Looking is Necessary

mickyates Books, ContextualResearch, Critical Research Journal, Documentary, Ethics, FinalMajorProject, FMPWeek1, History, Ideas, Photography Leave a Comment

Gian Butturini (1935-2006) was an Italian graphic designer who travelled to London most likely in 1969. He took photographs of what was happening in the ‘swinging sixties’, and these were self- published in a book London in 1969, which apparently was an edition of 1000, mainly sold in his home area of Italy.

The photographs catch the energy of the city in a grainy, blurry, dense street style – reminiscent of William Klein, Provoke and Daido Moriyama.

In May, 2019, a new edition of  Butturini’s book caused a storm on social media, starting on Twitter and migrating to Facebook.

Less Than Human, Twitter, May 27th 2019. Roland Ramanan, Facebook, May 30th 2019.

The reason is a two page spread in the book which has a black woman sitting in the London underground,  juxtaposed with a gorilla in a cage at London Zoo.

Whilst all the photographs are very much ‘of their time’ the rest of the book seems more neutral in its observations. It is a consistent body of work, that ‘hangs together’ as an essay on London at a point in time.

Gian Butturini. 1969. London.

The content, both written and photographic is street observations of daily life in the city. Butturini photographed hippies, women with babies, children, black people, white people, poor people, business people and more – it is an eclectic mix.

Gian Butturini. 1969. London.

The page layouts seem to have been carefully put together. Butturini was a designer, and by all accounts quite a successful one. Some spreads have complimentary images across the two pages, and some seem oppositional. In the introduction, Butturini notes:

‘My London is true, it is bare. I did not ask it to pose. And this book is not a story, not a documentary, it does not have a before and an after, and nor does it seek to prove or disprove or convince. These are the photographic notes of a man in the street caught between men of the street. I recorded thousands of them and then I skimmed, cleaned, cut. Then the assembly: a few controversial pairings [SIC], the occasional ironic emphasis, a touch of pity, an almost restrained smile. I do not even wish to call it a comment. There are no words, beneath. Or considerations. Or ‘intelligent’ phrases‘.

The layout also uses graphic devices such as ‘tears’, shapes and blank spaces interspersed amongst the photographs, in places giving a collage effect. As a book (and as I am a Provoke fan), it is an interesting piece of work which holds the eye.

Gian Butturini. 1969. London.

Gian Butturini. 1969. London.

Gian Butturini. 1969. London.

Gian Butturini. 1969. London.

Gian Butturini. 1969. London.

Two boys, one with a Nazi badge.

Gian Butturini. 1969. London.

And this spread seems to have a message, with the Israeli flag and the barbed wire.

But Butturini does not explain what the messages are. He leaves that to the viewer.

Martin Parr commented in his editor’s introduction to the 2017 edition that:

‘Butturini wanted to make a politically charged book. The London book was the start of his photographic calling and his left leaning manifested itself in his later books that he produced in conflicted territories such as Chile and Northern Ireland’.

However, there is this.

Gian Butturini. 1969. London.

That juxtaposition is cause for serious complaint, and no editor should have let such a thing pass, even in 1969. I am a product of the 1960’s student life (and social protests) and this two page layout should have been unacceptable, then. It is perhaps an artefact of the moment in history when racism was both overt and hidden at the same time. It is hard to say how Butturini was trying to challenge prevailing attitudes, but the manner of depicting the Black woman is offensive and racist. In his introduction, Butturini does say:

‘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’.

The current storm has arisen mainly because of Martin Parr’s involvement. By his own admission Parr was genuinely excited to find Butturini’s book, as most British photographers at the time in London seemed to be chasing the celebrity life of fashion and music, rather than the grittiness of real life. And, indeed, Butturini’s work is worth studying to see another side of London, different to a diet of sixties sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll.

Parr curated a 2016 show at the Barbican, Strange and Familiar: Britain Through the Eyes of the World. The images in the offensive spread were not included, to my knowledge. To quote Lensculture’s review:

The list of photographers is a formidable one and includes luminaries like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson and Garry Winogrand as well as lesser-known but hugely interesting figures like Edith Tudor-Hart, and Shinro Ohtake. They bring a range of distinctive styles to their shared subject matter, from Edith Tudor-Hart’s searing images of London’s East End to Gian Butturini and Frank Habicht capturing the euphoria of the Swinging Sixties and the anti-War movement‘.

Parr wrote an introductory essay in the book accompanying the exhibition, Foreign Eyes.

‘In the ‘Swinging Sixties’, as London led the world in the youth revolution, photographers came from all over Europe to document this momentous social movement.

Interestingly, whilst British photographers at the time, such as Terence Donovan, Norman Parkinson and Brian Duffy, turned their lens on the fashion, celebrities and music of the period, they did not venture out into the street to document the cataclysmic changes that were taking place. Instead it was left to the likes of little-known photographers such as the Italian Gian Butturini and the German Frank Habicht who both created powerful bodies of work around this significant decade. This work, which found its logical home in the form of the photobook, is almost unknown in Britain, so being able to present these rare black and white photographs in this publication and exhibition is one of the many highlights of this project’.

A remake / second edition of the book, published 2017, was then championed by Parr. He wrote a foreword, and is credited as editor – though nothing (other than size, apparently) is changed from the original – now long out of print and a collector’s item.

But not a mention is made by Parr, or the publisher Damiani, about this damning two page spread. And not a word is said in the video of Parr launching the new edition.

An oversight? Perhaps. But when one claims to edit, then one should actually edit. And look properly. Parr has often pushed at social boundaries, but this is a step too far.

Studying the book in detail, I can see no suggestions of Butturini’s adverse views on race. He clearly cared about social issues, as he went on the photograph causes in other countries, from his ‘left leaning’ perspective. See the Gian Butturini website for more on this.

His introduction comments on the black woman as being ‘locked in a  transparent cage‘. She is ‘outside time in the midst of waves of humanity‘ who are ‘around her prison of ice and solitude‘. He also writes that he sees the gorilla’s ‘imperial dignity [as it] receives the witticisms and peel thrown at it by its nephews in ties‘.

Of note, these are the only two images in the book which Butturini seems to directly discuss. And he does not mention the juxtaposition.

The two page spread shows seriously bad judgement, and ‘othering’ at work, whether knowingly or unknowingly. In the 21st century, we see that ‘othering’ as damning. Still the history of photography is littered with genuine attempts to highlight social issues that don’t travel well across time. What was Butturini’s intent? At minimum this should have been discussed in the second edition.

Had an editor, including Parr, moved those photographs to other pages, I suspect the issue might have attracted very little attention. But it was not changed, the edit stood, and the rest is current history.

An interesting and rather sad case study about not actually looking, about not considering context and audience. And about editors not doing their job.

Most importantly, a serious comment on racism, then and now.

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UPDATE: July 21 2020, Martin Parr stands down from the Bristol Festival as a result.

From The Art Newspaper:

https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/martin-parr-stood-down-from-bristol-photo-festival-after-student-anti-racism-campaign?fbclid=IwAR1W69aJzvmp7k-b7mw5PAtXd9_8_xLC1-ePYNO8Td6pXwyO5dSTS-8sb2I

‘In a tweet, Parr later said that claims he edited the book are “a misnomer”.

“I supplied an introduction to a facsimile edition,” he wrote. “I fully acknowledge the highlighted spread is racist and am sorry for offence [sic] caused.”

In his introduction, Parr suggested the reissue would allow the photography world “to re-examine and re-define the contribution made by Gian Butturini”.’

It was also noted:

Parr notes he has asked for the existing copies of the book to be removed from sale and destroyed, and donated the fee he received to a relevant charity.

See also the Guardian article.

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/jul/21/martin-parr-quits-as-director-of-bristol-photo-festival-over-racism-row

Parr issued a public apology on his website, which notes the images as ‘offensive and demeaning’, but does not mention racism.

https://www.martinparr.com/apology/

Mercedes Baptiste Halliday led the initial protests about the images (notably, during Parr’s retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, 7 March – 27 May, 2019). Ms Halliday is the daughter of Paul Halliday, convenor of Goldsmiths MA Photography program. Parr eventually apologised, although only in July 2020 dispute many attempts by Ms Halliday and others to get his attention. His assistant actually ‘shrugged’ at the protest. Heightened awareness of the issue of racism came from the Black Lives Matter protest (and the toppling of the Colston statue in Bristol on June 7, 2020). This ramped up the pressure.

In correspondence with Ms Halliday, July 22, 2020, Parr noted:

‘I am embarrassed that the racist juxtaposition was overlooked. Believe me it was a mistake and I am truly sorry. This is no excuse But I’m nearly 70 years old and a white man and regretfully I’m coming to realize that sometimes I have failed to see things from another perspective’. 

Frankly, to me, the use of the ’70 year old man man’ line is ridiculous and tone deaf. This is an epic failure by Parr and the staff of the Parr Foundation to handle a crisis of their own making. Possibly as some small recompense, the Foundation has launched a new bursary:

‘to support Black, Asian and minority ethnic photographers in the UK. This bursary coincides with the MPF remit to champion British documentary photography and to support overlooked and emerging photographers‘.

https://www.martinparrfoundation.org/opportunities

There is, of course, backlash to the backlash. First, the response from Gian Butturini’s family, not surprisingly, defining his work (in Italian). Michele Smargiassi, from La Repubblica comments:

‘The complexity of the book and its author would have deserved at least an open discussion that would not simplify what is not simple. But this would have required an effort to read the images that was lacking in this controversy: the willingness to ask oneself if the photographs, which are polysemic images, can have univocal, unwanted, overlapping meanings; to recognize that a disturbing juxtaposition of images is not always a plain affirmation but can include paradox, hyperbole, irony; that the rhetoric of images is not easy to govern, and its deciphering depends on the reader as well as on the author‘.

https://www.gianbutturini.com

See this from Manick Govinda, writer for right-leaning Spiked, on the ‘Cancellation of Martin Parr’.

https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/07/27/the-cancellation-of-martin-parr/

I find this totally overblown, and the hyperbole on ‘cancel culture’ from both sides of the debate is deeply troubling. But the racism intrinsic in the spread must be addressed.

There is also this, from Howard Sherwood, supportive of Parr.

‘Martin Parr has been selectively and unfairly targeted as a ‘public figure’ – a privileged white man of reputation and influence in the world of photography’.

http://futurecities.org.uk/2020/07/31/one-over-parr/

Sherwood also notes:

‘Defeatist as Parr’s apology and resignation appears to be, it’s the language and manner of them that concerns me most: In his public apology he says “the MPF is a charity that was set up to shine a light on photography, to give emerging, overlooked and under-represented photographers a platform, and to champion the work of artists from all backgrounds.” The destruction of photographic books, as he requests of the publisher, is hardly consistent with this pledge. If Parr really believes that “photography should be a place for everyone”, was the late Gian Butturini not one of those people?’

Whatever the right and wrongs of the issue – and mishandling by Parr, ‘banning the book’ seems to go too far.

Finally, for yet another view, here is a critical analysis of Butturini’s book from the Photos and Stuff blog, by Andrew Molitor. I find this thoughtful and well-researched.

http://photothunk.blogspot.com/2020/07/crit-london-by-gian-butturini.html

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UPDATE: August 10 2020, discussion at PhotoBath

I led a discussion on the issue at PhotoBath, via Zoom.

Here is the presentation I used: Butturini & Parr July 2020 (Secure). Password is PhotoBath2020 – cannot be edited.

Dennis Low made interesting observations about the two page spread. Studying the woman in the London Underground, she appears to be an inspector rather than a ticket seller, as there is no booth. She also appears to be holding a ticket punch. As an inspector, this would have been considered a good job relative to the work of others on the underground. Clearly tired, she is perhaps at the end of her shift. It is worth noting that the Underground was about to move to automated ticket systems, so it is possible her job was in jeopardy.

Dennis also noted that the Gorilla pictured by Butturini was a well known, indeed celebrated animal in London Zoo. Guy the Gorilla.

From Our Migration Story: London on the move: West Indian transport workers

In 1956, London Transport became the first organisation to operate a scheme recruiting staff directly from the Caribbean. Between 1956 and 1970, thousands of new recruits came to London from Barbados to work for the network. For a short period in 1966, applicants came from Jamaica and Trinidad as well. …. the Commonwealth Immigration Acts of 1962 and 1968 – which were designed to limit immigration to Britain – reduced the numbers of Caribbean people arriving. … over 4,000 workers from the Caribbean were recruited onto the scheme.

From Wikipedia: Guy the Gorilla (1946-1978)

[He] was a western lowland gorilla who was London Zoo’s most famous resident and often profiled on children’s TV shows and natural history productions. The exact day of Guy’s birth was unknown, but the official birthday was set by the Zoo as May 30, and he received large numbers of cards each year. … His appearance was fearsome, yet his nature was very gentle; when small birds flew into his cage, he was often seen to lift them on his hands and examine them softly. This gentleness is said to have been a major part of his great popularity.

Whether Butturini knew this about the two images is unknown.

My overall summary of the session:

  1. The spread is offensive and was unacceptable both in 1969 and today. But I believe Butturini’s intentions with the book were not racist. In fact, he appeared to want positive social change. The offending spread was most likely his attempt at provocation that profoundly failed.
  2. Parr could have handling this much, much better. First, he should have really ‘looked’ at the second edition. He did not properly execute editorial responsibilities. He could then either have reordered the original sequence, or stuck with the sequence and commented on it unfavourably in his opening comments.
  3. Then, once it became a public issue (Spring 2019), Parr should have instantly apologised and sought to make amends rather than shrug things off via his staff. That inaction, and the added impetus of Black Lives matter / the Colston statue forced him to act drastically. Terrible ‘crisis management’.
  4. Personally, I do not believe that the book should be withdrawn from sale, on principle. But it should be clearly caveated.

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UPDATE: August 19 2020. Martin Parr, Icon of British Photography, in Disgrace After Being Accused of Racism. by Michiel Kruijt, de Volkskrant.

Perhaps the fullest account to date of the controversy, and in particular the role of Paul Halliday.

‘By associating himself with an allegedly racist book, the career of British photographer, photobook expert and photography curator Martin Parr seems ruined. How a few tweets caused a storm that simply won’t stop even after the photographer’s apologies’.

In English:

https://www.volkskrant.nl/cultuur-media/martin-parr-icon-of-british-photography-in-disgrace-after-being-accused-of-racism~ba5a826c/

The article is well researched and goes into depth on the involvement of the main figures in the protest, Mercedes Baptiste Halliday and her father, Paul.

It also notes that Parr apologised earlier than usually reported, via Twitter:

‘On 5 December 2019, more than six months after the start of the protest, Martin Parr addresses the accusation for the first time. In response to a tweet from a well-known photo expert he states that he was not the editor of London, even though it says so on the book’s cover; the new addition is a facsimile, a reprint of the original, with a new foreword by him.

Yet, he searches his own conscience: ‘Of course, I should have picked up on the spread, but regretfully did not.’ He ‘fully’ acknowledges that the spread is racist and expresses his regrets if he caused offense to anyone’.

This apology, however did not stop the debate, which then became re-ignited by the events in Bristol.

Unsurprisingly, the Butturini family are dismayed both at the racist accusations and Parr’s handling of now withdrawing the book.

‘Gian Butturini’s family is very eager to comment. From Italy, Tiziano (the son from the first marriage of the photographer) and Marta (the daughter from a second marriage) confirm that their father put together London himself in 1969. According to them the reprint is exactly like the original, apart from the added foreword by Parr.

They also claim to know why Butturini placed the photos of the black woman and the gorilla side-by-side. ‘It was a provocation.’ According to them he explains in his autobiography that in England people pretend that black people are full citizens. ‘But he had found during his travels through the city that this was not true.’

The son and daughter later send a fragment from the autobiography in which Butturini writes how black people in England are being marginalised. ‘You only have to walk around London to find them getting the most modest jobs: street sweepers, bus conductors, excavation workers in the city.’

By combining the photo of the black woman with that of the gorilla he was calling attention to the fate of black people, according to Tiziano and Marta Butturini. ‘The black woman sold tickets at the entrance to the subway. But nobody looked at her. A gorilla in a cage got more attention than her. He meant the exact opposite of what they are now saying in England’.

Paul Halliday commented:

‘Perhaps the Italian photographer did not fully realise what the effect was of juxtaposing the photographs of the black woman and the gorilla, Halliday thinks. Once more referring to his training as an anthropologist he says that he knows exactly what the problem is. ‘It has to do with getting into a new environment, not knowing the context, making a quick photo essay and publishing it to an Italian audience. I am not arguing that Butturini deliberately went out to offend black people in London. I say he misunderstood how offensive the paring was at the time and subsequentially’.

Halliday also said.

‘How Martin Parr will be seen in the future is directly related to how he deals with his own behaviour, his own past, and his own relations with people. I don’t think this is an isolated case. I think there are a number of instances where he has said things, behaved in a certain way, that have been very problematic. People have to live with the consequences of what they have done’.

Clearly this story will keep rolling.

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BUTTURINI, Gian. 1969. London. Martin Parr, Editor, 2017 Edition. Bologna: Damiani

PARDO, Alona & PARR, Martin. 2016. Strange and Familiar. Barbican. London: Prestel.