Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Category Archives: photos

Crass taste dummies

Recent diversions into selfies-with-display-dummies have prompted a recollection that in my youth a kind of idealised realism was the norm, and dummies all had faces. Is that strictly true? Maybe, judging by these murky – and now rather spooky – scans from colour slides of shop windows that I snapped in Leeds in 1971. It were grimmer up North in them days, and there were more realism too. [As always, click to enlarge.]


So is it an increased art school awareness of Giorgio de Chirico’s  blanked metaphysical mannequins and wig stands that has decided more recent dummy designers to wipe off the faces, in an instance of life following art? I notice that in John Lewis (where dummies are consistently faceless) the display people have certainly taken note of de Chirico’s advice as cited in my earlier post, placing some of their dummies, plinthless, directly on the floor, and sitting others on chair-like structures. Though as the figures are all seven feet tall, they’re still not really at human level. Incidentally, I’ve also noticed that a couple of de Chirico mannequin images employ a cropped composition that rather imitates the selfie –


It really does make a difference to the emotion (as de Chirico puts it) when the heads are faceless. Oddly, it makes the figures more alive – less like memorials to the dead and more like living automata in arrested motion. The examples here are from a day’s traipsing round the sales in Solihull. I have to say, you get a better class of dummy in Solihull.


If this doesn’t appeal, here are some other ideas for creating playful situations in large shops:

  • Hand drier spotting. Once you start looking, you’ll discover a surprising variety of makes and models. It really is a whole new world.  But remember to take a note book and pen with you into the toilets.
  • Escalator riding. Start in the basement, up to the top floor and down again. This can be timed if you like. Most rewarding with a grandchild of carriable size, maybe eighteen months.
  • Man-seat challenge. (Sorry, I know they’re unisex, that’s just my term.) Aim to sample as many public seats in the store as you can, changing room antechambers included, but cafés excepted of course. This may test your patience, as some obstinate folks like to sit there all afternoon.
  • Pushchair go-karting. Grandchildren love this, especially the fast bit down the final straight aisle, but it is to be avoided at busy times. Large department stores offer the best circuits.
  • Shop-putting. Also known as shop-dropping, being the opposite of shop-lifting. Though inserting small items on shelves will require sleight of hand if the store security are not to be provoked. Use something small and unobjectionable – postcards, slips of paper with a message or a picture, religious tracts etc.
  • Hide and seek. Probably my favourite, but it does require a grandchild as an accomplice, ideally able to count to twenty but still small enough to hide between garments on racks; three years old is about right.

All legal, all field tested.

Me and my new friends

At Christmas I became (at last) a smartphone user. So today I was able to divert myself photographically during an elongated shopping trip around the margins of Wolverhampton. The results are unedited. (Click for enlarged slides.)


Though this certainly beats some other shopping diversions (e.g. hand drier spotting), it’s trickier than you might think, given that shops tend, unreasonably, to elevate their dummies on plinths as if they were statues.

“To discover newer and more mysterious aspects we must have access to new combinations. For example: a statue in a room, whether it be alone or in the company of living people, could give us a new emotion if it were made in such a way that its feet rested on the floor and not on a base. The same impression could be produced by a statue sitting in a real armchair or leaning against a real window.” (Giorgio de Chirico, “Statues, Furniture and Generals”, 1918.)

And taking selfies from a low angle turns out to give a most most unfair impression of jowliness. I was unsure whether to go for deadpan or not, but in the event deadpan proved surprisingly difficult. I note a developing urge to mimic the body language of my silent companions.

Hatted and piped: photographing The Enemy

“I hope you will forgive me for speaking plainly,” wrote artist and author Wyndham Lewis to an unnamed London photographer in 1949, declining to buy the publicity shots he had commissioned. “Several are unspeakable … One or two are what might be described as photographic insults. Needless to say, I can make no commercial use of them … Of course I am sure you produced these photos with the best of highbrow intentions. But there it is. I have not exaggerated the displeasing impression, and in some cases the horror induced … P.S. Probably you ought to have a bigger camera.”

It seems that getting your press photos done (essential for the artist or writer in the public eye) was not always trouble-free. In the past, Lewis had successfully used George Charles Beresford, noted society photographer and a mate of fellow painters Augustus John and William Orpen. In 1913 Beresford snapped Lewis as moody bohemian, fag dangling from lower lip; in 1917 he did him proud cutting a dash in uniform. And in 1929 he captured Lewis in his current Enemy persona, arsing about with a big hat, a pipe and a plaster pillar.

Big hats, of course, were a standard signifier of artisticness in this era, though the pipe was Lewis’s touch. His Tyro figures of the early ‘twenties all have hats, as do many of his self-portraits; the pipe appears in his last drawing of himself, from 1938, and had an outing in the newsreel of the T S Eliot Royal Academy scandal of that year. In the “Enemy Interlude” in Lewis’s fiercely rambling poem sequence One Way Song (1933), the Enemy persona is noted as “cloaked, masked, booted, and with gauntlets of astrakan,” but also in a “large black steeple-hat,” completing the association with cartoon anarchists and banditti.

I’ve noticed a few images from this shoot, but like best the full length studied-casual-with-faraway-gaze-and-column shot (left). Somehow it encapsulates modern but classical, ironic but serious, visionary but engaged. A cropped head and shoulders variant appeared in number 3 (1929) of Lewis’s one man review, The Enemy, captioned “A recent photograph of the Enemy, Mr. Wyndham Lewis,” while a similar image, minus column, was used in his Blasting and Bombardiering (1937). It’s a version of the former, ex some newspaper photo library, that turned up on eBay recently, finding its way to me for the price of a coffee (below, right).


But look closely: what I actually have is a photo of that photo. To “improve” Lewis’s riskily diagonal posture, the original print has been tilted and re-photographed, the re-photographer’s bench being clearly visible in the triangular gaps created at each corner. This, then, is a new photograph of a cropped print of an original photograph. (To push things a bit more in a John Berger direction, what you’re seeing here is a digital image of an upload of my scan of that photo of a print of a photo; the reader of the time would have viewed a grainy screened reproduction of it on newsprint.)

Now a final irony. For much of his career Lewis was plagued by frequent confusions between himself and his namesake, the humourist D B Wyndham Lewis, “Beachcomber” of the Daily Express and then Daily Mail columnist. At one point Lewis even claimed that Lord Rothermere of the Mail had “invented” DB to plague him, in revenge for a dinner party quarrel. On the reverse of my photo is a faint agency stamp and a picture editor’s typed label:

In the News.
D. WYNDHAM LEWIS.,
The wellknown author.
MAR 1940

The “wellknown” identity is confirmed in ink. I’ve no idea what DB was up to in 1940 to be “in the news,” but at the time our own P Wyndham Lewis, now eleven years older than his photo, was having a very grim time in a dreary mock-Tudor hotel in Toronto (a transatlantic wartime experience later mirrored in his harrowing novel Self Condemned ). A silver lining, perhaps, that he was thereby denied the opportunity to catch his own carefully constructed brand subjected to “photographic insult” in whichever English paper it was that carried this misidentified image.


All of which reminds me that I’ve been meaning to do a piece here claiming Lewis and One Way Song as an early progenitor of hip hop. Yes, from The Enemy to Public Enemy … One day before too long, perhaps.

Welcome to Darlo

I’ve pretty much neglected this blog lately, and in particular have failed to report, as I fully intended, on the welcome show of the wonderful Gerald Wilde at the October Gallery, finishing tomorrow. Apologies.

To begin again, a word of praise instead for the extraordinary show of photos by Janet Mendelsohn, just opened at the Ikon in Birmingham, taken in Balsall Heath in the late and grim ‘sixties. Disturbing, affectionate but quite unsentimental, and oddly contemporary in some respects. And in black and white, as they have to be.

My childhood and youth were one long wait for both films in colour at the pictures, for colour snapshots, for colour tellies, for the Sunday colour supplement, and for the startling introduction of colour into men’s clothing circa 1967 as permitted by the passage of the psychedelic experience into mainstream design. Before these, in a real sense, we all saw the world in black and white because all our visual points of reference were all in black and white. But psychedelics are a flat, colouring book business, and after these our awareness of everyday tonality was hugely reduced.

About ten years ago I took a dozen shots on a walk around Darlaston, just down the road in the Black (and white) Country, but could never think what to do with them. After seeing the Mendelsohn photos, it dawned on me that mine too deserved to be in black and white, so – thanks to the greyscale option – here they are. (Click for slide show / enlargements.) They’re not the sharpest images, but I think the change suits them. The Darlaston they portray appears depopulated, showing only sad traces of human activity. But you have to admire (while condemning his homophobia) the chutzpah of the graffiti writer who couldn’t spell “bastard”.

Inside the cabinet

cabinet

Found photos, manipulated.

Smooth just got smooth

smooth just got smooth

(Photographed recently in Wolverhampton)

“Soon, collage will be performed without scissors, razor blades, paste etc … Leaving behind the tables and portfolios of artists, it will take its place on the walls of cities, an infinite field for the production of poetry. Never before has the popular saying which suggests that poets can ‘eat bricks’ [or ‘live on thin air’ – Trans.] acquired the concrete meaning which knowledge of poetry’s lithophagous power can bring. No longer is it possible to believe that the one and only goal of the awful, solitary, sanctimonious and interchangeable poster artists is to exalt the virtues of this or that commercial product … With or without the consent of these people, the posters that have fallen asleep on their feet will awaken and poetry will devour the walls.”

Léo Malet, 1942, quoted in Ralph Rumney, The Consul

Chav Meeting Point

chav meeting point

“Leccie box” outside the school where I work. Stunningly beautiful … (Click for bigger version.)

Northern decollage

From a black and white print made from a lost colour slide, Leeds, 1971

Beyond the border: nostalgia for the Communist world

The other day I came across some long forgotten colour slides from a visit to the Soviet Union in 1967, and tried scanning half a dozen that I had snapped while wandering around the bleak streets of northern Leningrad. The colours didn’t scan well, but greyscale suits these, and I like the flyspeck wear and tear too. They sit quite nicely alongside an unfinished short story that I once attempted in response to a disturbing dream of Eastern bloc nostalgia. Images and a bit of text are on a page here, or via the “Beyond the border” tab at the top.

With the historical collapse of state communism, the world of these images became inaccessible. It can never be reconstructed. Nostalgia for it is then all the more acute and urgent, as if for some vanished childhood, when we were poor but secure. It has receded into an Audenesque landscape of the soul, forever fascinating and comforting in its drab otherness. It is the world of our common innocence.

God’s kitchen

Defaced poster, Wolverhampton, 2001