The Quiet American

I suppose it was the effect that An-My Lê’s work had on me at the Saatchi on Saturday that I watched The Quiet American again. I am a fan of the book, set in Vietnam in 1952, which I have read a couple of times, but I was struck in the film by something that the main character – Thomas Fowler – who works in Saigon for the Times – said in response to a question by the titular Quiet American. Fowler says “I am not a correspondent, I am a reporter. I merely report what happens.” I am likely to be paraphrasing now*, but the intent of this piece of dialogue was that as a reporter he watches what happens in front of him and merely reports it. This notion is something that  harks back to this post earlier on truth. And of course Fowler, whilst ‘reporting’ also has direct and indirect effects on the narrative in the story. His presence alone, integrated as he is, directly affects the locals – the prostitute whose life he changes, the American who is killed because of Fowler’s direct intervention – whatever the motive he espouses. There are echoes of what the effects the FSA photographers had when they photographed ‘what was in front of them’ is an interesting afterthought.

Also of interest is the camerawork in the film, alternating between direct engagement with the viewer with a lot of shots directly into the lens and oblique angle shots that enable the viewer to become a bystander – which I thought was perhaps a comment by the director on the twin roles both the American administration and the French colonialists roles at the time. It was 1954 when the French conceded that they could no longer control the North and ceded it to the communists. In the early ’60’s the Americans formalised their intent with direct action, after over a dozen years or more of covert blundering.

* The full quote from the novel:

“My fellow journalists called themselves correspondents; I preferred the title of reporter. I wrote what I saw. I took no action – even an opinion is a kind of action”. The Quiet American – Graham Greene, Vintage Classics – pp28

The Prix Pictet at the Saatchi Gallery 20th October 2012

An OCA study day visit.

Despite and not because the Prix Pictet is a competition, whose rules I have no idea about, I found a lot to be inspired about on this study day. A moment though on competitions. I can assume there may be several reasons to have a photo’ competition, they being – marketing , marketing and marketing. Marketing the gallery who mounts the prints. Marketing the sponsor of the event – if it isn’t the gallery. Marketing the photographer (and probably in that order). The role of marketing in a professional practice is, undoubtedly important – but how can one picture be described as better than another? And the selection at the Saatchi exemplifies this dilemma; the prints were varied in medium, varied in size and varied in context. The answer for me is that it can’t, though it does provide the opportunity for the three M’s and for students to look at some varied work in a contextual framework that wouldn’t normally occur.

Thematically the competition was about power – as I have mentioned I had no conception of the rules of the competition, so I am assuming the entrants might interpret the word in anyway they think fit – certainly when I looked for “power” I found almost as many plays on the word as there were artists who were in the hanging space dedicated to the exhibition. My scribbled comments are attached where in the margin I noted what I thought the power reference was.

I have commented on the works of entrants Beltra and Tillman before An imaginary assignment (and a real study visit) In the case of Beltra, there were references by a couple of the students present to how Beltra’s work lacks the references to the environmental issues he tackled with this series in a wider presentation. My feeling was that the beauty of the images subverted the message it was trying to explore. Gareth was keen to ask how we felt about how the images were presented and in particular the Sternfeld quartet. Gareth has the book where these images stem from and it is ‘about A5 size’ yet these images were about a meter square. For my part it was about being in a gallery – and a competition. The prints were excellent in their presentation and rendition; the subtext provided by the artist was about anxiety and urgency and some of the students didn’t find those emotions in a set entitled “When it changed”. My view was not when the world changed to take on board the effects of climate change – after all nothing has been done and the majority of the American population still believes that it’s a conspiracy. I looked at the portraits and saw another change, perhaps when the politicians realized that power was finally usurped and taken by the corporations that could now be controlling our lives in a real way where politicians have been exposed as the “paper tigers’ told to us by Mao in the sixties.

An-My Lê’s Series 29:Palms was for the strongest set of images. Asked during the coffee break where we congregated to discuss our experiences of the visit, I mentioned how I came, unusually, to the artist statement before I got to the images and the following words – see image – Vietnam American 1960 which caught both my eyes and imagination. Those words in themselves coalesce a narrative that was part of my youth. Born, as she was, in 1960 when Vietnam was already at war since the mid’ fifties. I was struck by how she had gained access to military operations in California and referenced work by Fenton and Brady – I have written about these in this blog entry Social documentary which in its turn references earlier thoughts OCA web discussion and Blog. Both Brady and Fenton were notorious for the constructions, for how they rearranged the scenery at the “scene of war” whereas Lê has the scene constructed before her. Lê  decided to use a Large Format camera, similar then to that used by both Fenton and Brady, and in contrast to the cameras that were used bu the war photographers in the Vietnam conflict – perhaps the last war to be photographed by photographers without censorship – well at least the censorship that exists today as a result of the Vietnam conflict – where the televised images helped to turn the minds of the people who saw those pictures by McCullin et al

Lê’s photographs are of training operations, there are personnel in costumes – dressed in ‘typical’ Middle Eastern – which again talks to how the US military view the ‘enemy’. I found this set very moving, that this artist found her expression in exorcising the ghosts of her past using militaristic  imagery was painful.

I thought the Adams work was interesting from how, again, beautiful the work was – the smallest images in the exhibition – and how they seemed completely out of kilter in this exhibition, I wonder what Gareth thought about that? Clive White, OCA tutor, wondered whether there was a prize for the power of nostalgia, so understated were these images that harked back to a time when ‘real- photographers’ roamed the landscape, these images would have found an entrance to the F64 club.