Adrian Belew’s Power Trio. Like Levin, Belew was a member of King Crimson in the early 1980s and he’s another who has played with a host of superstars including David Bowie and Talking Heads.

Levin tells that The Crimson ProjeKCt was formed around three years ago. “We play as much King Crimson as we can and from different eras. It’s quite a treat for us and the audience loves it.” He says fans will see “a pretty full show with both bands playing our own sets. Then all six of us get together on stage to play”.

In a former life when I was writing for music magazines like Rolling Stone I would have talked to him more about his music, but today it’s all about photography and Levin is keen to chat as it isn’t a topic he has often been interviewed about.

He tells me how photography has provided him with a creative release that helps to chew up the hours of being on the road. “The music is always great, but that other 22 hours everyday, for those of us who like to think of ourselves as creative, photography really is a great hobby”. 

But Levin’s photographs are much more than tour snaps, and for decades he’s been photographing the audience from a unique perspective; it’s not often we see what rock stars are seeing from the stage. If ever there was doubt that the power of music is truly trans-cultural and transformational, then you only have to look at Levin’s images of concertgoers from around the world. 

“Because of my unusual vantage point of being on stage really for my whole life, with some small acts and some big acts, I get this great view every night of the audience which the audience never gets to see.” He says the Internet has given him the freedom to share these images to a global audience. “One of the great things, the lucky breaks in my life, has been to have a website and share those pictures on the web. I found that the fans really love seeing what they look like from our perspective on stage. And of course if I have in the foreground the back of Peter Gabriel’s head then that’s even better.”

Levin is a self-confirmed tech head. He was one of the first to start a blog way back in 1996 when the word blog didn’t exist. Since then he’s been posting images to his Papa Bear website and sharing his view of the world of music, from both a performance perspective and from life on the road and in the studio. His love of photography has resulted in an amazing collection that spans decades becoming an unintentional social documentation of the world of contemporary music. 

Before shutter speeds were what they are now, Levin would set up his camera on a tripod on stage and fire it with a foot pedal that sat amongst his other bass pedals. “In those days I had to focus the camera before the show and guess at where Peter Gabriel was going to be at a certain time and try and arrange myself so I wasn’t between the camera and him,” he explains. “But because we do the same show every night generally on a tour I would take that same picture a 100 or 200 times and sooner or later I would get lucky and everybody would look okay”.

He continues. “Obviously I jumped on auto-focusing and that was a big help for me. At some point I stopped putting it on a tripod I think because I already had every picture I could get of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel from that one vantage point. Since then when I have a couple of seconds break I pick up the camera and take a picture of the other guys. But it is the time at the end of the show when the audience is hopefully clapping and maybe standing up that is really great. If I can talk to the lighting guy in advance and get him to put a little light on the audience then when we go out for the bows I just take my camera with me”.

“Certainly any fan of mine knows that I do that, and they all wave at me when I take my camera out, and I get these really precious pictures of an audience. You can feel the energy of the audience from the pictures, and that’s what is really special. Not that I am technically doing anything special, but it is a precious thing that they give to us on stage and I think I am lucky to be able to capture that.”

Levin has taken photographs for as long as he can remember and he was an early adopter of digital, although he now laments that choice, as the images from that time are too small. But digital has made life much easier and he recalls the days when film made uploading images to his website a laborious process. But he still leans towards a classic film look with his penchant for black and white, grainy photographs. 

Before digital he says, “I’d be touring Europe with Peter Gabriel, and take the picture, wait till I could get to a one-hour photo place – do you remember those? Then I would have to ship the prints to Orlando, Florida where my web guy was and he would scan the photos and put them up on the page. That process took at least a week, and cost a lot of money. Now I go back to my hotel room and by three in the morning the photos are up there, unless I feel like sleeping that night, but I’d rather mess with my photos”.

Often touring means seeing the inside of planes, buses, venues and hotel rooms with little time for exploring the cities he is playing in. But on this year’s European tour with Peter Gabriel he had a few days off each week. “So I could go around the city and I kind of got excited about shooting cathedrals, so that’s what’s on the blog from the last tour”. 

Levin says that when it comes to using technology there are a lot of similarities in music and visual arts. While he’s always keen to try something new it’s important to make a distinction between something that will stand the test of time or what is a fad.

“The question is, does it absolutely look, or sound, like the effect of that year, which went out of date very quickly and was over used? Or is it classic and really is worthwhile the whole way?” The latter is clearly applicable to both Levin’s music and his photography. 

All photos (C) Tony Levin

NEW DATES - The Crimson ProjeKCt Tour Dates:

Tuesday June 24 - Auckland – the Studio
Thursday June 26 - Melbourne - The Hi-Fi
Friday June 27 - Sydney – The Hi-Fi
Saturday June 28 - Brisbane – The Hi-Fi
Wednesday July 2 – Fremantle - Fly By Night

To view Tony Levin’s blog, Papa Bear, click here.

The Crimson ProjeKCt are:
Tony Levin – The Stick Men
Adrian Belew – Power Trio
Pat Mastelotto
 – The Stick Men
Tobias Ralph– Power Trio
Markus Reuter – The Stick Men
Julie Slick – Power Trio

Book Review:
Carla Coulson and Lisa Clifford – Naples: A Way of Love
Australian Carla Coulson took off for Europe in 2000 leaving behind a life in Sydney to set up home in Florence, Italy – a continent change. There she learned photography, met her now husband and carved a reputation as a fashion and travel photographer, her work appearing in leading titles around the globe. But her heart kept drawing her back to Naples, the location of her first photo essay. 

In her fourth book, “Naples, A Way of Love,” Carla shares her intimate knowledge of a city that is either loved or loathed. Gritty, sometimes dangerous, and bustling with the earthiness of old Italy, Carla’s portraits convey a very different side to Naples, giving one of the oldest cities in Italy a human face.

I caught up with Carla in Paris in October. We sat at the back of a noisy café drinking cocktails and catching up on the year that has passed since I was last in Paris. Later she said, “I’ve got something to show you”and pulled out the then yet-to-be released “Naples: A Way of Love”. Immediately I wanted to own the book. I could see it on the shelf with her other books – Italian Joy, Paris Tango and Chasing a Dream, all of which I read cover to cover. There is something so accessible about Carla’s photography and her skill in capturing emotion in the most innocuous settings that make her one of my favourite photographers. 

Moving beyond the tourist traps, in “Naples: A Way of Love” Carla and writer Lisa Clifford, an Australian who has lived in Italy for 15 years, meet the people of this notorious city. Beneath the lolly-pink lipstick colours of an overly bright cover are the stories of the pizza makers, for which the city is renowned, as well as its fishermen, bakers and coffee makers. Here Naples comes to life and the book presents a city that is full of contradictions. With words and images the pair has captured both the charm and frustration of Italy. 

Naples is considered by many Italians as a “nation within a nation because it has its own language, customs beliefs and codes”. In many ways the modern world has not moved this city from its age-old traditions. Each day you can find bakers delivering bread to their customers who lower baskets to the alley below and hoist their bread up on old ropes to their windows. Washing lines crisscross narrow pathways their loads fluttering in the sea breeze. Children play in water fountains in the streets. Old women and men sit on their doorsteps to chat. Flowers adorn prayer altars and the Madonna is omnipresent.

Juxtaposed with the rustic-ness of this harbor city and its religious overtones, is an enclave of exclusivity where the wealthy play. Here the haute couture tailors sew for an international clientele who pay a premium for their exquisite suits. The city’s reputation for fine tailoring has been somewhat forgotten in the visage of its seedy underbelly, although the two are inextricably linked.

Carla says Naples most fashionable street Via Filangieri or Italy’s Saville Row, backs right onto the Spanish Quarter, one of the city’s most impoverished sectors. Here many live without running water and struggle to put food on the table, while in the adjacent street people come from around the world to buy handmade shirts for thousands of euros each.

Naples has been a magnet for Carla. “It’s real and there are all these incredible characters and they are all doing amazing things. The city is bursting with colour. It’s like Italy on steroids. As a photographer, even though shooting on the street was dangerous it was a double-edge sword. Naples is a giant banquet and when I’m there it’s like, let me at it”.

Naples: A Way of Love
(C) Carla Coulson and Lisa Clifford
Published by Penguin Australia
(C) All photos Carla Coulson

Book Review:
Simon Menner - Top Secret

The photographic archives of the East German Secret Police, known as the Stasi, have revealed their secrets to Berlin-based photographic artist Simon Menner who has used these images to explore the notion of surveillance in a new book “Top Secret”.

Within the covers of Top Secret lie the faces behind the surveillance of the East German people by the Stasi. Menner’s research reveals the ridiculous disguises the Stasi employed during their reign of terror. He also presents photographs of spies spying on other spies, confiscated objects, and staged surveillance operations in this bizarre collection. 

These photographs could be the stills from a B-Grade spy movie and would be laughable were it not for the fact that they document the sinister acts of those wearing the fake beards, moustaches and wigs. These photographs capture “the repression exerted by the state to subdue its own citizens. For me, the banality of some of these pictures make them even more repulsive,” says Menner who spent more than two years trawling through the archives of the Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives of the former German Democratic Republic, the body that administers the Archive.

"Top Secret" has been divided into three chapters – Manuals, Operations and Internal Affairs. Each of these sections feature short photo essays with titles as eccentric as the photographs - “From a Seminar on Disguises”, “How to Apply Fake Hair”, “Secret house Searches” and “Shadowing a Subject” amongst others.

Menner’s work in "Top Secret" is designed to examine the question of surveillance in modern society by looking at the “act of surveillance from the perspective of the surveillant”. Menner achieves this objective through his selection of images that present a unique inside view to a world previously hidden.

Top Secret by Simon Menner
Images from the Archives of the Stasi
In German and English
Published by Hatje Cantz

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