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Entries in photography (65)


Beaton at war

Cecil Beaton. 'Fashion is indestructible' — Digby Morton suit, in the ruined Middle Temple, 1941. British Vogue.

For Cecil Beaton architecture was an indisputable player in all his photographs, often much more complex than the subject.  It offered a narrative that transports the sitter, or the garments – it is all mise en scène. 

He was an official photographer in the North African campaign in WWII, and did a lot of work showing Britain's wartime manufacturing industries – shipyards, mineworkers, the effects of the Blitz, all a far cry from the fey pre-war portraits of society ladies in extravagantly romantic 18th century rooms where he was never against painting more frippery on the walls if it made the setting even complex, more fantastic.  I suppose the true complexity and brutality of war knocks some of that fantasy out of one.
These two iconic images are found in every book on Beaton there is.  It was startling, in 1941, for Vogue readers to be plunged into the shattered environment in which they were living: fashion magazines were and are for escape.  And the 1945 photograph of the Balmain coat and pants could come off the Sartorialist site today – that love of tragic urban street walls, so dark and layered, and the indomitable spirit of the women who can carry their own against them.

Cecil Beaton. Pierre Balmain Chinese Brown Woolen Coat and Trousers. 1945. British Vogue


reading fashion

Arjen van der Merwe. Malawi 2010 is a series about modern and traditional culture. From van der Merwe's website: 'The fashionable models, in dresses by Cathy Kamthunzi, and shoes of Pec Fashion symbolize modern Malawian culture. They are placed in a traditional setting.'

Barthes' seminal essay on the writing of fashion talked about it as a system of signifiers coded and intelligible only to readers already in the system.  It was written when fashion magazines showed images in black and white, low resolution.  Captions and text carried colour, texture, narratives of elegance, aspiration, possibility.  
We don't have such writing anymore, captions to fashion images are simply lists of the clothes.  The images carry everything – all the narratives of impossibility and unattainability.  As we are continually told, couture is for selling perfume, the only thing from Dior we can all afford.  

In the next issue of On Site, which is on the dialectic between the periphery and the laws of urbanism dictated from the core, Jason Price has written an essay on Arjen van der Merwe,  a photographer in Malawi whose fashion portfolio uses Malawian models and garments posed in village settings.  Price, living in Malawi, takes a rapier to this work, pointing out the coded signifiers that would perhaps pass us by.  

For me, living here, i.e. not in Malawi, the narrative lodged in these images is a return to the village, surely an act of despair for anyone who has managed to escape their small town for a life of infinite possibility in the city.  Despite being dressed in wonderful urban fashion and great shoes, beautiful sulky girls are shown lugging buckets from the pump, or making bricks, or sweeping dirt floors.  

As a foil to these images, Tim Walker's portfolio of photos for Vogue with Agyness Deyn in Namibia are just as provocative.  A particularly pale girl, beautifully dressed, appears to be stranded in a sand-filled abandoned house with a highly decorative, almost-dressed young Namibian man and a docile cheetah.  It is a set of signifiers that rings all the bells of colonial privilege that allowed Europeans to live in Africa, to act badly, and yet be protected from the violence they attributed to all the peoples in the periphery.  Walker's Namibia portfolio is on a very thin line between an ironic ode to that kind of wilful innocence and the casual belief that such relationships have an aesthetic, apolitical beauty.

Tim Walker. Agyness Deyn, Simon & Kiki the cheetah in sand storm, Kolmanskop, Namibia, Africa, 2011. for British Vogue.


aspect and prospect

[Jardin des] Tuileries : Mai 1906. N ° Atget : 5371. 1906. Photographie positive sur papier albuminé d'après négatif sur verre au gélatinobromure ; 21 x 17,5 cm (épr.). [Cote : BNF - Est. Eo 109a bte 1 ; n ° micr. T038908] \ Opaline 039802

Hossack mentions that before she went to the Tuileries, she looked at how Atget, Brassaï, Doisneau and Kertész had viewed the gardens.  One of Atget's images records the erotic curve of marble against sky, the bending of the figure to the curve of the railing separating the civilised from the relative mystery of the woods.  

The companion image looks at it from the other side, where all of a sudden we are aware of all the flimsy clutter of park life, the statue just one more piece of furniture.

Jardin des Tuileries : Mai 1906. N ° Atget : 5369. 1906. Photographie positive sur papier albuminé d'après négatif sur verre au gélatinobromure ; 21 x 17,5 cm (épr.). [Cote : BNF - Est. Eo 109a bte 1 ; n ° micr. T038907] \ Opaline 039801


Leslie Hossack, les Tuileries

Leslie Hossack. Waldeck-Rousseau Monument, Tuileries, Paris 2009

Leslie Hossack's photograph of the Waldeck-Rousseau Monument in the Tuileries.  As she notes, the gardens were designed by Le Nôtre in 1664, formal, rigourous, allées and monuments, swept gravel rather than humid lawns.  

Clearly she took the photo from the back, from the wall behind this monument.  Always looking at things to capture information about the thing itself rarely records how one gets to the thing, which in this case, is more interesting to us today than is the over-wrought statuary. 


Jon Rafman: what google sees

Jon Rafman. Google Street Views, 2010

Jon Rafman. Google Street Views, 2010

I was very sloppy with this post a couple of days ago: got the dates wrong and hadn't thought too deeply about these images.  What I quite liked about them was that they themselves had no meaning: caught by a camera programmed to photograph the street in nine different directions every ten feet or whatever it is, they simply are raw information. 

Jon Rafman chose, out of billions of such raw images, a collection that he ascribed some sort of role to, simply by selecting them.  Many of the people caught in many of the images know they are on camera and act up for it, others don't notice.  There are many traffic accidents that seem to have happened just as the Google van went by.  The stone house and the roadway, above, are simply beautiful ideas, which is why I selected them out of the hundreds on Rafman's 9-eyes.com.  There are so many selection filters one could apply, it turns viewers into search engine filters themselves. Which is of course how we all negotiate our own worlds.



Beth Dow, Powis Castle

Beth Dow. Terrace, Powis Castle, Wales. Platinum palladium print 18.5"x 16" image on 24" x 20" Weston Diploma paper. Edition of 25 + 3 Artist Proofs


Björn Braun, tree, material

Björn Braun, Untitled, 2009. Meyer Riegger, Karlsruhe/Berlin.

From an article in Frieze:

'collages – usually unframed and mounted on the torn-off covers of hardback books'

'works use only what can be found in the original pictures: he cuts and tears things out, reforming or repositioning them in the finished piece.'


Zander Olsen, Tree/Line

Zander Olson. Untitled (Cader), 2008


Fred Herzog's Vancouver

Fred Herzog, Robson Street, 1957. Ink jet print, 51 x 34.6 cm; image: 45.9 x 29.5 cm. CMCP Collection. © Fred Herzog.

From the blurb on the Fred Herzog page at MOCCA: 'Herzog's passion for photography resulted in a large body of work depicting Vancouver during the postwar era, at a time when capitalism and consumer culture was burgeoning'.

And another:

Fred Herzog, Robson Street, 1958. Ink jet print, 51 x 34.6 cm; image: 45.9 x 29.5 cm. CMCP Collection. © Fred Herzog.This image was in the Globe & Mail book review section last week as there is a book out of Herzog's work: Grant Arnold. Fred Herzog, Vancouver Photographs.  D&M, 2011.

Herzog was German, worked as a seaman after WWII and in 1952 emigrated to Canada when he was just 22.  He became a medical photographer, and taught at UBC and Simon Fraser.  Herzog has a huge following in Vancouver as he documented a city unrecognisable now.  But I can recognise the prim little lady waiting for the bus, her hat, her gloves, her stick and sensible lace up shoes.  My childhood in Victoria was peopled with such tidy creatures who dressed to go downtown. Of course, downtown then had butchers and cake shops, lunch counters and ladies' dress shops. No malls, few cars, excellent bus service, a kind of public propriety on the sidewalk.  The fellow who has wounded his chin badly while shaving and wearing an undershirt on the street, and smoking, and having a sprained wrist: clearly a doubtful presence at the edge of our little lady's world. But at least he had shaved to go out.  Stubble was a signal that one had really given up.


wood matches and plastic lighters

The remains of an albatross © Photo: Chris Jordan - http://www.chrisjordan.com

Went to buy some matches yesterday, looked all over the supermarket, none to be found.  Asked, told that all 'smoking paraphernalia' was over in the gas bar.  Trudged through the slush to the gas bar, asked for a box of matches: what a strange request.  The girl had to find a ladder to get them from a locked top shelf.  I could buy two huge boxes or ten little boxes, no the packages can't be divided.  
I said, this is winter, we light candles and kindling; matches aren't smoking paraphernalia, they light fires.  Here is the answer: people use disposable lighters or, for candles, those long butane filled wands.  

Which is better for this world, a match made of wood or cardboard, or a lighter made of plastic, metal and lighter fluid?

Midway Atoll is located in the North Pacific Gyre, one of five floating continents of plastic litter and chemical and organic waste.  Midway is an albatross colony: pieces of plastic, about the size of disposable lighters evidently look similar to squid, the main component of an albatross diet.  This plastic is eaten and then regurgitated to feed albatross young.  Who die.  The corpse decays and as it was stuffed with plastic, a tidy collection of matter incapable of decay is left on the beach.  

Plastic never goes away, it just gets smaller and smaller and thus is ingested by smaller and smaller animals.  Who die.  And while we seem to be able to sample the debris in each of the oceanic gyres, there is so far no solution for its collection.

The photo above is by Chris Jordan, who has made a film about Midway.  I heard about it on Radio Netherlands' Earth Beat a few weeks ago. 


Louis Helbig: aestheticising the unconscionable

Louis Helbig. Bitumen Slick N 57.19.28 W 111.25.44 Syncrude Aurora North

Helbig writes of the image above: Booms confining bitumen floating near the edge of Syncrude's Aurora North tar pond.  This is where industry suffered its most serious massive public relations setback in the spring of 2008 when someone alerted the public and the authorities to flocks of ducks landing on its surface.  In this particular incident about 1,600 ducks were killed.  Syncrude was convicted in 2010 of breaching both federal and provincial environmental reglations.

He has a series of aerial photographs of the oil sands region, and although his view is activist, as one can see from the captions, the images are beautiful.  How is it that our visual acuity has been trained to find abstraction so sublime.  Context is removed and we gaze at such images with the appreciation other eras gave to flowers or girls with pearl earrings.  This is precisely what is so dangerous about the removal of context, scale, consequences and facts.  They are removed.  

We need people such as Louis Helbig to keep explaining not just his photographs, but the abstract nature of the oil sands enterprise itself.  Whatever it does there is a diagram on the map with pipelines dotted in to Texas, maybe to Prince Rupert and on to China.  It is a series of mirrored glass office towers in Calgary and Houston. It is every plastic bag we throw hopefully into the recycling bin, it is the cloud of exhaust everytime we start our cars. 


Fernando Brízio at the Antigo Convento da Trindade

From EXD'11 in Lisbon.  Click on the image to go to David Pereira's beautiful sequence of photographs of this exhibition.

David Pereira, photographer. Don't Look Back | Fernando Brízio | Desenho Habitado | Antigo Convento da Trindade


Donovan Wylie 2: the architecture of war


Donovan Wylie's Kandahar outposts

copyright Donovan Wylie, Magnum. Observation Post. Exact location unknown. Kandahar Province. Afghanistan, 2011

Although Canada was part of ISAF and in Kandahar Province until just this summer, we rarely saw where they were.  Rick Mercer went to the base at Kandahar, stood in front of Tim Hortons, we saw ramp ceremonies, CF members sent messages back to their families at Christmas on CBC, but it was all in the bright lights of tv cameras and the cleanliness of the main base.  Even news reports of the poppy fields being destroyed were as beautiful as poppies are.

Donovan Wylie, a Belfast photographer, was embedded with the Canadian ISAF contingent and funded through the Bradford Fellowship 2010/11 from Bradford College, the University of Bradford and the National Media Museum, located in Bradford.  His series of photographs of FOBs is on display at the National Media Museum until mid-February 2012, and will be published in an accompanying book. 

Forward Operating Bases are just that: the forward part of the line, observation posts usually made of hesco bastions, and very, very vulnerable.  This is the Afghanistan in which our forces did their tours, and in which 158 died: dusty, brown, lunar, lonely.  We, in Canada, were never shown this environment.  Our various ministers of defence never walked into these outposts on IED mined tracks.  They never lived there.  

One of the characteristics of WWI and the horror of its trench warfare was the eternally cheerful letters from the front sent to families back home. And when those who survived finally did make it home, they never talked about it.  After seeing Wylie's photographs, I feel that we in Canada were let down by our national media, who also sent cheerful reports from the front.  Why is PTSD as epidemic as it is?  Perhaps it is because hardly anyone is talking about what happened. 


Isabelle Hayeur: Underworlds

Isabelle Hayeur. Lampsilis.

Isabelle Hayeur has been photographing bodies of water since 2008 – as she says, 'the turbid waters of navigation canals, troubled waters of dubious, uncertain origin'.  

So often we register changes in rivers, lakes, oceans and wetlands from standing head height, rarely from the water itself, in section.  Hayeur's images record the death of so many waterways de-oxegenated through pollution at a massive scale.  Rather than the glittering reflective surface that is so deceptive, her work takes us below to a world both disturbed and disturbing.


Taysir Batniji's Watchtowers

Watchtowers (Israeli military miradors in West Bank, Palestinia), 2008 serie of 26 photographs B&W, digital prints, 40 x 50 cm (photo Dieter Kik).
Taysir Batniji is showing a series of photographs this year at Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial), 2011 which investigates the relationship between art and politics. Batniji's series, Watchtowers, consists of watchtowers on the West Bank border with Israel.  There is a project of witness here, the recording of the watchtowers' existence, and there is a formal project, the typology of the watchtower, and there is a project of photography, the implications of the processes and products of the Bechers, their watertower series in particular.  

Water Towers (Wassertürme), 1980. Nine gelatin silver prints, unique, approximately 61 1/4 x 49 1/4 inches (155.6 x 125.1 cm) overall. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. © 1980 Bernd and Hilla Becher

Batniji describes the watchtower project:
Significantly, the project registers the attempt (or the situational difficulty in trying to attempt) to follow the Bechers’ method. The particularly perilous conditions of these photographs render them compromised. As a Palestinian born in Gaza I am not authorized to return to the West Bank, so I delegated a Palestinian photographer to carry out these photos. They are out of focus, clumsily framed, imperfectly lighted. In this territory, one cannot install the heavy equipment of the Bechers or take the time to frame the perfect position, let alone afford to wait days for the ideal light conditions. Aestheticization becomes a vivid political challenge, both in the creation of these photographs and in their reception, as these images challenge viewers to see these functional military constructions as sculptural, or as a part of a formal architectural heritage.

Aestheticisation is such a danger and must plague all photographers in war situations where the camera both sees and makes beautiful simply because it isolates a dynamic and horrific scene in a detached and calm image, and the calmness, and our inevitable space-time distance as viewers from the scene, sanctifies it somehow.  The janus-face of documentary photography.


Giulio Petrocco


Giulio Petrocco, photographer. Juba, 2011Giulio Petrocco  took the photographs for Joshua Craze's article on Juba, South Sudan in On Site 25: identity.  Petrocco is an Italian photojournalist who places himself in dire and dangerous circumstances: see for example, his work from Sana'a, the Yemeni spring which becomes progressively more violent, or a curious site: a neighbourhood in Queen's which was built on a swamp and was a mafia dump.

 Through Petrocco's lens the third world seems to exist anywhere there is struggle.  One wonders if the first world is a definition of sleep walking with plenty of rights and lots of food.  

He keeps a running commentary on his blog What I Learnt Today.

Joshua Craze is an essayist based in Juba, Southern Sudan. With Meg Stalcup, he investigated counterterrorism training in America, which was published by the Washington Monthly.  Now maybe I am a naïve first world sleepwalker, but I found this study really upsetting – not that there is terrorism and counter-terrorism, but the massive distortions of identity and affiliation that can get one so easily killed.  His piece for On Site wasn't quite so dismaying. It was about South Sudan, new country, no identity other than tribal groups which have animals as totemic markers.  There was a perhaps spurious plan to rebuild Juba, the capital, according to a plan the shape of a rhinoceros, the totem of the current power group, the eye being the seat of government (and no doubt a great site for future protests – a Tahrir Square in the making).  Frankly, I thought it looked reasonable as a plan.  As reasonable as any other kind of abstract diagram upon which to base a city. 

The distance between this idea and Juba's reality as shown in Petrocco's images is indeed vast, but the plan is so hopeful, so clean, so deceptively simple.  For something of the complexity of this area see Craze's piece on Abyei in The Guardian.

Proposal for the rebuilding of Juba, South Sudan, 2010.



Rouleau, Saskatchewan

George Hunter. Rouleau, Saskatchewan 1954. CCA Archives.

Rouleau, Saskatchewan (1903), photographed from the air by George Hunter in 1954.  This is the classic image of a prairie town, located within the Dominion Grid (laid down between 1879 and 1884), wood grain elevators lining the tracks, the world of Who Has Seen the Wind (1947), a train stop on the SOO Line (to Chicago) built during the wheat boom that ended sharply in 1910.  Lots of dates, but all within the space of fifty years.

Rouleau, Saskatchewan. Google Maps, 2011Rouleau on GoogleMaps.  Not a lot has changed.  Rouleau is in the infamous Palliser Triangle, an area (officially a semi-arid nutrient-rich steppe) deemed by John Palliser, who surveyed it in 1858, to be uninhabitable because it didn't support trees.  The whole area suffered greatly during the droughts of the 1930s, but nearby is Claybank Brick Plant, now a historic site.  The clay was particularly suited to firebrick, used to line fire boxes in train and ship engines: CPR, CNR and RCN all in expansion mode up to WWII  – voracious clients for firebrick.

From 2003 to 2008  Corner Gas was filmed in Rouleau.  The iconic Saskatchewan rural wheat town was the physical fabric that supported a vision of Canada as a friendly but sometimes sharp-edged community, funny, pathetic, brave, funny, ridiculous, heroic, funny, everyday.  Corner Gas was the Canada that we like to carry about within us, without actually living there.  

Rouleau's slogan is 'Saskatchewan's First 1 Million Bushel Town!'  Does this mean much to any of us not from a farming background? No.  Does Rouleau care?  No.  Is this a brand?  No.  Does this say a lot about Rouleau?  Yes.


Gerster 2: land prints

Gerog Gerster. Harvest, Idaho, 1988

Is ploughing, cutting and threshing so individual that their patterns act as a fingerprint?  Something like the individuality of a welder's seam?

I would hazard that these are fields not part of the Dominion Survey, or in the States, the Land Ordinance Act, both of which divided the land into a 6 mile grid, implacable and immutable.  Such fields are square, ploughed squarely, unless there is a slough, or an erratic, or some awkward bit of topography in the way.  Or maybe farmers just get bored.

Well, no. The point of contour ploughing is to increase water retention in sloping soil and to prevent water erosion, survey grids notwithstanding. So something indicates the need for water conservation in these fields.

Gerster seems to have returned to this area, eastern Washington and Idaho many times.  Almost all his work, which is from all over the world, is about the interaction of industrial practice with the landscape – the mark of man, the hand, the machine and the land.  

Georg Gerster. Lentils, USA, 1980


Georg Gerstner: land

Georg Gerster. Felder im Palouse, USA, 1979

Okay, done with the hand for now, the closest landscape we have.  Georg Gerster, German photographer, did a lot of aerials from helicopter and small planes from the 60s to 90s.  Beautiful photography, National Geographic stuff, very photogenic landscapes.  The one above, found in his photo gallery on his website, is a ploughed field in eastern Washington State, near Palouse, shot in 1979.  

Wonderfully graphic, one does have to ask why it is so.  Looked up the area around Palouse on Google Maps and found that on the western slope of the Rockies it is indeed highly topographic, contour ploughing raised to land art.

We have a call for articles out for issue 26: dirt.  Land is dirt, dirt grows crops, crops determine planting and harvesting with large machines these days, those machines make patterns and we find them often enchanting.  

Google Maps: Palouse Washington USA