Missing the moment

Several years ago I was commissioned to photograph a Highland estate by the owners. The estate is glorious, with rugged crags behind and a long desolate glen leading off to the north beyond. One aspect that I was asked to record was the river that separates the estate from the neighbouring estate that is owned by a well-known UK politician and his wife.

I’d been asked to photograph any wildlife I encountered on my rambles and so one hot summer afternoon I struggled through the undergrowth to the river carrying a 500 f4 on a tripod, and a shorter lens on a second body around my neck. Cursing the tangling branches that grabbed at the load I was carrying and pulling me off-balance, I crashed through some dense scrub near the water and emerged onto the riverbank. To my surprise, and their horror, I was confronted by the well-known politician’s wife and her mother stark naked enjoying a bracing dip in the peat-brown water!

Their faces fell, and I just knew they were thinking ‘paparazzi’.

“Relax relax I’m photographing for xxxxx on the instruction of xxxxx!”

They were highly suspicious, and also a long long way from their clothes, which were all piled on the bank beside their towels!

So what to do? I took off all the camera stuff and laid it down where they could see it and said “That’s me naked too! I’ll just go into the trees without all this stuff and leave you to do whatever, I need a rest anyway! You can shout me when you’re decent!”

They relaxed, and laughed. And the moment passed with all of us content. Word quickly got back to my client who made a point of thanking me for my sensitivity, and this ‘inaction’ on my part helped cement our friendship and mutual trust.

I was reminded of this incident this afternoon when I read this excellent post by John Edwin Mason about Gordon Parks & Ingrid Bergman in Italy.

Sometimes being a photographer permits you access into places where using your camera is actually the last thing you need to do.

Cameras – they look both ways, portraying what’s behind them as clearly as in front. Best not forget that.

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Ice shards catching sunset light. © John MacPherson

Ice shards catching sunset light. © John MacPherson


The rather eerie noise echoed around me and I could actually feel it, my ears ringing and my chest cavity resonating with each burst. I  looked around. Nothing to be seen. Well, nothing apart from an ice-fisherman some way off standing motionless above a small dark hole.


A sound that was ‘somewhere’ but nowhere, and everywhere, all at the same time. My body vibrated  in a rather disconcerting way. I realized that the frequencies I could hear were only part of the spectrum of sound that had enveloped me, other deeper, infra-sounds were present too, the air shifting invisibly pushing me to and fro.

Once again I looked around for something that might explain this odd phenomenon. I was high in the mountains of New Mexico, in midwinter, in sub-zero temperatures, beside a lake ringed with hills, a perfect natural amphitheater, and I’d wandered away from my 4×4 to watch the ice-fisherman. And that’s all there was – me, him, ice, mountains.


This time I was closer to the ice and I could swear the sound came from below me. I stepped onto the frozen lake surface and waited.

“PYINNNNNG  PYINNNG PUH-PUH-PUH-PYYYYYINNNNNNG” echoed all around and this time I could feel it through my boots as the ice surface reverberated.

And then the penny dropped. The ice sheet completely covered the lake, and the sun was shining, and as the ice expanded in the ‘heat’ it was ‘singing’ a song of stress and fracture, its sound energy reflected off the surrounding hills.

I placed a bare hand on the ice, the bitter cold stinging my exposed skin. I waited, and waited and then “PYINNNNNG  PYINNNG PUH-PUH-PUH-PYYYYYINNNNNNG” and I could feel it! Like an electrical pulse the vibrations shot up my arm, at the same time the air hummed with the energy released.

A singing lake!

This was in the days before iPhones and pocket digital recorders, so I simply sat and marveled, and let my tissue reverberate in sympathy with this piece of natural magic.

I was reminded of this today when I watched this astonishing video of musicians ‘playing’ the ice on Lake Baikal. Magic!


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Free thinking…

A thought-provoking (and highly opinionated) read by Alan Graham for anyone interested in creative work & payment, published in The Trichordist (Artists For An Ethical and Sustainable Internet). The full article is much longer, and well worth reading. Full article HERE
“Today I ran across a Kickstarter from the Creative Commons, trying to raise $50k to create an e-book about how you can use the Creative Commons to make a living, and I about lost my fucking mind.
Let’s just begin with a quote from their intro video for the project.
“How do you make money to sustain what you do when you are letting the world reuse your content? We think this is one of the most important questions of the digital age. And we don’t have answers. It’s still too early for simple formulas or plug and play business models built on sharing.”
Holy shit…….
It is 2015 and the Creative Commons was founded in 2001. Why are you just now getting around to asking this question? I agree, it is one of the most important questions of the digital age and one I think might have been good to ask 14 FUCKING YEARS AGO.
The Creative Commons has had very close ties to the tech industry, accepting millions in grants from companies who benefit from the erosion of copyright under the guise of a public service. Last time I checked (correct me if I’m wrong about this), actual copyright has allowed you to make a living off creative works for quite some time. Now, 14 years after its founding, the CC is finally going to get around to explaining (after they discover the answer) through an e-book how to make money using the CC. Print is on its last legs, the music industry has been Kill Bill’d in half, and don’t even get me started on photos, all predicated on the simple fact of making sharing without permission, payment, or penalty, business as usual.
Let’s dig further into this project:
“Although it will involve the entire Creative Commons staff and community, this project will be spearheaded by Paul Stacey and Sarah Pearson.”
Is this not super ironic the writers/creators of this project are already paid employees of CC and therefore don’t need to make money off a work of Creative Commons? No, they have no risk at all of whether they start or finish a project such as this one. At the end of the day, successful Kickstarter of not, they get paid. How about the fact that at least one of those in charge of assembling this project makes over $100k a year? What’s the average take home of a writer these days? What’s the average advance on a book? $50K? Not even close!
So if those assembling the book are already paid, where is this money really going?

I feel like this is one more fleecing of people who don’t understand what is at stake by supporting this shit. We should call them on their bullshit and this should be pulled down. Creative Commons, you should pay for this out of your own pocket…eat your dog food!”

And in response to this question from Moritz:

moritzCreative Commons responds:

moritz reply

Good idea this book, do you think? Have confidence in the folks at the helm? Well give them your money then. But if not…..

….anyone want to buy a $1 bill? Duckrabbit have a shedload for sale, they’ll be available for $1.25 to early access purchasers, but if you’re late to the sale you’ll have to pay $1.15.

Get them NOW!


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*Update 16 July 2015.


Prince responds to self-proclaimed “I’m a thief” comments:



And points out in his customary erudite fashion that the comments he offered previously, and which appeared to be a ‘confession’, weren’t actually his own words but the lyrics of a song (presumably the copyrighted material of the songwriter).

Seems that he’d simply ‘reappropriated’ the lyric and had used it without “quotation marks” (see his original tweet below).

Of course in the absence of the customary ” ” to denote this was in fact a quotation everyone assumed these were actually his own words. But in fact they are not.

They belonged to someone else.

That clears that up then.


Original Post:


Richard Prince?

Controversial ‘artist’ that’s for sure.

Lots of debate around his work. Is it founded on copyright infringement, or is it not?

Google it and settle down to several hours of earnest debate about ‘fair use’ and whether it is ‘transformative’ work, and the complex issue of  ‘artistic intent’.

His recent ‘reappropriated’ Instagram images have caused a bit of a stir. Lots to read about them if you’d care to. Here’s one long piece by Nate Harrison that explores some of these issues: ‘How To Sue Richard Prince and Win’

And it all might lead you to ponder the question, is he an artist and an earnest one at that, pushing creative boundaries and reaping the just rewards for his labours?

Or is he just a talentless copyright infringer?

I wondered that too. And now I know the answer. Surprise surprise, it’s the latter.

How do I know this? Prince himself admits it.

Here’s a Twitter exchange between Prince and Lewis Bush:



“I’m a cowboy”


“I’m a thief”

Yes. That’s Prince describing himself.

Well that clears that up then.

There’s two common uses of the word ‘cowboy’ and Prince (as far as I know, although I may be wrong) is certainly not riding the range wearing chaps and rounding up steers. I’ve looked in his bio and there’s nothing to indicate he’s an experienced ranch hand. So that leaves the other definition:




And there’s slightly less ambiguity over the definition of the word ‘thief’ :


So there you have it, straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak.

So I’d assume from this that anyone who has had their copyrighted work ‘misappropriated’ by Prince need not work too hard to prove his liability, as he’s openly admitted to taking it unlawfully.

But, let’s ponder this a wee bit more. What about the fences? Well we’ve established Prince is not a ranch hand so we’re not talking about cattle control here, but the other type of ‘fence’.



If, as Prince himself openly declares, he’s a thief, then what does that make those gallery owners who ‘shifted’ his ‘work’ for him, and their customers who thought they were ‘art investors’ and bought it? Might they now find themselves owners of what may in fact be considered to be ‘stolen goods’?

I’ve no idea. I’ll leave that one for the sharp legal minds to wrestle with.

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The Kyle of Tongue, Sutherland, Scotland © John MacPherson

The Kyle of Tongue, Sutherland, Scotland © John MacPherson

…said the elderly lady, her reply to my request that I might take a picture of her hanging out her laundry in a spectacular North Sutherland location.

“Aye certainly you can take a photo, wait and I’ll just get out of the way!”

She joined me on the road, smiling. “The number of times this washing line has been photographed, so many times, appearing on newspapers, in magazines all over the world, and it’s usually my old knickers I’ve hung out on the day they take the pictures!”

I smiled “No underwear problems today then, just sheets and pillowcases. But you’ll need to make sure you make a good job of cleaning those knickers though, just in case eh!”

She burst into fits of laughter “Och away ye go with ye, ALL my washing is immaculate, especially my knickers!”

I had to agree “Yes I can see that, and you have such a responsibility, you’d not want to spoil such a fine view with some saggy old drawers!”

She laughed and laughed and laughed.

Small highland moments. Just the best.

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Drug addicts. Bronx. Vulnerability. Exploitation. Power. Journalism.

The Bronx Documentary Center (BDC) is running a show. Here’s the message they sent to documentary photographer Chris Arnade explaining his inclusion:



Apologies for the late email, we are putting together a show on short notice and just finalizing the lineup.

On Saturday we will open up our Altered Images exhibition, which examines posed, faked or manipulated documentary photography. A number of people had suggested we include your work of substance abusers and sex workers.  We have reviewed your work.  You qualify on a number of levels and will be included.

You admit to paying your subjects, which violates one of the most closely held tenets of documentary photography. Paying to photograph any person, particularly one dependent upon drugs, and even driving them to buy drugs, as you say you have done, is a clear breach of ethics and standards.

I see that you say claim, in interviews, an exemption from journalistic and documentary standards by saying you are not a journalist.  Yet you publish your photos in the Guardian, one of the world’s most prestigious media outlets.  Ethical guidelines apply.

A key guideline of the National Press Photographers Assn reads: “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects.”

Your photos of sex workers, some addicted to drugs, some with mental health issues and/or severely emotionally abused, exposing their breasts or bent naked over a bed, are a breach of this standard.  The fact that you also publish these photos on Flickr, to be gawked at by thousands, raises further ethical issues too numerous to address here.

Briefly, people who are paid by you, under the influence of drugs or mentally impaired (and in many cases have little understanding of The Guardian or Flickr), clearly do not have the ability to give informed consent to their photos being used as you have done.

We will include a caption under your photo outlining these ethical breaches.  If you so choose, you can send us up to two paragraphs in response and we will give it equal weight next to our caption.

I’m ccing our lawyer, Don Dunn, in case you have any legal issues you choose to raise.


Arnade responds here, and his response is worth reading to gain some sense of the issues under discussion.

This is the type of image that the BDC apparently object to:


Only thing is this image is not by Chris Arnade, but by Magnum’s Bruce Gilden. He has many images of a similar ‘intimate’ nature.

Remember that phrase in the BDC’s letter to Arnade about “vulnerable subjects” ? No? Here, read it again:

A key guideline of the National Press Photographers Assn reads: “Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects.”

Ok, “respect and dignity.”

But Gilden’s work is not included in the Bronx Documentary Center’s line up. Presumably because he doesn’t (apparently) confess to occasionally paying his subjects.

However, do they give informed consent? I have no idea.

How about images used without consent due to mental incapacity? BDC are concerned about those too: (quote)

“…some with mental health issues and/or severely emotionally abused…”

Here you go: from Robin Hammond’s series ‘Condemned’


Do you think the (un-named) mentally ill (or mentally handicapped) ‘patient’ pictured here gave informed consent? I doubt it. Does that matter? For some people, yes. For others, probably not. The BDC for reasons known only to themselves have not included Hammond’s work either, in their catch-all “vulnerable subjects”.

And here’s Arnade’s work. Used with the subject’s consent, and the story behind it here.


Do I like Arnade’s work, or Gilden’s or Hammond’s for that matter?

Good question.

I recognize the photographer’s skill as image makers. But more than that I recognize something they all share in common, an interest in, and respect for the human condition in all its forms and a willingness to engage with it. Theirs is not surreptitious ‘stolen’ work, but direct and engaged, and as a result there’s a lot of it that makes me very very uncomfortable. Which is as it should be.

But more than that, in all of their work I see a connection with the people they photograph, you cant be this close to people without them responding to your presence, and for the most part I see some acknowledgment from their subjects of the photographer’s proximity, and in many instances an active engagement with the photographic process.

These photographer’s willingness to wrestle with portraying the difficult issues of drug addiction, mental illness, or mental handicap and their subsequent use of the work is contentious, and open discussion about this is healthy and important.

Sadly however the Bronx Documentary Center, for whatever reasons, and despite their morally superior tone towards Arnade, are not interested in engaging with the ethical conundrum such work presents. Gilden and Hammond could both be included in their ‘Altered Images’ show, but it seems its only Arnade, and unless I’m mistaken its because he openly admits he offers money and personal support to his subjects.

So its the money the BDC objects to. Giving it to subjects is wrong.

But making money from subjects? Seems profiting as a consequence of photographing (possibly vulnerable) subjects is ok though, nobody is bothered about that, not at all:



There’s a real debate to be had around all this. BDC had a fantastic opportunity to get in about issues of representation, power, the politics of documentary photography and exploitation, but they dropped the ball. In fact maybe I’ll send them this FANTASTIC card to tell them that.

But leave it blank.

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