Editorial: Martin Parr and Gian Butturini’s “London”

Martin Parr. Photo by Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images.

Martin Parr

So there is a bit of a buzzz going on about Martin Parr’s contributing essay in the 2017 facsimile publication of the late Gian Butturini’s (1935 – 2006) photobook “London“, self-published in 1969. For the record, I have not seen either the 1969 or the 2017 facsimile edition. I have seen that ArtBook has stated that the book has “cult status”, which is interesting in as I have only heard about Butturini and London now. So thanks to this buzzzz, I have become aware of both Butturini and his book.

Nevertheless a person who noticed a rather distasteful juxtaposition within the book, pairing below, of a black woman and a gorilla, went after Parr to eliminate his Artistic Director position with the Bristol Photo Festival. Evidentially you can’t go after the deceased photographer who created the photographs and the editor of his self-published book.

Nor go after the late Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997), although I don’t know about his poem that was published with this book, but I suppose a campaign can be initiated to discredit him as a result as well for being included in the book. Would an attack on Ginsberg then be considered an anti-semitic or anti-LGBT rant? Not sure you can pick and choose who to persecute; usually it is either all or none who participate.

Image

London by Gian Butturini, copyright 1969, facsimile 2017

Regretfully, I think some positive opportunities has been missed in favor of wanting to be punitive in order to score some culture points. And to be clear, I am not stating in any way that this one-page spread is acceptable, it is not, but rather we need to have a discussion about how to address historical documents, such as facsimiles of older photobooks, that contain some terrible visual associations.

What I do know is that the original London photobook was self-published, thus the editing and pairing of the photographs within the book is all on the late Gian Butturini. We might look at Butturini’s other work to determine his racial bias that might support his reason for this image -pairing. What is the boarder context of this imagery. How does this pairing relate to the those preceding and after? Could Butturini have another association/meaning of this pairing, which in today’s socially sensitive environment, be overlooked or now recontextualized? Looking at the above interior book photo, it almost appears that the left side image is part of a gate fold; if so, what’s revealed when the gate-fold opens up? Does that change the context? What is the larger narrative? Does this association seen above change? If so, how? So far, I have been unable to determine if there is a gate-fold at this point in the book. Also, researching the net I have failed to find a comparative study of the 1969 original and the 2017 facsimile; do they have this same photo spread? (Update: apparently this photo spread is the same in both editions)

But if the original Butturini book London is considered to have “cult-status” and a publisher wanted to re-issue it, what then to do about page spreads that are socially offense, such as these? Would a disturbing paring still be included in conjunction with a Foreword or Afterword essay to discuss the inclusion of a pairings and the social ramifications? This particular image pairing is a result of a deceased artist’s decision, thus represents his body of work, perhaps not to be ignored. Would the 2017 facsimile become as equally “offense” book if this pairing had been eliminated to provide a spot varnish on a potentially bigoted artist’s work? I think that would be equally troubling.

It’s obvious that this photographic pairing was not singled out and discussed by Parr. Perhaps now it might have been much better if Parr could have discussed his review process at length as to why this paring was not discussed. What was he thinking while going through this book and observing this pairing? Did he in fact notice it or was he distracted by other photographs and pairings by Butturini that he wanted to delve into? That would have allowed a broader dialog and my opinion that is being missed.

That this distrubing photographic paring was found does warrant a border discussion about historical books, the images within and the alternative ways in which these photographs can be discussed to help eliminate racial bias. I am not sure that Parr’s head should have figuratively placed on a British pike. (Okay, in retrospect for Parr and his studio team’s insensitive response to the initial inquiry and subsequent stonewalling before finally acquisitioning, maybe so).

Cheers & stay safe,

Doug

Note; Also be clear, I am a bit like Parr, an older white male, that is a heterosexual of Scotch-Irish-English decent who has grand-children, as well as a book-nerd. As a book reviewer for PhotoBook Journal with over 500 photobook reviews completed, I would hate to have someone comb through all of these books to find something that appears “offensive” or politically incorrect for some group or faction. I probably have missed something sensitive, as did Parr. Just saying…so per this current protester, like Parr, due to my age, race, gender, gender-orientation, I guess I am to be ‘dismantled’. sigh. (Update: Apparently this statement is not being read as sarcasm, now realizing that I should have included a “Sarcasm Alert”) since the PhotoBook Journal does extensively cover authors who are Person of Color, whether Black, Brown, Tan, American Indian, Asian, whether male or female, as well as Jewish, Muslim, and the LGBTQ community, as the fight against racism of any kind or sort must continue).

Update (07-25-20): After thinking about this overnight, one alternative reading I am considering is might these two photographs in juxtaposition have been a social/economic criticism of the working conditions in London in the mid 1960’s?  That the opportunities for minorities are very limited and people of color and other countries are in sub-wage positions and jammed into boxes (aka “jobs), similar to animals? Since Butturini is dead, we don’t know if this were the case and what other combination of images he had to choose from to make this potential social/economic criticism. That the facing image of the caged animal is also a gorilla has taken on a revisionist meaning over the years as implying racism when juxtaposed next to people of color and this may have been unfortunate set of editing decisions on Butturini’s part. I find myself wanting to obtain a copy of this book to investigate further. Sorry we can’t talk to Butturini about this current situation.

Update (0726-20) From Butturini’s intro in his book “London”:

“Of course, I have not photographed the Queen’s Guardsmen, stiff and starchy as plaster statues. I did photograph a black woman, locked in a transparent cage; she was selling tickets for the underground: just a listless prisoner, an immobile island outside of time in the midst of the waves of humanity flowing by and mixing and then spilling aside around her prison of ice and solitude.
I did not photograph the keepers of the Tower or the City bankers with umbrella and bowler hat. I did photograph the Regent’s Park gorilla, which with imperial dignity receives the witticisms and peel thrown at it by its nephews in ties.”
… “London is the capital of an undone empire that’s been put up for sale. The blacks are sad. The blacks are good. The blacks are dignified. I was photographing them in Portobello Road, but they forced me to flee. At Speaker’s Corner, however, I was able to photograph them. On Sundays, they crowd around a box to listen to one of them give them a sweet fairy tale about freedom of equality of racial integration.”

8 thoughts on “Editorial: Martin Parr and Gian Butturini’s “London”

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  1. Your opening paragraph renders your following commentary redundant, given the assumptions it presents, the misunderstanding it promotes, and the apparent ignorance (of details) it displays.

    I think you could have sought to promote the “discussion about how to address historical documents” you say needs to happen, had you considered the matter more objectively,.

    A failure (by Parr) to have reasonable dialogue (as sought by a young black woman photographer) and in fact to ignore her, is the very reason this became an issue in the first instance (as you may already know but failed to mention?).

    Some details are here on a twitter thread if you’re interested in them:

    Opinions on this issue will obviously vary wildly, and I could choose to agree with your take on this matter, or perhaps take another perspective, that of Prof. John Edwin Mason:

    “John Edwin Mason, a photographer and professor of African history at the University of Virginia, says the photography world is now living in a “new reality”.

    “The photo industry, especially in Western nations, is going through a time of internal reckoning with racism and sexism, issues that people in power have been able to ignore or push aside,” he says.
    Recent social movements and changes in media “have empowered people of colour to challenge the racist norms that have shaped the photo world,” Mason says.

    “This troubles many people who aren’t used to being held accountable for what they do and say and the harm they cause,” Mason says. “Some of them lash out and foolishly call this ‘cancel culture’. No. It’s accountability for doing racist and sexist things, whether it’s being blind to a demeaning juxtaposition of photographs or failing to hire photographers of colour. Actions like these are still common. Until relatively recently, photographers had few resources to fight back. Now they do, and some of the powerful and privileged aren’t at all happy about it.”

    Now that I’ve considered both, I have to say I agree with John Edwin Mason’s opinion. And you too have the opportunity to either be a part of the shaping of a new ethical framework within which young photographers (of all races) can learn and ‘see’, and importantly ‘show’ (with the help of knowledge shared by older more experienced photographers & commentators) or rail against it.

    It would be a great shame, and loss, if it was the latter.

  2. After reading several posts and comments on the issue of Gian Butturini’s book and Martin Parr’s role and final resignation from the Bristol Photo Festival I was left with a great sense of disappointment. The latter because Martin Parr in the end chose a easy way out of trouble. In these days anything one says can be considered racist or politically incorrect. Rightly so, but to some extent. If the young student had read the introduction of the book she would have understood that what Butturini wanted to show is actually great sympathy for the underprivileged he has often photographed including, and particularly, the black woman in question. In the original version the Italian words Butturini dedicate to the lady selling subway tickets are simply beautiful and of clear empathy for her and her situation. Butturini, in his words, speaks of a cage (gabbia) and cage is also where the gorilla is in the next image. I do not know exactly why Butturini has placed the two images side by side, but by looking at who Butturini was and what he intended to represents with his works one can easily determined that he was not a racist at all, perhaps the contrary. The reading of these two pictures was done in a superficial way without a minimum of investigation on the historical contest of the pictures and the life of the author. Martin Parr, as a veteran and prominent figure in the world of photography should have seen this and stand by the photographer. I am sorry to say that the young woman who took offense failed to understand that the meaning of that pairing could have been, and I believe it was, exactly the opposite of a racist statement. In the end no one seems to care that the reputation of a photographer who cannot be here to rebut the accusation has been irreparably tarnished.

  3. I think that the intention of the photographer was not racist at all. I think the photographer just wanted to make a statement: poor people are treated like animals. If one is poor, it doesn’t matter what color of skin one has. If you are poor, you just have bad luck.

  4. Here’s another way of looking at it, if it were possible to be objective and disinterested in these times: Rather than demeaning the black woman, perhaps the juxtaposition elevates the gorilla. See how closely a gorilla resembles a human being. Humans share 98 percent of our genetic sequence with gorillas; shouldn’t we be treating our close kin with respect? (And then, of course, extending our respect to the rest of the natural world.) If the issue of our time were not racism but speciesism, this juxtaposition of images would be seen in a positive light.

  5. When you make a book you try to ensure that the juxtaposition of the photographs reinforce each other. Either you look for volume, structure, texture, atmosphere, whatever might be of use to make a strong graphic, visual statement. This statement will always be political. This is exactly what this juxtaposition is all about. When looking at the photographs juxtaposed I feel great respect for the pictured woman as I also feel great respect for the gorilla behind bars. This beautiful and lovely woman with all her love, hope and strengths and this great and strong and beautiful animal both are discriminated. To me any human being as wel as any living creature deserves to be respected at the very least. I feel pain and pity when I look at these photographs and I feel respect and a great deal of love, also I feel anger. If the pictures were not juxtaposed, they would be ordinary and meaningless, lost within the book. I agree with Robert Frank that the pictures are a necessity, you need them to tell your story. To me this juxtaposition has nothing to do with racism or disrespect, on the contrary. Let us not forget that beauty and anything one sees and feels is in the eye of the beholder.
    I would like to quote Robert Adams: The job of the photographer, in my view, is not to catalogue indisputable fact but to try to be coherent about intuition and hope. This is not to say that he is unconcerned with the truth. (Beauty in Photography). Robert Frank for a second time: The eye should learn to listen before it looks.
    I sincerely hope that I am not misunderstood. I am a Dutch speaking photographer, I do know how to express myself in English but that does not make me a native English speaking person.

  6. One can discredit Ginsberg because he was a peadophile. That should have been quite enough, regardless him being included in this book.

  7. To Martin Parr

    I have the three volumes of The Photobook: A History.
    In Volume III there is a comment on London by Gian Butturini. I do not know who is the author of the text I am about to quote (could be M. Parr, could be Gerry Badger; but that really doesn’t matter because all of the texts surely were edited in cooperation):

    ‘So his London depicts the poor and the working class who failed to make to make good in the 1960’s, like the young drug addicts hanging around Victoria Station, contrasting that with the tourist view.’ A bit further is written: ‘Occasionally, Butturini labours the social contrast, but all in all, this is the book that McCullin might have made about London but unfortunately never has – although he might yet.’ End of quote.

    And now because of a comment of one person who fails to look, who fails to read, fails to think and in my opinion fails to feel, you dishonor the reputation of a socially committed photographer, by expressing your mea culpa where this is completely out of place. As I stated before by quoting Robert Frank: The eye has to listen before it looks.

    I doubt that a fourth volume of the Photobook: A History ever will be published. If so, I will make no effort to acquire a copy. Martin Parr has lost its authority on the subject entirely.

    Speaking about racism, there are at least two great figures in the history of rock ‘n roll that one can name racists. One is named John Lennon, he was a member of a somewhat popular band in the sixties. He wrote this song: Woman is the (censured) of the world. And then there is a certain Miss Smith who was also quite successful in the seventies and a part of the eighties, she wrote this song ‘Rock N Roll (censured)’ that appeared on the Album Easter.

    But the greatest racist of them all is Garry Winogrand. In 1967 he made a photograph of a mixed couple each holding a chimpanzee. Now let’s kill the reputation of Garry Winogrand.

    I am ashamed. Where will this lead us to?

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