Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (1998)

Here is another analogy… (p.12)

Although this book is over 20 years old, the issues it addresses (the anti-scientific tendency of much traditional literature and the inappropriate use of poetic writing in bogus pseudo-science – versus the hard scientific fact and clear scientific thinking Dawkins promotes) are still very current, and since Dawkins is still writing books attacking non-scientific ways of looking at the world (such as his most recent tome, Outgrowing God, published just last year) I think it’s still worth reviewing this one as an analysis of his overall style and approach.

The aim

The full title is Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder and the book’s purpose is simple: For thousands of years humans have written poetry or concocted religious myths and symbols to explain the puzzling world around them. But (Dawkins says) the scientific worldview as we now have it explains more or less everything about the world around us from bacteria to supernovas and, if properly understood, is far more beautiful and inspiring than the poetry, myths and legends it supersedes.

My advice

However, in my opinion, if you want to be inspired, watch a David Attenborough documentary about the natural world or a Brian Cox one about the stars, because this book is a hilariously silly, shallow, ragbag of random quotes, fragments of science mixed up with countless personal anecdotes, snippets from newspapers or TV and, above all, a relentless stream Richard Dawkins’s pet peeves and trite opinions.

Do not read this book.

Dawkins shares his opinion of modern journalists (lamentably anti-science)

Dawkins opens the book with a sustained attack on a shopping list of contemporary authors who have written disparagingly about science, including Bernard Levin (who once wrote an article specifically about Dawkins God, Me and Mr Dawkins 11 October 1996 – hence the enmity), Simon Jenkins, A.A. Gill, Fay Weldon (author of a ‘hymn of hate’ against science in the Daily Telegraph) and so on and so on.

Dawkins quotes articles in the newspapers, or letters he has received, or questions he gets asked at the end of his lectures, or anecdotes about students of his, to demonstrate that anti-scientific prejudice and ignorance is everywhere – There are creationists under the bed and anti-evolutionists hiding in the closet. It isn’t safe to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without someone spouting unscientific rubbish or promoting astrology or showing the deepest scientific illiteracy. Fools! Knaves! Dawkins has no patience with error.

This is dramatically, profoundly, hugely wrong. (p.90)

Dawkins shares his opinion of British poets (lamentably anti-science)

And then – oh dear, oh dear – Dawkins takes it upon himself to be the judge of a raft of classic poets including Keats, Coleridge or Wordsworth, Blake or Yeats or Lawrence.

Dawkins has located quotes from all of these luminaries lamenting the ‘death of romance’ and the role science has played in ‘dis-enchanting the world’ so, as usual, Richard loses no time in telling us that they were all dead wrong in thinking science dis-enchants the world: if only they’d understood modern science, they’d have written poetry ten times as good!!

Dawkins then goes on to prove that he has absolutely no feel for poetic writing or for the luminous quality of poetry:

  1. by the way he quotes schoolboy tags and the most obvious ‘greatest hits’ moments from the most obvious Great Poets
  2. by the way he treats poems as rhythmic verse i.e you can do a prose summary, and then evaluate them on whether or not they show the ‘correct’ attitude to the scientific worldview
  3. and by the way he has rummaged through the diaries and letters and table talk of the Great Poets to find quotes of them stating anti-scientific or anti-rationalist opinions

Which he considers case closed. He cannot entertain the idea that poetry might not be written to put forward clearly defined and logical points of view, but might be an alternative way of perceiving and expressing the world and what it is to be human…

He refers to D.H. Lawrence who (allegedly) refused to believe that moonlight is reflected sunlight (that sounds too pat and too stupid to be true), but even if it were, you kind of know what Lawrence is talking about. We have evolved over tens of millions of years to find night-time eerie and the changing shape and movement of the moon uncanny. Is it possible that part of a poet’s role is to respect ancient beliefs, to excavate and re-express deep ancestral feelings, no matter how irrational?

Not in Dawkins’s view. No! They were all wrong wrong wrong about science and deserve to be sent to the back of the class. He speculates that:

Keats, like Yeats, might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science from some of his inspiration. (p.27)

If only the Great Poets were more like, well, like Richard Dawkins!

Dawkins’s bêtes noirs and pet peeves

He fills the book with his own Daily Mail prejudices and bêtes noirs.

Post-modernism is rubbish Once again we get his shallow critique of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural relativism’ – ‘the meaningless wordplays of modish francophone savants‘ – which he dismisses in a sentence as existing merely ‘to impress the gullible’ (p.41).

Now maybe a lot of French post-war philosophy is pretentious twaddle, but, for example, Derrida’s attempt to rethink the entire tradition of writing as a way of encoding authority which constantly undermines itself because of the looseness and deeply unfinishable nature of writing, or Foucault’s histories of how power is wielded by supposedly ‘objective’ academic disciplines and public institutions, or Roland Barthes’ explorations of how texts have lives of their own, determined by structures or levels of activity which have hitherto been overlooked – these are all fascinating intellectual endeavours, certainly more worth spending time reading about than the Daily Mail philistinism of Dr D.

It’s a telling irony that soon after a passage attacking writers and journalists (Bernard Levin, Simon Jenkins et al) for their shallow, ignorant dismissal of science as being a worldview which they don’t like — Dawkins himself carries out just such a shallow, ignorant dismissal of post-modern philosophy, for being a worldview which he doesn’t like.

Could it be that there are multiple worldviews, countless worldviews, and that we get along best by enjoying their diversity? No! Wrong wrong wrong!

Children’s book awards are vulgar Dawkins gives an account of attending an awards ceremony for children’s science books where the audience was encouraged to make insect noises, which he found insufferably ‘vulgar’.

Computer games are vulgar In much the same way, in The Blind Watchmaker, he dismissed ‘vulgar’ arcade computer games (not as dignified and worthy as the computer game he had devised, of course).

The ‘Top 20’ shows how vulgar people are This kind of lofty condemnation of ‘popular’ interests and tastes comes, of course, from a long line of lofty and contemptuous Oxford intellectuals, and sits alongside his fastidious disapproval of the so-called ‘Top 40’ and how easy it is to promote ‘worthless pop singles, an attitude of fastidious elitism which made me laugh at the end of The Blind Watchmaker. Later on he finds the space, for obscure personal reasons, to go out of his way to tell us that the activity of bodybuilding is an ‘odd minority culture’. Possibly. But not as odd as writing a book supposedly about science and going out of your way to include a paragraph disapproving of body building.

The X-Files is anti-scientific Dawkins takes the time to explain why he dislikes the popularity of the TV show The X-Files – namely, because of the way it foregrounds the spooky, irrational explanations for the weird occurrences it depicts (p.28) – which is so frightfully anti-science.

Douglas Adams is masterly By contrast, he wants us to know that he approves of the ‘masterly’ science comedies of Douglas Adams (p.29).

Science fiction is serious literature! Science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov et al:

seems to me to be an important literary form in its own right, snobbishly underrated by some scholars of literature (p.27)

Oh yes, if Dawkins ran literature departments, things would be different! Out with Derrida and Barthes, in with Douglas Adams and Isaac Asimov!

Dr Dolittle is not racist Dawkins finds time to share his opinion that Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books do have a little racism in them, but then that was the universal worldview of the 1920s, so it is silly for ‘pompously correct librarians’ to ban them. And, anyway, Dolittle’s love of animals is superior to the speciesism which even the most politically correct of our own time are still prey to (p.53).

Ruskin didn’t understand science I was actively upset when Dawkins quotes a passage of Ruskin about how people prefer myths and stories to the cold empirical facts – and then goes on to ridicule Ruskin’s attitude not by countering his views but by retelling the hoary old anecdote about the great critic and social reformer’s disastrous wedding night.

It stood out to me as a moment of gross insensitivity and schoolboy bullying. Ruskin was a genius, who struggled to transform the way the philistine British thought about art and design and handed his cause on to the young William Morris. To drag up this hackneyed anecdote is in the worst possible vein of Daily Mail ad hominem philistinism.

Summary

a) Dawkins is a modern reincarnation of just the kind of literal-minded, unbending, unsympathetic and impenetrably dense philistine who forced so many of the Great Poets – Shelley and Byron and Browning, Lawrence and Auden – to flee claustrophobic, puritanical, judgemental England for hotter, more laid-back climes.

b) There seems to be no subject too trivial or too minor for Dawkins not to be able to use it as the pretext to share with the reader his trite and obvious opinions and prejudices, or to prompt another anecdote from his endless store of ‘fascinating’ encounters.

Imagine if David Attenborough interrupted his voiceover about humming birds or polar bears to share an anecdote about a distinguished professor he had a squabble with over dinner at his Oxford college, or took a minute to explain to his viewers why Star Trek is better than Dr Who, or why Douglas Adams’ novels are criminally under-rated.

You’d think he’d gone mad. But that’s what most of this book is like.

Snobbism

Although Dawkins goes out of his way to sound reasonable he can’t help quite frequently sounding like a snob, fastidiously distancing himself from the ghastly taste of the mob. Richard – alongside the Daily Mail – laments how standards have slipped and once-mighty institutions have pandered to popular taste. O Tempora! O mores!

In his chapter rubbishing horoscopes and astrology, Dawkins quotes surveys in which most people say they read horoscopes just for entertainment:

Their taste in what constitutes entertaining fiction is evidently different from mine!

Indeed. Dawkins has told us several times that he cycles through the streets of leafy Oxford. I wonder if he’s ever thought about people like me who have to fight their way onto over-crowded tube trains, or flop exhausted at the end of the day onto a muggy bus, brain dead and pick up a copy of the Metro or Standard to leaf through, treating the horoscopes as much the same as all the other brainless twaddle in it which helps pass the time if you are very, very tired. Different strokes for different folks. Live and let live, maybe…

I chortled when he referred to the Radio Times as ‘that once-respected organ of the BBC’ (p.124). Could anyone sound more pompous?

After taking part in a BBC programme promoting a faith healer who claimed to be the reincarnation of a 2,000-year-old dead doctor, Dawkins clashed with the commissioning editor of this programme. He was horrified that the BBC should:

lend the weight of its long built-up reputation by appearing to accept the fantasy at face value (pp.125-6)

It’s so often the BBC which draws the ire of the Mrs Angry’s from Tunbridge Wells… and so it is for Dawkins. I smiled when he described David Frost as:

a veteran British television personality whom some government saw fit to knight… (p.126)

‘Whom’. I know it’s technically correct but I don’t like using ‘whom’ precisely because Dawkins is typical of the kind of people who still use it, the kind of people who perpetually think the BBC is going to the dogs.

The long chapter demolishing astrologers and fake magicians is an orgy of supercilious superiority to the immoral tricksters who make money be exploiting a gullible public, aided and abetted by intelligent people in places like the BBC who really should know better!

Dawkins’s personal stories and gossip

I’ll begin with a personal anecdote. (p.138)

The book is jam packed with chatty stories and anecdotes from people he’s met, and letters he’s received, and newspapers articles he’s read, and debates he’s taken part in, and lectures he’s given, and children he’s chatted to, and anecdotes about his wife, and his mother-in-law, and his parents, and uncle and aunt.

  • I am told on good authority that defence lawyers in the United States sometimes object to jury candidates on the grounds that they have had a scientific education (p.83)
  • A colleague tells me of a time when he was up for selection on a jury… (p.84)
  • I had a schoolfriend who claimed that he could recognise any member of the 80-strong residence in which we lived purely by listening to their footsteps. (p.88)
  • I had another friend from Switzerland who claimed that when she walked into a room she could tell, by smell, which members of her circle of acquaintances had just left the room. (p.88)
  • I once received a lawyer’s bill, the last item of which was ‘Time spent making out this bill’ (p.106)
  • My wife Lalla Ward recalls an occasion when an American starlet approached the director of the film they were both working on with a ‘Gee, Mr Preminger, what sign are you?’ and received the immortal rebuff, in a thick Austrian accent, ‘I am a Do Not Disturrrb sign.’ (p.118)
  • I once met a woman who was employed full time to invent these stories [Elvis sighted on Mars-type stories] for an American publication… (p.124)
  • I recall an entertaining dinner with a philosopher who told me the following story: One day in church he noticed that a priest, in a kneeling position, was hovering nine inches above the church floor. (p.133)
  • I remember once trying to amuse a six-year-old child at Christmas time by reckoning with her how long it would take Father Christmas to go down all the chimneys in the world. (p.141)
  • I used a similar illustration in one of my Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1991. (p.145)
  • My wife once bought for her mother a beautiful antique watch with a pink face. (p.154)
  • During this particular minute, my thoughts have strayed to a schoolfellow called Haviland (I don’t remember his Christian name, not what he looked like) whom I haven’t seen or thought of for 45 years. (p.159)
  • Daniel Dennett has told me of a conversation with a philosopher colleague who had read Wonderful Life as arguing that the Cambrian phyla did not have a common ancestor – that they had sprung up as independent origins of life! (p.207)

He spends a page and a half describing the time his parents persuaded little Richard and his sister to put on blindfolds and led them out to the garden where they sat them in a wooden frame which they persuaded the children was an airplane, trundled it along the ‘runway’ and then lifted it into the air and zoomed it around the garden, sometimes brushing against low-hanging branches of trees.

This anecdote is the basis of a couple of pages of complete speculation about why credulity, the ability to believe anything they’re told, might be an evolutionary advantage in human children – but how adults should grow out of it and apply serious scientific standards of scepticism and an informed understanding of statistics to every aspect of their lives.

But why? Why can’t people believe what they want to? In reality they already do, and always have, and always will. Charming, page-long anecdotes about Richard’s upper-middle-class childhood aren’t going to change anyone’s minds, they just warm the hearts of the upper-middle-class book reviewers who, as a result, shower his books with praise (enthusiastic blurbs on the back of this book come from A.S. Byatt [private school and Oxford] and Matt Ridley [the fifth Viscount Ridley, Eton and Oxford]).

On and on it goes in an endless burbling stream of jolly gossip which is entertaining because it’s so inconsequential and vain, a self-satisfied family album of preening opinions.

Sometimes there are bits of science…

Why rainbows appear like they do, sound waves, how we can read the chemical composition of different stars, DNA fingerprinting – there are interesting fragments of actual science, reasonably clearly explained, buried amid all the gossip and personal prejudices.

There’s another explanation of the structure of the eye (repeated from River Out of Eden), a page about qasars, and 4 or 5 pages about ‘Skinner boxes, and the behaviouralist B.F. Skinner’s experiments rewarding animals (pigeons and rats) which led him to notice that animals, too, appear to develop superstitious rituals i.e. if they happened to be doing something (pecking a particular part of the box, or huddling on one particular corner) when some food pops through the chute into the box, then they will repeat the same behaviour again and again in the hope that lightning strikes twice. Like humans who carry out lucky tics and rituals.

There’s a lengthy passage (pp.193-209) attacking Stephen Jay Gould. It’s typical of Dawkins in that he says he respects the great American populariser of evolution, but then goes on to systematically demolish every aspect of Gould’s book Wonderful Life. Gould uses the fossil discoveries in the Burgess Shale to assert that the Cambrian period when they were laid down saw a spectacular and unprecedented explosion of evolutionary growth and diversity, hundreds of wacky designs for life forms, many of which flourished and disappeared. Dawkins powerfully disagrees that evolution works in such bursts and spurts, and lines up a barrage of critics and authorities to demolish Gould’s position, concluding with a quote from Peter Medawar claiming it was a shame that Gould had (before his death in 2002) become the pre-eminent popular exponent of evolutionary theory in the United States because his ideas are ‘confused’ and totally unrepresentative of the mainstream of evolutionary thought (‘in fact the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with…’, p.207).

OK so there’s some science in this passage, as Dawkins explains why he disagrees with Gould but, as you can tell, the explication of the facts of what was found in the Burgess Shale take a poor second place to Dawkins’s argufying about it. The point of these fifteen pages or so is not to explain the thing to you, it’s to convince you that Gould was wrong wrong wrong!

The passage I liked best explained how evolution, among other things, has selected for the correct shapes of key proteins – some crucial proteins have multiple shapes and versions: the correct shapes are the ones which allow them to carry out their life-enabling activities, but it explains why things go disastrously wrong if the body, for whatever reason, starts to produce wrong-shaped alternatives: which is what happens in mad cow disease, when an alternative shape of the prion protein occurs and then triggers a cascade of mishapen prions throughout the body, which leads to holes forming in the brain, and madness.

Moments like this are obviously interesting, but they are oases of sense in a book most of whose text is made up of anecdotes, stories, far-fetched analogies, pitifully simplistic opinions about Great Literature, and a wholesale misunderstanding of human nature.

Conclusion

As to Dawkins’s central point that all kinds of people think unscientifically, don’t understand statistics or probabilities or how DNA fingerprinting works or how the rainbow is made, and instead believe gibberish about horoscopes and astrology and magic tricks… well, so what?

People have always been fools, always will be, as John Gray points out (see my review of his most recent book, The Soul of the Marionette). On the whole, people don’t burn witches or lynch strangers or march gaily off to war like they used to, so that’s progress of a sort.

But expecting everyone to suddenly abandon junk TV, sensationalist tabloid journalism, horoscopes and the countless promises of overnight diets and anti-ageing creams, and suddenly, miraculously, become hyper-intelligent, private-school educated, Oxford academic experts in DNA and astronomy is… well… a fatuous fantasy.

Dawkins and Junior

When my son (22 and studying Biology at university) discovered that I was reading Dawkins’s books, he was genuinely outraged. He crossly told me that all Dawkins’s contributions to biology have been discredited, and that his only achievement has been to create in many people’s minds a vision of science and scientists as narrow-minded, intolerant, anti-religious and bigoted – a view which my son has personally found himself having to extricate himself from in student conversations, and which has been extremely socially unhelpful.

P.S.

One last Dawkins anecdote to finish with:

In a previous book I gave away the number of the combination lock on my bicycle. I felt safe in doing so because obviously my books would never be read by the kind of person who would steal a bicycle. Unfortunately somebody did steal it, and now I have a new lock with a new number. (p.147)

This vignette perfectly captures Dawkins’s spirit of winning naivety and complete ignorance of human nature. Maybe you can see why, in my review of The Blind Watchmaker, I dubbed Dawkins the Mr Bean of Biology.

Credit

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins was published by Penguin in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Penguin paperback edition.


Related links

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Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Every year the National Portrait Gallery holds an exhibition displaying the 60 or so photographs which made the shortlist for the international Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, a leading international photographic portrait competition.

5,717 photos were entered for the 2017 competition, from a total of 2,423 photographers, based in 66 countries. The exhibition of this top 60 opened in mid-November and continues until 8 February.

A first, second and third prize are awarded, along with the John Kobel prize for best work by a photographer aged under 35.

This is the third year when they’ve also had an ‘In Focus’ feature, profiling a specific photographer. This year it is Todd Hido, an American photographer represented by four big studio shots of women.

I guess there are several ways to approach an exhibition like this. Since it happens every year, you could compare it with last year’s and the year before’s exhibitions with a view to spotting changing trends and developments. Alas, I don’t have a firm enough grasp of previous years to do that.

If you’re a photography buff you will be interested in technique or device, for example the use of digital versus film photography, or the use of new lenses, maybe new ways of using light and shadow, of composition etc. Alas, I know next to nothing about cameras. But also, the information panels next to each photo, often four or five paragraphs long, give little or no technical information but instead focus on the psychology, the mood and feel of the photos, and often discuss the ‘issues’ they raise or ‘investigate’.

You can just saunter round seeing what takes your fancy – which plenty of people were doing on the day I visited, including a gaggle of junior school children who were having a great time being asked by their teachers what they liked and why.

Or you could regard it as what Roland Barthes called a corpus, a body of work to be analysed, a set of 60 photographs to be analysed as a group or cohort, finding themes and patterns in it, maybe hazarding a guess at how it indicates ‘signs of the times’ and the ‘Zeitgeist’.

In this respect, it was notable that two of the three prizewinning photos addressed the issue of refugees and war.

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

Amadou Sumaila by César Dezfuli © César Dezfuli

First prize went to César Dezfuli for his portrait of a migrant rescued in the Mediterranean off the Libyan coast. His photo is of Amadou Sumaila, a sixteen-year-old from Mali, who’s just been plucked from a refugee boat by an Italian rescue vessel and is looking understandably troubled. César received £15,000 for his photograph, I wonder how much Amadou got.

Second prize (£3,000) went to Abbie Trayler-Smith for her photograph of a girl fleeing ISIS in Mosul, Iraq. Abbie, a former BBC producer, was working for Oxfam at the Hasan Sham displaced persons camp in Iraq, documenting the charity’s work helping people fleeing ISIS. A bus was bringing in people who had, only hours earlier, been in a battle zone. For me this was probably the best photo in the show, in the sense of the deepest and most haunting image, the streaks of sand left by rainwater trickling down the bus window contrasting with the detached beauty of the woman’s face.

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

Fleeing Mosul from the series Women in War: Life After ISIS by Abbie Trayler-Smith © Abbie Trayler-Smith

But these two were the exceptions – there weren’t many other photos from combat zones, trouble spots or areas of distress e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen or Bangladesh. Periodically I flick through the couple of books I have by war photographer Don McCullin. There was nothing that intense or first hand here. Surfing through the websites of the featured photographers I came across some tough images by Adam Hinton of street gangs in El Salvador and the ruins of Kiev. There was nothing that gritty on display here.

Also, I happen to have recently visited the Tate Modern exhibition about Russian revolutionary art, a lot of which – films, photos and posters – depicts the proletariat and peasants at work, in fields, in factories, driving combine harvesters or sweating near blast furnaces. In this whole exhibition I think there was only one photograph of a person actually working, a black guy in South Africa holding a garden strimmer.

And despite two shots of boys in football strip, there were no shots of sports actually taking place, or in fact of any activities at all. A guy washing his feet in a sink. A mother in a natural pool with her baby and son. Four ladies holding floats in a swimming pool. That’s about as energetic as it got.

Maybe portraits have to be static. But can’t you have portraits of people doing something? Most of the photos here seemed posed and passive, exuding calm and poise. Take the third prize, which went to Maija Tammi from Finland for her portrait of a Japanese android called Erica. Android!? Yes, Erica is a robot made by Japanese scientists. Tammi had half an hour in the lab with Erica and one of her designers to take photos of the (disturbingly lifelike) android. The curators claim the photo ‘addresses issues’ of human versus robot etc, but for me, as an image, its main quality is its supreme calm and placidness.

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

One of Them Is a Human #1 by Maija Tammi (Erica: Erato Ishiguro Symbiotic Human-Robot Interaction Project) © Maija Tammi

Static

Quite a few of the photos just showed people in static positions, posed face-on to the camera or only slightly turned and positioned. Take, for example, the two photos from Owen Harvey’s series of Skins and Suedes. This one combines teenage surliness (‘Who you lookin’ at?’) with vulnerability, a kind of tough helplessness. Fine – except that quite a few of the other photos in the exhibition use exactly the same pose and approach.

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London, from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Chelsea, Skinhead, Hyde Park, London from the series Skins & Suedes by Owen Harvey 2017 © Owen Harvey

Some of them were very static indeed, posed with a kind of deliberately geometric sterility.

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

Anna and Helen, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 by R. J. Kern 2016 © R. J. Kern

The overwhelming vibe of the show was of this placid, sterile, posed, numb effect. Maybe this is a ‘sign of the times’.

American dominance

This latter photo brings us to the issue of America’s representation in the show.

Since the introduction makes much of numbers –  5,717 photos submitted etc – I did a little counting of my own. Of the 60 or so photos on display, no fewer than 22 are from or about America – starting with Todd Hido’s four studio portraits.

There’s a whole wall of six or so American political photos, including ones of Trump, Obama and Hillary Clinton – the latter a worryingly big close-up of the lady in full campaign mode, reminding us of her hawkish foreign policy record, and that she is 70 years old (albeit younger than Trump, 71, or Bernie Saunders, 76: America the Gerontocracy).

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

Campaign #1 Hillary Rodham Clinton, West Palm Beach, FL from the series Ambition, Charm, and the Will to Power by Alan Mozes 2016 © Alan Mozes

These figures of power were placed next to a pair of photos of poor women taken against, or rather through, the metal grilles of part of the wall between the US and Mexico, as well as shots of blue collar Trump supporters, a teenage American gun fan, and so on.

The very first photo in the exhibition is by an American of a classic American subject – two drum majorettes caught in a casual moment. There’s a shot of a young black guy posed on a horse, a stylishly dressed black girl on Venice beach, the naked mum in a pool in Idaho. There, in other words, are lots of Yanks in this show.

This latter photo (below) is striking because it is, for this show, an unusually dynamic composition, the outstretched arm and leg making striking diagonal lines and the swimming boy nearly making three sides of an X shape. It is a rare example of a relatively unposed photo, the woman reaching for her glasses (are they glasses) giving it an air of precariousness and risk missing from almost all the other works here.

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water's Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Jennifer, Lur, and Emile, Warm Spring Creek, Idaho from the series Water’s Edge by Matthew Hamon 2016 © Matthew Hamon

Having brought up two children since they were babies, I wasn’t charmed by this image of primal innocence (if that’s the intention): I was mainly worried about the safety of the baby!

Anyway, health and safety aside, my point is: how come so many Americans?

The US population is 323 million, just 4.25% of the global population of 7.6 billion. Why, then, were over 30% of the photos in this international competition by or about Americans?

Maybe because we in Britain are so drenched in Americana, through movies, TV shows, pop and rock and country music and so on, through the voices of academics and journalists on radio and TV, that we half believe these images and icons are ours. We somehow believe that we have a special claim on, or connection with, American culture. Maybe this is why British intellectuals get so very cross about Donald Trump almost as if he’s president of our country, and we hear so much about American domestic policy, about its race relations, or its abortion clinics, or the endless coverage of every new scandal from Hollywood, as if it directly affects us in Clapham and Cleethorpes and Clovelly.

Or maybe America is just so big and rich that it has a disproportionately large number of well-educated graduates of art and photography courses, plus an enormous network of magazines of all shapes and sizes and styles, and competitions and prizes and money – an entire ecosystem which can sustain tens of thousands of photographers. And so the quality of the best American photographers just is among the best in the world, and so they just deserve to dominate every international photography competition.

George S. Texas 2016 from the series "Age of Innocence" Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

George S. Texas 2016 from the series Age of Innocence: Children and guns in the USA by Laurent Elie Badessi 2016 © Laurent Elie Badessi

Having counted the number of photos with American subject matter, I then turned to examine the list of photographers. I counted 51 photographers, responsible for 62 photographs (see below for a complete list of photographers and how many photos they have in the show). Of those 51 photographers, 31 are British and 9 are American. I.e. 40 out of the 51 photographers in the exhibition (78%) are British or American.

This is a bit disappointing. What about China (pop. 1.4 billion), India (pop. 1.3 billion), Indonesia or Brazil? And although it’s less populous (144 million), I always wish there was more coverage of Russia in shows like this, Russia being the largest country in the world, with its vast Siberian hinterland occupied by all sorts of interesting tribes and ethnic groups.

Considering that China will become the economic powerhouse of the world, and Putin’s Russia presents a distinct threat to the West, in both military and digital terms, I think the more we see and understand about these countries and their people the better; and so – fairly or unfairly – I can’t help thinking that supposedly ‘global’ competitions which don’t adequately represent them are missing a trick.

Maybe the disproportionately high number of British and American entrants is for the simple reason that the competition is well publicised in these countries, which after all have a large cultural overlap. Maybe the competition is just not very well promoted in other countries (even in other Anglo countries like Canada, Australia, New Zealand, which didn’t have any representatives here). Maybe the Anglo bias of the show reflects the difficulty of publicising it elsewhere.

All I know for sure is that, against this Anglocentric backdrop, the handful of colourfully non-Anglo subjects really stood out.

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Kijini Primary School students learn to float, swim, and perform rescues in the Indian Ocean off of Mnyuni, Zanzibar by Anna Boyiazis, 2016 © Anna Boyiazis

Cool photo. By an American, though.

Humour

Not many people in these photos are smiling let alone laughing. Just like in last year’s BP Portrait Award show (for painted portraits), happiness seems to be verboten. Maybe it’s a function of the highly posed nature of most of the photos: the subjects obviously felt they had to be on their best behaviour.

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Green chalk stripe suit from the series You Get Me? by Mahtab Hussain 2017 © Mahtab Hussain

Having recently read a few books about Surrealism my head is also full of bizarre images created by yoking together unexpected juxtapositions, as in the numerous cutouts and collages of Max Ernst.

Only one photo of the 60 or so here really played at all with these possibilities of photography as a medium. Typically, it was not only a) American but b) very earnest.

It represents the experience of Swedish photographer Alice Schoolcraft who visited her American relatives only to discover that they were Bible-thumping, gun-toting Republicans, and particularly fond of their German Shepherd dog. Hence this photomontage which, I felt, was neither as weird or as convincingly photoshopped as it ought to be.

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Halo from the series The Other Side by Alice Schoolcraft 2017 © Alice Schoolcraft

Women’s bodies

Women appear to be much more interested in their bodies than men are in theirs, as facts and figures from GPs, hospitals, pharmacies, the fashion and beauty industries, and anecdotal evidence suggest. Probably because women’s bodies are so much more interesting than men’s bodies, dominated as they are by the great central Fact of childbirth, which overshadows their lives – from the advent of menstruation to the onset of the menopause, via a lifetime worrying about contraception, with maybe one or more pregnancies to live through, babies to deliver in agony, and then the long, wearing years of child rearing.

All this to cope with before you even consider the non-stop pestering and objectifying by boys and men, and the great weight of social pressure to conform, be polite and submissive, dress well and look good at all times. What a nightmare!

These thoughts were prompted by the fact that buried in the show is an unobtrusive strand about girlhood, womanhood, motherhood and old age. I wonder if the organisers knew it was there – it would be nice to think it was a very subtle piece of thematic planning. But deliberate or not, ten or so of the pictures could be arranged to form a kind of ‘life cycle of a woman’. They kick off with this graphic photo of childbirth.

Sophie's first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

Sophie’s first breath by Sean Smith 2017 © Sean Smith

I’ve referred to the photo of the mum swimming with a baby, above, which stands for babies and toddlers. Next in this ‘life cycle’ would come photos showing:

  • a pre-pubescent girl in a swimsuit in a poolside shower
  • a clutch of sulky punk girls from London’s streets (the third photo in this review)
  • the stylish young black woman in torn jeans posing on Venice beach

Then there’s another medical shot, focusing on a specifically female condition – a photo of a woman’s stomach indicating operations resulting from her endemetriosis. In fact it’s the photographer’s own body, Georgie Wileman having suffered from this horrible condition and turned her plight into a photographic project.

Early in my career I produced and directed a dozen medical videos which involved researching some pretty horrible conditions, looking at hundreds of photos of disfigured bodies, and filming a number of surgical procedures (the operation to treat piles was probably the most gruesome). This disabused me of any naive innocence about the human body. All of us, no matter how young and beautiful, are medical patients in waiting.

2014 - 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

2014 – 2017 from the series Endometriosis by Georgie Wileman 2017 © Georgie Wileman

In terms of thinking about themes and trends, this photo made me realise that there is probably a whole modern genre here, the ‘Woman’s body as a medical battlefield’ genre. In the past people wrote books about ‘The Nude’. Nowadays you could fill a book with art photos of women’s bodies after mastectomies, caesarian sections and so on.

Further on in the exhibition, a photo of a family picnic on Southwold beach can be taken as symbolising motherhood and middle age, all making sandwiches and the school run.

And, to complete the cycle, tucked away among other, brasher photos, is an unobtrusive but moving picture of an old woman dying.

I found this hard to look at since it reminded me too much of holding my own mother’s hand as she passed away in a cold, white hospital room. The lifeless white hair. The skin like parchment.

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Untitled from the series Mother by Matthew Finn 2016 © Matthew Finn

Once I’d noticed this women’s life cycle – almost like one of Hogarth’s moral tales – the many photos of lads and men alongside them seemed callow and trite by comparison. Maybe these reflect the way many boy’s and men’s lives are indeed a succession of shallow thrill-seeking, dares and accidents. Fast cars, football and fags.

A number of the photographers here seemed to have had the idea of focusing on teenage boys, hanging out, smoking tabs, wondering how much that camera’s worth. I grew up among lads like this, so I liked this strand. ‘Oi mate, want some blow?’ Is he a nice boy who loves his Mum – or is he about to stab you? ‘Teenagers’ was another noticeable theme of the exhibition.

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Kieran from Bolton aged 18 from the series Blackpool 2016 by Adam Hinton 2016 © Adam Hinton

Artists

And smoking brings us neatly to a little suite of photos of creative types. To be precise, there are photos of two artists and a writer in the show:

The Sunday Times columnist A.A. Gill is photographed in his Chelsea garden in the advanced stages of the cancer that was shortly to kill him. He was a recovering alcoholic who, at one point, smoked 60 tabs a day. He died of lung cancer.

The popular but critically slated painter Jack Vettriano is photographed looking grey-haired and gaunt in his home in Battersea having only recently, the wall label tells us, recovered from his chronic alcoholism. Also a heavy smoker.

But my favourite was a cracking photo of artist Maggi Hambling CBE, aged 72 and still smoking like a trooper. Here she is in the garden of her home in Suffolk. She insisted on smoking throughout the shoot and, apparently, got through a pack and a half of fags before the photographer had the bright idea of setting up a smoke machine to give the surreal impression that her ciggies are blotting out the entire landscape. Maybe I liked it because it’s virtually the only humorous photo in the show.

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

Maggi Hambling by Harry Cory Wright 2016 © Harry Cory Wright

I was mildly interested to read who the judges were:

  • Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Chair (Director, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Dr David Campany (Writer, Curator and Artist)
  • Tim Eyles, Managing Partner, Taylor Wessing LLP
  • Dr Sabina Jaskot-Gill (Associate Curator, Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London)
  • Fiona Shields (Head of Photography, The Guardian)
  • Gillian Wearing (Artist)

50% women – but no black or Asian judges. Blackness is seen via white photographers selected by white judges. But then that does seem to be par for the course for London galleries (see my blog post on Women and ethnic minorities in the art world).

Conclusion

If you’re interested in photography this is an excellent snapshot of work from around the world (well, by Americans and Brits who travel round the world).

All of the photos are technically very finished, well lit, focused, clear and crisp.

A handful (the winners) are really stunning.

I found the American presence oppressive, maybe other people will like it.

I detected a hidden theme of womanhood; maybe other visitors will find other themes. (The winning photo of César Dezfuli suggests the theme of migrants, emigrants and refugees, with quite a few shots of British or American blacks and Asians finding their place in the predominantly white culture and – on the anti-immigrant side – photos of Trump and his supporters – there’s enough material here to write an essay just on this very timely theme – but this review is long enough already).

If my review comes over as dismissive, I don’t intend it to be: I found the show fascinating in all kinds of ways and, more tellingly, I’ve found its effects lingering on. Following up the three prize winners and some of the others via the internet has opened my eyes to the dazzling world of contemporary photography. In this respect the exhibition can be used as a valuable gateway, as an introduction and incitement to explore further.

Having looked, read and thought carefully about all 61 photos, maybe the biggest take-home message is:

Smoking is really, really bad for you 🙂


List of photographers

  • Abbie Trayler-Smith, UK (1 photo)
  • Adam Hinton, UK (2)
  • Alan Mozes, USA (2)
  • Alejandro Cartagena, Mexico (2)
  • Alice Schoolcraft, Sweden/USA (1)
  • Alva White, UK (1)
  • Alys Tomlinson, UK (1)
  • Anna Boyiazis, USA (1)
  • Baud Postma, UK (1)
  • Benjamin Rasmussen, USA (1)
  • Camille Mack, UK (1)
  • Catherine Hyland, UK (2)
  • César Dezfuli, Spain (1)
  • Charlie Bibby, UK (1)
  • Charlie Clift, UK (1)
  • Cian Oba-Smith, UK (1)
  • Cig Harvey, UK (1)
  • Craig Bernard, UK (1)
  • Craig Easton, UK (2)
  • Danny North, UK (2)
  • Davey James Clarke, UK (1)
  • David Vintiner, UK (1)
  • Debbie Naylor, UK (1)
  • Georgie Wileman, UK (1)
  • Hania Farrell, Lebanon/UK (1)
  • Harry Cory Wright, UK (1)
  • Ian McIlgorm, UK (1)
  • Joel Redman, UK (1)
  • Jon Tonks, UK (1)
  • Keith Bernstein, South Africa (1)
  • Kurt Hörbst, Germany (2)
  • Laurence Cartwright, UK (1)
  • Laurent Elie Badessi, France (1)
  • Mahtab Hussain, UK (1)
  • Maija Tammi, Finland (1)
  • Matthew Finn, UK (1)
  • Matthew Hamon, USA (1)
  • Mitchell Moreno, UK (2)
  • Monika Merva, USA (1)
  • Nancy Newberry, USA (1)
  • Natasta Alipour-Faridani, UK (1)
  • Owen Harvey, UK (2)
  • Paola Serino, Italy (1)
  • R. J. Kern, USA (1)
  • Richard Beaven, USA (1)
  • Sean Smith, UK (1)
  • Simon Urwin, UK (1)
  • Thom Pierce, UK (1)
  • Todd Hido, USA (4)
  • Tom Craig, UK (1)
  • Tommy Hatwell, UK (1)

Caveats

1. This list is taken from promotional material given out by the NPG press office; it may not be 100% complete. 2. Nationalities are as per the photographers’ entries on the internet; some of these, again, may not be 100% accurate (i.e. someone might have been born in one country and changed nationality). I apologise for any errors and will correct any, if pointed out to me.


Related links

Reviews of other National Portrait Gallery exhibitions

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