Author Archives: Sonia van Gilder Cooke

The Big Smoke by Bus: George Georgiou Photographs London

Every city has its clichs and London is no exception. But beyond the bobbies, red telephone boxes and telegenic young royals, lies a real city that is just as easily toured as St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. linkwheel creation . All you need do is hop on a city bus. It’s an approach adopted by photographer George Georgiou for his series Invisible: London, which explores the city’s outer reaches, from Clapton Pond to North Greenwich to Crystal Palace. Georgiou, a Londoner who returned to the city after living abroad for eight years, snapped passing cityscapes and people at bus stops, recording the day-to-day actions that most people simply ignore.

The idea of photographing from buses presented creative benefits. “I kind of like the idea of the reflections and the layering,” says Georgiou, noting that it was not unusual to see Victorian houses with Indian shops tucked underneath. But it also had its challenges. “There’s a lot of dirty glass in London,” he says. Georgiou set out specifically to ride all of London’s routes, exploring places that were only familiar as far-off bus line terminations like Morden and High Barnet. And while he did not intend to train his camera primarily on down-and-out neighborhoods, he found well-heeled areas and people more difficult to capture. “Wealthy people walk differently,” he says, adding that they are generally more private in public and don’t spend as much time lingering on the streets and at bus stops. Moneyed neighborhoods also tended to have more mature trees and greenery, screening pedestrians and houses from Georgiou’s lens. People living in less affluent areas, by contrast, were exposed in a desert of asphalt.

To be sure, London’s council estates and suburbs lack the obvious appeal of its famous monuments. But Georgiou says the city is defined as much by transition as tradition. While familiar characters like the working class woman (“London Bus No. 145. Ilford to Dagenham Asda”) remain, large numbers of immigrants contribute to ceaseless cultural change in the city. The outer reaches of London may be invisible, but there’s no doubting that they are real.

George Georgiou is a UK-based photographer. See more of his workhere.

The Way We Were: 1948 London Olympians Look Back

Few are alive today who remember the 1948 Olympics in London. To commemorate London’s third hosting of the Games, TIME has traversed two continents to speak to the last surviving medalists from the U.K. and the U.S. for its special Olympics edition. Those competitors speak of feelings familiar to us all—the comfort of a lucky charm, the joy of victory. They also recount experiences that are foreign to many athletes today: the enervating effect of post-war rations, and training sessions fitted around everyday jobs.

Despite the various hardships they encountered, the athletes interviewed by TIME remember the Games fondly. Yet when the International Olympic Committee selected London to host the 1948 Summer Olympics, not everyone in the city was pleased. “The average range of British enthusiasm for the Games stretches from lukewarm to dislike,” wrote London’s Evening Standard in September 1947. “It is not too late for invitations to be politely withdrawn.” Even government officials who had pushed for a London Olympics acknowledged that following the devastation of the Second World War, Britain had few resources to spare for a sporting contest. “We have a housing shortage, and food difficulties, which do not permit us to do all we wish,” said Prime Minister Clement Attlee in a radio address welcoming athletes in 1948.

(For daily coverage of the 2012 Games, visit TIME’s Olympics blog)

It was called the ‘austerity’ Olympics—in a sense that even in today’s frugal times we can hardly fathom. With a budget of just $1.2 million (compared to today’s almost $14 billion), no new venues were built—instead, organizers made do and mended. The Henley Royal Regatta course hosted rowing events despite being 70 meters too short. Javelin throwers, deprived of stadium lighting, cast their spears in the dark, while judges officiated with flashlights. Wembley Stadium—usually used as a greyhound racing arena—received a new brick rubble cinder surface, which quickly turned to slush in the rain.

Yet, as Atlee pointed out, if there was anything lacking, it was not “good will.” Britain worked hard to be able to welcome 4,000 competitors from 59 countries – converting university dormitories, schools and RAF bases into accommodation for visiting athletes and their entourages. The army convalescent camp in London’s Richmond Park became an athletes’ village, complete with a ‘milk bar’, a cobbler’s, a hair dresser’s, a post office and a cinema to seat 500. Good will also streamed in from other nations, particularly when it came to food. The Dutch shipped over 100 tons of fruit and vegetables, Denmark contributed 160,000 eggs, and Czechoslovakia sent 20,000 mineral water bottles. The Brits cooked these and other contributions in camp kitchens, attempting to cater to national cuisines. Although post-war rations were boosted for athletes, the fare wasn’t always well received—legend has it that oarsmen displeased by their end-of-the-Olympics dinner at Henley began to chuck bread rolls in protest.

Still, athletes managed to enjoy themselves, without fine cuisine and—in many cases—without alcohol (though the French team carted over their own wine). After winning a gold medal in the swallow sailing class, David Bond and other competitors celebrated by going to a dance at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay, on the English coast. “We had a wonderful ball,” he tells TIME. “Nobody got drunk actually.” In 1948, the rewards for top competitors, were modest — a medal to show to their family and, in British cyclist Tommy Godwin’s case, a post-race glass of chocolate milk. There were no multi-million dollar endorsements, no spandex uniforms, no neon mascots. The big technological advances in 1948 were the photo finish and silk swimming costumes, which replaced saggy cotton. Yet for all the differences with the modern Games, some things have remained the same. Sixty years later, people from all over the world will gather once more in London to celebrate the Olympic spirit. Londoners will still grumble. And like Prime Minister Attlee said in his address, everyone will be hoping for a bit of good weather.

Jim Naughten is a photographer based in London. See more of his work here.

Photographs of the ‘Great British Public’ in London

Bright red telephone boxes, afternoon tea, bobbies with batons. Today even the most naive tourist knows this Mary Poppins vision of Britain is about as true to life as Dick Van Dyke’s cockney accent. But what, then, does it mean to be British in 2012? That’s a question the London Festival of Photography has tried to answer with its headline show, “The Great British Public.” The exhibition brings together 13 photographers who have captured modern British life, from posh wingdings to a wind-lashed laundry day on Scotland’s Orkney Islands. “We wanted to celebrate Britain more than be depressed about it,” says curator Grace Pattison, noting her countrymen’s talent for grousing. “It’s about the quirkiness, irony, the humor of the British. It’s quite an uplifting show, really.”

Nothing jars more with the British sensibility than the idea of forced positivity. Yet Pattison is savvy enough to have built a ‘warts-and-all’ show that winks at its subject while patting it on the back. Some of the photographers have taken on traditions that still thrive in parts of the country. Chris Steele-Perkins captures the lives of the increasing number of Brits who live to be 100 and receive a congratulatory birthday card from the Queen. Arnhel de Serra (the only non-Brit in the show) has captured the action at countryside agricultural shows, where elderly ladies in tweed vie for top prizes in jam-making and flower arranging. Giulietta Verdon-Roe presents a different glimpse into rural life with her elegiac images of the northernmost Orkney Island, population 51 (plus a few thousand seaweed-eating sheep and one very tall lighthouse).

Other photographers focus on the new traditions being created. Photographer Ewen Spencer followed the rise of the Grime music scene (epitomized by black artist Dizzee Rascal), and the young people who hope to rap their way out of London’s poorest neighborhoods.

And then, of course, there is Britain’s ethnic diversity, often packed into small areas like the borough of Hackney in London, documented by Zed Nelson, or a street in the northern city of Birmingham, photographed by Liz Hingley, which hosts over 30 different places of worship including a mosque and a Hindu temple.

It’s impossible to talk about British photography without mentioning Martin Parr, whose seminal The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton (1982-86) presented working class holiday-makers—they of the bulging, pink flesh and oily fish and chip wrappers—in all their vulgar glory. For the exhibition, Pattison preferred not to dwell on Parr’s 80s oeuvre (“It’s not the most exciting way to talk about Britain anymore.”). Rather, she chose an homage to Parr in the work of Peter Dench, who returned to the parts of New Brighton featured in The Last Resort and photographed them as they are today. Even now, the northern town near Liverpool provokes wry bemusement among the British: “It’s all quite gray and the scenery isn’t that exciting,” says Pattison. “It’s seaside life, but with a quite humorous look.”

One image of Parr’s does appear in the exhibition: a picture of an English bobby, standing in a red-brick town, hands on hips, while children hula hoop in the street. “At first glance, you think, ah, it’s a really traditional English scene,” says Pattison. “But it’s actually a historic museum in the Black Country [the industrial Midlands]. It’s actually just a mock street and he’s an actor dressed up as a policeman.”

Finally, the exhibition touches on the British at play, whether it be country and seaside escapes (Simon Roberts), a barbershop in London where locals hash out the day’s politics (Nick Cunard) or the beer-swilling excesses of English football fans (Homer Sykes).

Even with such a multifarious show, Pattison is worried the British public in question will find something to quibble about. “By calling it ‘The Great British Public’ we are potentially asking for criticism if people don’t feel like their view of Britain is in there,” she says. But in the year of the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Pattison is allowing herself to be Britishly optimistic. “Hopefully not too many people will say that,” she says with a laugh.

The London Festival of Photography’s exhibition The Great British Public will be on view from June 1 through June 24. More information is available here.

Dreamscapes: Matt Wisniewski’s Digital Collages

Some people create images to make a statement. Others, like Matt Wisniewski, do it because it looks pretty. “It’s mostly just aesthetic,” explains the 21-year-old computer science student of his spectral photo collages. “Whatever looks nice, really.”

Art for art’s sake is no new conceit. But Wisniewski has created a particularly successful iteration by overlaying portraits with organic patterns—from flowers to jagged peaks to a Rorschach blot. He came to the combination through experimentation. “It just sort of clicked,” he says. “Natural elements tend to be a little simpler and fit together a bit more obviously with the portraits than urban elements.”

The process begins with images from Tumblr and other online portfolios. A few experimental overlays later, Wisniewski lights on something that catches his eye. “I decide that I want to go further on it and then clean that up.”

For his image of a bearded man in a diaphanous red coat, Wisniewski found an overlay photo that “fit well and had a similar shape to his body.” Although many of his portraits eschew color, the red hue of the overlay image appealed to him. “I just thought it looked interesting.”

Matt Wisniewski

Untitled from “Cold Embrace,” 2011

Whether he works on the face or body is also guided by aesthetic fancy. “Usually if I do something with their body it’s because it’s simple enough that I can just work over it,” he says. “Sometimes I see that covering up their face looks a little nicer than not.”

Wisniewski, who studies at New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology, prefers Photoshop to a paintbrush. Yet despite his technical knowledge—he works as a web-developer in his spare time—he’s self-effacing about his tools. “[Photoshop] is a lot more forgiving,” than traditional media, he says. “I can easily fix mistakes or experiment with an idea and complete erase those changes if I feel they don’t fit.”

That isn’t to say he hasn’t tried drawing, painting and photography. Growing up in Philadelphia, Wisniewski applied his tinkering instincts to whatever was at hand. “I’ve created things for as long as I can remember, really. The collage is just sort of something that happened as a result of that.”

On the cusp of graduating and moving to Brooklyn, Wisniewski hopes to maintain his autotelic creed. “I honestly don’t think of anything I do as a hobby or not,” he says, emphasizing that he wants to keep up his web design alongside making collages. “I’m obviously going to continue doing this as long as I enjoy it. Hopefully that will be a long time.”

Matt Wisniewski is a student at New York’s Rochester Institute of Technology. More of his work can be seen here.

Sonia van Gilder Cooke is a reporter in TIME’s London Bureau. Follow her on Twitter at @svangildercooke.

The Radical Camera: New York’s Photo League

A game of hopscotch. A toothpaste ad. Filthy slums. This, for better or worse, was New York life in the 1930s. Many looked but few saw until the Photo League—a pioneering group of young, idealistic documentary photographers—captured that life with cameras.

The Manhattan-based League, which incorporated a school, darkroom, gallery and salon, was the first institution of its kind when it was founded in 1936 says Mason Klein, curator of fine arts at The Jewish Museum, which is currently presenting “The Radical Camera,” an exhibition in collaboration with the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. “There was nothing like the Photo League, where people could exhibit their work, students alongside their mentors, be taught a kind of history of photography and start understanding what the meaning of the photograph might be.”

Many of its founding members, including Sid Grossman, Sol Libsohn and Aaron Siskind, were first-generation Jewish immigrants with progressive, left-wing sensibilities. “They were very conscious of neighborhoods and communities,” says Klein. “I think it was very natural for Jews to form an egalitarian group and understand that the ordinary citizen of the urban scene was as much a valid subject as any for photography.”

The League thrived for fifteen years, generating projects like the Harlem Document, a collaborative effort by ten photographers to document the living conditions in poor black neighborhoods. It also fostered the careers of notable photographers such as Lisette Model, Weegee and Rosalie Gwathmey.

Despite its progressive agenda, the League’s mission was far from simplistic. Founder Grossman, who was just 23 when the group started, encouraged its members to look beyond documentary and question their relationship with the image. “Sid taught people to challenge their habitual ways of seeing the world,” says Klein. “A more poetic and metaphoric expression of how one saw the world was what Sid wanted from his students.” Under Grossman’s guidance, the League’s young muckrakers became artists.

By the 1940s, the League had turned away from its narrow political focus, capturing the squalor and splendor of everyday New York. The country was moving in the other direction, however, zeroing in on those suspected of harboring leftist sympathies. On December 5, 1947, the U.S. Attorney General blacklisted the League as “totalitarian, fascist, communist or subversive.” In 1951, it closed its doors forever.

The League’s reputation has never truly recovered, says Klein. “They were condemned to a kind of ideological shelving and, I think, unfairly treated by history. We’re trying to rectify that with this show, because they really were always about pushing the photograph and understanding it as art.”

The Radical Camera is on display at The Jewish Museum in New York through March 25. 

Sonia van Gilder Cooke is a reporter in TIME’s London Bureau. Follow her on Twitter at @svangildercooke.

Paris Photo 2011 Spotlights Sub-Saharan Africa

With its grand new setting in the Grand Palais, nearly 120 exhibiting galleries, and tens of thousands of expected visitors, Paris Photo has secured its place as the n’est plus ultra of photography fairs.

That hasn’t kept its new director, Julien Frydman, from having even greater ambitions for the 15th anniversary of the annual event, which begins today and runs through Nov. 13. “It’s about getting out of the ghetto,” says Frydman, the former chief of Magnum Photos in the French capital, who notes that until recently, documentary photography has languished as a sideshow in the history of art. “We want to make sure this photo fair is among the best art fairs of the world.”

Paris Photo 2011 certainly has a lot going for it already. This year, the theme of Sub-Saharan Africa will be marked by a display of portraits from the private trove of German collector Artur Walther and a special exhibition of up-and-coming young African talent. Visitors will be treated to a vast array of images from the continent, from Malick Sidebé’s celebration of Malian pop culture in the 1969′s to Richard Mosse’s pink-hued portraits of modern Congo.

In addition to its usual swarm of galleries, this year’s fair will feature a suite of new attractions intended to up its global profile. Frydman hopes the new Paris Photo Platform, a discussion forum, will debunk the notion of documentary photography as an insular art form. Led by art historian Chantal Pontbriant, the Platform will feature “thinkers, artists, art critics—but not the usual suspects,” he promises. To bring alive this dialogue between photography and other genres, storied curator André Magnin will bring together paintings and photographs by artists such as Yinka Shonibare and Seydou Keïta.

Another new feature, “Recent acquisitions,” uncovers how museums collect their artworks, from the Tate Modern’s focus on the oeuvre of Daido Moriyama to the Musée de l’Elysée’s acquisition of the Charlie Chaplin estate.

In time, Frydman hopes that his innovations will “skyrocket the fair into the top 10” art fairs in the world. It’s important to him, however, that it doesn’t lose its heart along the way. “What I wanted to keep is the conviviality,” he says, noting the fair’s ambiance of friendship and shared passion. “That’s something to keep as a treasure.”

Paris Photo runs through Nov. 13 in the French capital. Read more about it here.

Sonia van Gilder Cooke is a reporter in TIME’s London bureau. Follow her on Twitter at @svangildercooke.

Murmurations: Spectacular Starlings Signal Winter Is On Its Way

No one knows why they do it. Yet each fall, thousands of starlings dance in the twilight above Gretna, Scotland. The birds gather in magical shape-shifting flocks called murmurations, having migrated in the millions from Russia and Scandinavia to escape winter’s bite. Scientists aren’t sure how they do it, either. Even complex algorithmic models haven’t yet explained the starlings’ acrobatics, which rely on the tiny bird’s quicksilver reaction time of under 100 milliseconds to avoid aerial collisions—and predators—in the giant flock. Despite their show of force in the dusky sky, starlings have declined significantly in the UK in recent years, perhaps because of a drop in nesting sites. The birds still roost in several of Britain’s rural pastures, however, settling down to sleep (and chatter) after the evening’s ballet.

Sonia van Gilder Cooke is a reporter in TIME’s London Bureau. Follow her on Twitter at @svangildercooke.