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April 11 2012

Manchester's stylish new home for music

Chetham's school and library's latest building combines mediaeval and modern, with plenty for the wider community and rooms whose oak and felt walls can be tuned. Helen Nugent pays a visit

Not many buildings can lay claim to have been a 15th century ecclesiastical centre, a gunpowder factory, a Civil War prison, a school for poor boys and a meeting place for Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. But the buildings which form the core of Manchester's medieval quarter are no ordinary structures.

Affectionately known as 'Chets', the Chetham's School of Music sits cheek by jowl with Chetham's Library, the oldest lending library in the Western world. The school is the largest specialist music institution in Britain and boasts a glittering list of musical alumni.

Now, hundreds of years after a local man, Humphrey Chetham, bought the property to house his school and library, this city centre landmark is entering a new phase. A £47 million project, which includes a state-of-the-art development spanning seven floors, will, it is hoped, transform music education and performance in the north of England.

"The buildings we had weren't fit for purpose," says Stephen Threlfall, director of music at Chetham's. "We had a team but nowhere to play. Now it's like coming out of a sardine tin and on to a decent sized plate."

Among the facilities at the new site, which is linked to the 15th century complex by a steel footbridge, are two new performance spaces (a recital hall and a cavernous concert hall), academic and music departments, an outreach centre for the local community and a light-filled atrium spanning seven floors.

More than 500,000 handmade bricks have been employed in the construction of the centre, all crafted in Yorkshire and designed to complement the sandstone of the original buildings.

Supporters of the project are particularly proud of the structure's acoustic accomplishments. A combination of thick, felt curtains and oak surrounds come together to produce rooms that can tune themselves. Put simply, the materials can be adjusted to absorb sound and therefore the quality of the music.

Threlfall says:

We've got 100 odd pianos which, in our current building, constantly need retuning because of the faulty heating. Students have been practising and rehearsing in little cells for a long, long time. Some of the rooms have got plaster coming off and there is no sound installation.

In the new building, rooms have been built within rooms in order to provide near perfect sound-proofing, a necessary feature given that Chetham's is next to a major train station and a key bus route.

Michael Oglesby is project leader of the redevelopment. He says:

We didn't want to create a pastiche. We wanted to create a building that works with what is already here but is a building of its time. And that's what we have done. There are no compromises in the new building. The existing building is full of compromises.

The medieval buildings are wonderful but the music school is something special and unique in Manchester. When planning this we seriously considered building a new school elsewhere, it would have been cheaper and easier. But the weight of feeling, not just from the school but also from the city, meant we were keen to keep the school at the heart of the city.

By the time Chetham's new home opens as a tourist attraction in 2014, the project will have been going for 12 years, from conception to completion. However, the development will be fully functioning for the new school year this September. Work on the 400-seat concert hall will be finished when the final tranche of funding has been found.

In the meantime, students will be able to make full use of 50 music teaching rooms, 62 music practice rooms, a music technology centre and four ensemble rooms – all with acoustic and humidity control to protect the instruments.

Roger Stephenson Architects, the firm behind the new design, are known in Manchester for combining old with new. They were in charge of transforming the old Free Trade Hall – where Bob Dylan went electric 46 years ago – into a major new hotel. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 28 2012

My worst shot

Photographers are generally proud to show off their best shots, but what about their worst? Jane Bown, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and others reveal all

My best shot: The one that got away

For five years, G2 has been asking photographers to tell us the story behind their best shot. But what about their worst? Jane Bown, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and others reveal all

Tom Hunter

Every summer I go with my family to Kingswear on the River Dart in Devon. One day in 2010 we were out on the lawn when suddenly it was as if a tower block was obscuring our view. It turned out that it was a huge ship called The World, where rich people live; it was incredible to see this huge dwelling being pulled by tug boats.

At 5am the next day I heard a huge foghorn, and we scrambled out of bed to see it leave. It was a phenomenal sight but I don't think I got the exposure right. I was fumbling with my old-fashioned plate camera and only got a single shot because I'm so slow.

Normally, I am very calculating. I spend a long time working out what to do. I took this picture randomly and don't know what to do with it now; it lurks in my library, a lost opportunity.

What I love about photography is that sense of a real time and place, an in-depth relationship with the real world. But I've always found it frustrating, too. Every time I've wanted to take a snapshot in a beautiful squat in Hackney, or of Travellers, it never looks as I hoped, but sloppy or messy instead. That's why I've gone against what photography is all about in some ways: by using a big camera, getting the light right and making it look as I want it to. I see the world through rose-tinted glasses and that's the way I want to show it.

There are millions of pictures like this one all over the internet and they're not really saying very much apart from: "Wow, this looks funny." I've made my niche and this isn't it.

Jane Bown

In 1967 I was living in Sevenoaks, Kent, when I somehow found out that Marc Chagall was going to be visiting Tudeley, which was close by. A young woman had drowned in a boating accident and her father had donated a stained glass window to the church in her memory. It was a Chagall design, so he came to the village for its unveiling.

I really wanted to photograph him, so I went along and was about to do so when the people with him told me not to. I wasn't pushy, and had a rule that I would only photograph people who wanted me to. I've been in situations where you're not meant to take photographs, or where the press were held back: when [Liberal MP] Jeremy Thorpe came out of court in 1979 the policemen were all standing there – so I went in under their feet to get a shot.

I was allowed to shoot Chagall later that day but it wasn't the same. Before, he had been coming up the path towards me, looking like a very sweet and beautiful man with white hair. The pictures afterwards were boring. They were all standing there waiting for me to do it. It was no good at all.

Ed Ruscha

This was taken when I was researching my Twentysix Gasoline Stations book in the early 1960s. I found the car on the old Route 66 in a desolate area of Arizona that featured a Navajo rug store. Other than the gas stations, I didn't take a lot of pictures on that trip. Here, I had an urge to swing the camera sideways and get something else.

This picture has all the traits of a well-rounded photograph: there are the jack rabbits on the fence, which make it look as if there is movement; the car that's really dead, including the tumbleweed to one side and the beat-up old licence plate; the sky is totally noncommittal; the horizon is mute. In a photography class, people would discuss how these different elements have come together to make it work. It possesses all the signifiers – and that's the very reason it fails.

I feel like it's my worst photograph. It's too perfect with its phony Americana. I have never used it for anything. But at the same time I'm wondering if that car is still there, rusting away.

Terry O'Neill

There aren't many people I have really, really wanted to photograph during my career, with two exceptions: Marilyn Monroe and Bob Dylan.

In 1986, my pal Eric Clapton introduced me to Bob in London. I wanted to take a strong portrait of him that was both immediate and honest. I think we all want to look into those eyes and discover something about him. There's still a mystery after all these years about who he really is, and I wanted to try to find that.

It takes time to build up a rapport where you feel confident you'll get the shot you want, but to my disappointment, Bob didn't want to play ball. He wouldn't pose without Eric by his side; he even took to wrapping his head in a towel to hide from the camera, which frustrated me.

To this day, I'm not sure why. Perhaps he was just shy. But it was a real shame for me: there's a depth of character to his face that would have come across strikingly on film. But it was not to be.

I guess there is always the one who got away. In my case, there's two.

Jillian Edelstein

In 1990 I photographed Gregory Peck for Time Out. It was at a London hotel and I thought I'd be able to photograph him from all angles. But he pointed with a long finger directly into his left cheek, which sagged inwards, and said in his American drawl: "I can only be photographed from this side."

Perhaps I shouldn't have listened but in our short, intimate interaction, I felt obliged to respect his wish. After all, he'd been around the block a few times; he knew his best angle. I was young and probably a bit nervous. But I've learned with time that it is incredibly important to direct your own shotAnother time, I photographed Spike Lee and .I must have loaded the film incorrectly: when I went to the dark room, I didn't have an image. He was furious, but did finally agree to do more. Because I was so embarrassed I took something simple; in those photographs, he's very unsmiley and slightly cheesed off.I once visited Portugal with an anthropologist who was doing some incredible work on rituals. We were staying in a rural village, and there was this extraordinary story: a woman had been beaten up in a field in a dispute over intermarrying in different districts. We picked up another woman who was going to visit her in hospital, and I remember seeing this very weather-beaten, agricultural woman standing there with her feet rooted to the ground and a cat in a plastic bag in her hand. Everybody was having to move very quickly, so I never got a picture – but I can still see her in my head to this day.

Martin Parr

Ninety nine per cent of the photographs we take are failures. They might have documentary value, or fulfil an assignment, but they won't stand the test of time. That's what makes it interesting, otherwise why be a photographer?

I wanted to show two pictures, a good one and a reject, to illustrate the weaknesses of the dud. I took them at last year's Port Eliot festival, where I was doing a pop-up exhibition, producing a show each day. They were shot at a disco at midnight; by 11am the print was up on the wall.

The image where the woman has her arm up in the air is the final one. Everything came together: she was photogenic and doing the right gesture; I had balanced the ambient light with the flash, which takes a few frames. The frame before isn't bad, but it's not as good. It typifies the dilemma of photography: you do lots of not-bad ones, but often the good one doesn't happen at all.


I had an idea that all our leaders are presented to us through a veil of propaganda. I went to see Ban Ki-moon, secretary general of the UN, and said I wanted to show our leaders up close and personal. In 2009 I was given unprecedented access.

I shot around 110 world leaders and, fortunately, there were no technical mistakes. Ahmadinejad was the biggest surprise. On the first day, he made one of the most controversial speeches ever given at the UN, and a large proportion of the auditorium walked out. As he left the stage his supporters swarmed him, patting his back and shaking his hand. There were about 150 people pulling him in different directions. I elbowed my way into the middle of the scrum, grabbed both his hands, looked into his eyes and said, "Come with me, I am going to take your picture." As I gently pulled his hands, miraculously he started to follow me to my studio.

I was expecting to get that dictatorial menace he had shown in his speech. But he suddenly realised that, not only was he about to sit for the most intimate portrait of him ever, the crowd was also watching. They were all cheering; he lost his composure for a second and started to laugh. What I got was him trying to regain his composure. It's the most sinister leer I've caught on film.

It was a missed opportunity, in the sense that he was trying to gather himself and deal with the embarrassment of performing in front of all those people. On the other hand, it gave me something I would never have expected. No one thinks of Ahmadinejad as a man with a hint of a smile.

Taryn Simon

I rarely have a camera on me. I don't take images regularly and I've never been interested in capturing the moment. The act of photographing is always the last step in a long process of research, writing and organisation. And it's a big camera on a tripod with a lot of lighting - not something that can easily be by my side.

In An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, I often didn't know what the site I was photographing looked like before arriving, as I was seeking subjects that were unfamiliar. The visuals only existed in my imagination, through my research and years of gaining access.

For this image, I planned to scuba dive and discover the point where submarine telecommunications cables, carrying more than 60m simultaneous conversations, reach land after crossing the Atlantic, from Saunton Sands in the UK to New Jersey. I went to the US point of arrival and opened the manhole they come up through: it was heavily piped, dark, uninteresting.

This is the room where they leave the manhole. When I took the picture I thought it was a failure. I had anticipated a murky, underwater image with cables peeking out from a heroic finish line on the ocean floor. Instead, I ended up in a banal room with a few dinky cables climbing the walls and a shabby guard rail. But the simplicity is what I later appreciated: instead of a fantastical feat, there's a vulnerability. You sense that 60m conversations could be easily interrupted – snipped – by a hand and scissors. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 24 2011

Barry Feinstein obituary

Photographer behind striking album covers for Bob Dylan, George Harrison and Janis Joplin

The American photographer Barry Feinstein, who has died aged 80, made his most famous series of images when he accompanied Bob Dylan and the Band on their controversial tour of Britain in 1966. On stage, Dylan was aloof to the point of imperious, a dandy in shades and a sharp suit, willing his new electric music on disgruntled audiences who wanted the familiar folk singer they knew and revered.

When Feinstein's fly-on-the-wall photographs of the tour finally appeared in his book Real Moments, published in 2008, Dylan emerged as an even more complex figure. Often he looks gaunt and fragile, his eyes hidden behind ever-present shades, his body hunched against the cold British winds and the imploring eyes of his faithful. One such image of Dylan waiting for the Aust ferry to take him across the Severn was used as the poster for No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese's epic 2005 documentary on Dylan.

Feinstein also captured Dylan away from the spotlight, in more relaxed mood: posing with a bunch of ragged children in Liverpool or talking to three bohemian Dublin girls, who look almost as hip as he does. "They were poets," the deadpan Feinstein wrote in his notes, "and he was quite taken with their poems."

Born in Philadelphia, Feinstein had no formal training in photography, but took to it instinctively after some casual snapshots he took while working at a racetrack in Atlantic City in 1955 revealed a gift for atmosphere and detail. That year, he was hired as a photographic assistant for Life magazine, and one of his first jobs was covering the Miss America pageant. Soon after, he headed west and landed a production assistant job at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood, taking photographs whenever and wherever he could. "I didn't want to photograph the glamour end of it," he said. "It was the 'behind the scene' thing that interested me – the part of Hollywood that nobody thinks about or looks at."

His breakthrough came after he befriended Steve McQueen and was commissioned to photograph him for Look magazine. The results were relaxed but revealing. Although he made formal portraits when he had to, his instinct was for the dramatic moment or the telling detail. He memorably accompanied Marlon Brando to a civil rights rally and captured the actor being jeered at by racist counter-demonstrators. When he was given access to Marilyn Monroe's room a few hours after her suicide, he photographed the bottle of pills by her bedside.

In 1958, Feinstein met Albert Grossman in a nightclub in Los Angeles and was immediately hired to photograph the fledgling manager's new act: a folk group called Peter, Paul and Mary. Soon after the shoot, Feinstein married the singer Mary Travers. It was Travers who took him to see the young Dylan at a coffee shop in New York's East Village. "I had to figure it out," Feinstein later said of his first encounter with Dylan's music. When Dylan looked at Feinstein's black and white pictures, he was immediately impressed, commenting on their "angles" and "stark atmosphere" which, he said, reminded him of the work of Robert Frank.

A 10-minute photoshoot with Dylan produced the intense portrait that became the cover of the singer's third album, The Times They Are a-Changin'. Shot from below, it is all angles and stark atmosphere. It was the first of several iconic record cover portraits by Feinstein. They include Pearl by Janis Joplin (the photo session happened the night before she died of a drug overdose), and All Things Must Pass by George Harrison, in which the ex-Beatle sits in his garden at Friar Park, Henley-on-Thames, surrounded by ornamental gnomes.

Occasionally, Feinstein courted controversy with his cover images. For Ike and Tina Turner's 1968 album, Outta Season, he provocatively posed the duo in whiteface, eating watermelons. His proposed image for the Rolling Stones' album Beggars Banquet – a shot of a public toilet covered in graffiti – was rejected by the group's record company, despite Keith Richard's testimony that it was "a real funky cover". Feinstein worked as a cameraman on the music festival documentary Monterey Pop (1968) and directed the cult hippy film You Are What You Eat (1968). In 1970, he and Tom Wilkes formed a graphic design company called Camouflage. Together, they created memorable album covers including GP by Gram Parsons, The Gilded Palace of Sin by the Flying Burrito Bros and Eric Clapton's eponymously titled debut solo album. Feinstein was reunited with Dylan and the Band when he was hired as the official photographer for their 1974 world tour. His shot of a vast sea of people holding aloft Zippos and lit scraps of paper graced the cover of the ensuing live album, Before the Flood.

Feinstein continued working as a photographer, doing travel shoots as well as rock portraits, into the early 1990s. In 1993, he was seriously injured in a road accident near his home in Woodstock; during his long convalescence, he began editing his archive. In 2008, a book of his early film star portraits was published, entitled Hollywood Foto-Rhetoric: The Lost Manuscript. It included a sequence of prose poems written by Dylan in the 1960s that were inspired by the photographs. They had languished in Feinstein's attic for more than 40 years. Feinstein had no creative control over the book's production, and was reputed to be less than pleased with the results.

The photographs of Dylan from 1966, collected in Real Moments, were exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2009. "I wanted my pictures to say something," Feinstein wrote. "I don't really like stand-up portraits; there's nothing there, no life, no feeling. I was much more interested in capturing real moments."

Feinstein is survived by his third wife, Judith; by his daughter, Alicia (from his marriage to Travers); by his son, Alex (from his marriage to the actor Carol Wayne); and by three stepchildren and three grandchildren.

• Barry Feinstein, photographer, born 4 February 1931; died 20 October 2011 © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

September 29 2011

Ist Bob Dylan ein Plagiator?

Malen nach Zahlen oder Kunst: Daily Beast vergleicht Dylans Bild mit dem Originalfoto.

Vielleicht wissen nicht alle, dass Bob Dylan – legendärer Folkmusiker – sich auf seine alten Tage auch als Künstler versucht. Nicht unerfolgreich zudem, jedenfalls ist er bei der hoch angesehenen Galerie Gagosian gelandet. Ob er das auch ohne seine Pop-Credentials geschafft hätte … wer weiß.

Seine laufende Ausstellung „The Asia Series“ beschäftigt sich jedenfalls mit den Eindrücken, die Dylan während seiner Reisen in Japan, China, Vietnam und Chorea gewonnen hat. Allerdings ist einigen Betrachtern aufgefallen, dass die Gemälde einige Ähnlichkeit mit bekannten Fotografien von Henri Cartier-Bresson, Leon Busy oder Dimitri Kessel haben. Ein Flickr-User bemerkte, dass andere Bilder aus seinem Foto-Stream stammen müssen, in dem er historische Fotos aus China veröffentlicht hat.

Nun ist in der modernen Kunst „Appropriation“, also die Übernahme von fremdem Material, ein durchaus anerkanntes Verfahren (man denke nur an Andy Warhol, aber auch Jeff Koons, Richard Prince und Elaine Sturtevant, um nur ein paar Namen zu nennen). Leider hat sich die Galerie entschlossen, die Ausstellung anders zu vermarkten und betont die Authentizität und Frische des Dylan’schen Werkes: „He often draws and paints while on tour, and his motifs bear corresponding impressions of different environments and people. A keen observer, Dylan is inspired by everyday phenomena in such a way that they appear fresh, new, and mysterious.“

Daily Beast’s Blake Gopnik fasst das Dilemma gut zusammen:

Let’s not forget that Dylan, the great pop musician, has always been a master of the cover version, copying whole songs and melodies and lyrics and even vocal stylings. Why wouldn’t he grasp the equal benefits in “covering” images by others, in his art? His only fault, in fact, is in not trumpeting those benefits.

Bob Dylan selbst schweigt zu den Vorwürfen.

August 23 2011

How one photograph can turn a musician into an icon

From Sinatra to Dylan, the camera has helped to cement the public mythology of some of our greatest artists

From Johnny Cash "flipping the bird" at Jim Marshall's camera during a soundcheck in San Quentin prison to Robert Mapplethorpe's portrait of an androgynous Patti Smith in white shirt and braces on the cover of Horses, and the late Amy Winehouse posing provocatively in bed on her wedding day, photography has often spoken louder than words when it comes to enshrining a performer in the public eye.

Over the past 15 years, Proud Galleries in London have carved out a niche as purveyors of classic music photography prints. To celebrate, Proud Chelsea is showing a greatest hits exhibition entitled 20th Century Icons. The show provides ample illustration of photography's power to help construct, perpetuate – and occasionally puncture – the image of the rock star as demigod.

Three photographs stand out: Terry O'Neill's arresting image of an imperious Frank Sinatra and his bodyguards strolling along a boardwalk in Miami in 1968; Elliott Landy's portrait of a bucolic Bob Dylan at home in Woodstock in 1969; Ethan Russell's picture of Keith Richards posing beside an airport customs sign proclaiming a drug-free America in 1972.

In their separate ways, each photo raises questions about fame: about the presence that certain performers have, even offstage, and their willingness to play up to, or subvert, their own status.

O'Neill's fly-on-the-wall shot of Sinatra looks like a film still, an out-take from a gangster movie or an Oceans Eleven-style caper. In fact, it is a snapshot of Sinatra, his bodyguards and his body double (wearing an identical suit) arriving on the set of a crime film called Lady in Cement, in which Sinatra starred as private investigator Tony Rome.

The photograph's power resides in its ability to capture Sinatra's presence: the Sopranos-style minders, the look of admiration from the seated man on the left, the way the singer – and his double – both stare hard at the camera, neither offended nor surprised by it. (O'Neill had been introduced to Sinatra by Ava Gardner and was granted unprecedented access to the star.) It dramatises the darker side of Sinatra, a performer whose business interests were allegedly mixed up with the mafia for most of his career, and whose shadier connections were constantly monitored by the FBI.

While O'Neill's snatched shot plays with the conflicting versions of Sinatra the star and Sinatra the gangster, Ethan Russell found Keith Richards a willing collaborator in his portrait of the artist as a rock'n'roll outlaw. The photographer travelled with the Rolling Stones for part of their infamously dissolute 1972 tour. Russell was, as he later put it, "watching from the sidelines when I noticed the sign. I called Keith over and took two quick snaps. The customs officer threatened to confiscate the film, so I retired quickly. I knew what I had got."

What he got was one of the first of many shots that shored up Richards's image as a self-styled rebel, a man who not only lived outside the law but flaunted it. Alongside Annie Leibovitz's portrait of an elegantly wasted Richards unconscious in his dressing room, this image was key in the myth-making of Richards – a process the rock star was all too complicit in.

Consider, then, Elliott Landy's downhome portrait of Bob Dylan, which was used for the back cover of Dylan's 1969 Nashville Skyline album. It is the antithesis of the Sinatra and Richards photographs: it presents a grinning, bearded Dylan who has embraced a brief period of blissful domesticity, a man attempting to escape the weight of his own mythology.

Dylan had summoned the affable Landy to his house, the fabled Byrdcliffe residence in the woodlands of upstate New York. Though relatively relaxed, Dylan was uncomfortable being photographed, and Landy had to work hard over a few days to put him at ease. It was Dylan, Landy later wrote, who suggested the angle of the shot – "What about taking one from down there?" – and Dylan who produced the hat. "Do you think I should wear this?" he asked, smiling as he visualised himself in this silly-looking traditional hat.

The end result presented a man who was a world away from the strung-out singer on the cover of Blonde on Blonde (1966) and a more humble, upfront version of the mysterious Dylan on the cover of his previous album John Wesley Harding (1967).

The Nashville Skyline portrait cemented Dylan's new image as a family man in retreat from fame and from his own legend. He looks relaxed and approachable, although the shot was as staged and self-serving in its way as Russell's portrait of the "outlaw" Richards. In a year when America was in the grip of social turbulence and unrest, when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, and when Richard Nixon first came into office, Dylan repositioned himself as a seemingly unconcerned, low-key, country-style balladeer.

In exploding one myth, Dylan erected another. The Frank Sinatra and Keith Richards portraits may be more directly self-mythologising, but Landy's portrait of Dylan speaks, in its deceptively quiet way, about the same process: the power of a single image to articulate – and condense – the mythology that great artists often construct around themselves in order to survive – or, in Dylan's case, to hide behind for a while so that they can reinvent themselves once more.

Now see this

Signs of a Struggle: Photography in the Wake of Postmodernism at London's V&A is a small retrospective group show that looks at the influence and impact of postmodernism on photography. It includes work by Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Jeff Wall, as well as more recent images by Clare Strand and Anne Hardy. A taster for the V&A's imminent blockbuster, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990 which opens on 24 September. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 25 2011

May 13 2011

Ira Cohen obituary

Doyen of the Beat generation feted for his psychedelic photos from the underground

Ira Cohen, who has died of renal failure aged 76, participated in the 1960s artistic counterculture as a poet, publisher, film-maker and raconteur. In the middle of the decade, he took up photography seriously. At his loft in Jefferson Street, New York, Cohen built a chamber with walls and ceilings made from sheets of Mylar, a reflective polyester film. Inside this chamber, he took portraits of William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix, Alejandro Jodorowsky and the steady stream of hipsters who visited the loft.

Rather than photograph his subjects directly, he took pictures of their distorted reflections on the chamber's walls and ceiling. The surrealistic and psychedelic results were described by Hendrix as "like looking through butterfly wings". The photographer and film-maker Gerard Malanga called the Mylar chamber "a kaleidoscope where the reflections being photographed constantly changed". Life magazine, in its final issue of the 1960s, praised how close Cohen's photographs came to "explaining the euphoric distortions of hallucinogenics".

Cohen was born to deaf parents, Lester and Faye, in the Bronx, New York. He learned sign language before he could read and write. He attended Horace Mann school and Cornell University, where he took writing classes from Vladimir Nabokov. At Columbia University, he became involved in the jazz and avant-garde scenes of New York's Lower East Side.

In 1961 he boarded a freighter to Morocco where he spent time with Burroughs and the writers Brion Gysin and Paul Bowles. He embarked on publishing a literary magazine, Gnaoua, centred on the Beat scene in Tangier. In 1964, the only volume of Gnaoua was published, with contributions including a preview of Burroughs's cut-up novel Nova Express, photographs by Jack Smith and Allen Ginsberg's reflections on totalitarianism. A copy of Gnaoua can be seen on the cover of Bob Dylan's album Bringing it All Back Home.

In 1966, having returned to New York, Cohen edited and published – under the nom de plume Panama Rose – The Hashish Cookbook, with recipes ranging from cakes and puddings to soups and drinks. He also produced Jilala, an album of Moroccan trance music.

Cohen was a pioneer of the loft scene in the Lower East Side, where the low rents and vast spaces attracted artists, musicians, actors and writers. Happenings were organised in lofts, and he became part of the burgeoning underground which was successfully commercialised by Andy Warhol. Cohen himself was never able to deal with art or writing in any commercial way. He advocated that artists and poets should have patrons and be supported.

One story typifies Cohen's haphazard luck. Having disturbed a burglar at his loft, he struck up a conversation, explaining the Mylar chamber and his lifestyle. The burglar left but soon returned with a Bolex 16mm film camera and a box of prism lenses, which he sold to Cohen for almost nothing.

In 1968, using the Bolex, Cohen made the film The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda, a psychedelic romp that features the Mylar chamber and scenes inspired by the work of Julian Beck's Living Theatre company. He also produced a documentary about the Living Theatre's US tour of the play Paradise Now, which involved audience participation and scenes of mass nudity, leading to arrests for indecency.

In 1970 Cohen's Mylar chamber photographs were used on the cover of the album Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus by the psychedelic rock band Spirit and on the jacket of the first novel by Burroughs's son, William Jr, entitled Speed. Cohen then departed to Nepal with the Living Theatre actor Petra Vogt and began a small press, Bardo Matrix, publishing books and broadsheets on handmade rice paper, including works by Bowles, Gregory Corso and Angus MacLise. He also published his own poetry, including the collections Gilded Splinters and Poems from the Cosmic Crypt.

Cohen later directed the film Kings With Straw Mats (1998), a documentary about the Kumbh Mela gathering in India, and released the album The Majoon Traveller, featuring the music of MacLise, Ornette Coleman and Master Musicians of Joujouka, mixed with his readings. In his later years, he was feted by a new generation of the counterculture, as The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda and Paradise Now were released on DVD. In 2006, the Whitney Museum of American Art's biennial featured his photographs of Smith.

I first met Cohen in 1992 when he participated in a Burroughs and Gysin exhibition in Dublin, displaying his Mylar images and other work. He took a central role in the event, hosting daily readings. When it came to publishing, he was enthusiastic and generous. On being asked for a contribution for a book, he was likely to also offer a piece by Bowles or Anne Waldman which had been left over from one of the many publications he had edited. In his personal attire (such as his long kaftan and bead-strewn beard) and his manner, he always embodied a bohemian intent on doing his own thing.

In the mid-1950s he married Arlene Bond, with whom he had two children. He later married Carolina Gosselin, with whom he had a daughter. Both marriages ended in divorce. He also had a son from another relationship. He is survived by his children and his sister, Janice.

• Ira Cohen, photographer, poet, publisher and film-maker, born 3 February 1935; died 25 April 2011 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 06 2011

Bob Dylan in China: a simple twist of fate?

Days after arrest of dissident artist Ai Weiwei, singer who became synonymous with protest movement plays Beijing

In China, irony is usually just around the next corner. In the week that Ai Weiwei, the artist and activist, was arrested, Bob Dylan was allowed in to play Beijing.

Nobody knows for certain why either decision was taken, but that didn't bother the 6,000 people who filed into the Workers' Stadium Arena last night to hear the grandfather of the protest song play his first gig in the land that brooks no dissent.

Dylan gigs are famously variable: songs are often transformed beyond recognition. Tonight, however, he was singing to the culture ministry's tune: the concert was performed "strictly according to an approved programme", a sign of official nervousness that has persisted since Björk's 2008 Shanghai concert, when she chanted "Tibet! Tibet!" while singing her song Declare Independence.

That outburst resulted in a dearth of big-name performers in China. Beyoncé came in late 2009, Usher in July 2010, but most of the recent foreign acts have been B-list. Last year, Dylan himself was refused permission to play.

Why the change of heart? One former culture ministry official, Shi Baojun, told the Guardian it may be something as simple as fresh thinking at the Chinese embassy in Washington, where officials pore over the record of any artist hoping to play in China, examining their biography, opinions and – above all – previous comments on China. "As personnel change all the time, changes in decisions often only reflect who is in charge. Some are bold, some are cautious," Shi said.

That doesn't entirely explain why now, though: "You have to understand, the government's always balancing the need to look liberal with the need to keep control," said Shi. "They have so many audiences, and there's often no point in looking for logic because there isn't much, or any."

The setlist featured some Dylan standards, greeted with enthusiasm by the audience – It's All Over Now, Baby Blue, Tangled Up in Blue, Simple Twist of Fate. He also showcased some more recent work – Lovesick, Thunder on the Mountain, Beyond Here Lies Nothin'.

From a distance, in his white stetson and drainpipe trousers with a military yellow stripe down the side, he could still pass for the slim youth of decades past. He still has the same tripping, graceful step, although he handles his voice with care now, as if it's a fragile instrument he doesn't quite trust. Still, as he growled, rasped, whooped and slides through his repertoire, the attack and the attitude were still, as ever, disconcerting and compelling.

A guy in his early 30s sitting next to me, Song Xiao Feng, remarked coolly: "We're not here for the music, we're here for the legend." But by the time Dylan reached his encores – Like a Rolling Stone, All Along the Watchtower and finally, Forever Young – most of the audience, about two-thirds of whom were Chinese, one-third foreign, were finally on their feet. He wasn't for everyone. One Chinese man behind me said: "He's not singing, he's talking." But to most, it looked like he was nailing it.

The only words Dylan spoke during the whole evening came at the end, when he introduced the band members. Yet he never seemed the sometimes reclusive and withdrawn performer of recent reports. He looked just like the legend that had drawn most of the audience to pay what are, for Beijing, serious prices – ranging from £30 up to £200.

As he left, a young Chinese man, Gong Ping, used a distinctive Chinese word of respect: "People say he's out of date, but he has experience and wisdom. He's a 'sheng ren' – a sage, like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King."

As the audience clapped and cheered at the end, the feeling was that we had seen a unique event, the first, and perhaps last, of its kind in China. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 06 2011

January 23 2011

January 13 2011

George Pickow obituary

US photographer and film-maker who chronicled the heyday of folk and jazz

George Pickow, who has died aged 88, was a photographer and film-maker whose images were used on many album covers in the US – jazz, folk and pop – and who made a significant contribution to the film Festival (1967), which chronicled the Newport folk festival in its heyday. As the husband of the Kentucky-born folk singer Jean Ritchie, he was able to gain access to informal music-making, both in the Ritchie family home, and in Britain and Ireland during a visit made by Ritchie in the early 1950s.

Pickow was born in Los Angeles, but grew up in New York, where he studied art. During the second world war he made training films for the US navy. Although never a musician himself, he loved jazz and blues, and his first exposure to folk music was in the early 1940s, when he heard Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston at the leftwing Camp Unity in upstate New York.

At a square dance in 1948 he met Ritchie, who came from a large Kentucky family whose members had sung for the English folk collector Cecil Sharp in 1917, and again for the American folklorist Alan Lomax. With her large repertoire of Anglo-American balladry, Ritchie was lauded by the emerging American folk scene in Greenwich Village, New York.

Eager to discover the origins of her songs, Ritchie, accompanied by Pickow – they married in 1950 – spent more than a year in Britain and Ireland in 1952-53, funded by a Fulbright scholarship. Pickow worked with Lomax (based in Britain for much of the 50s) and the English folk collector Peter Kennedy to film a Cornish folk custom, the Padstow Obby Oss (hobby horse). The result, Oss Oss Wee Oss (1953), remains an important ethnographic record, excerpts from which were shown recently on the BBC television documentary Still Folk Dancing After All These Years. Pickow also filmed the Dartmoor folk singer Bill Westaway, whose family's version of Widecombe Fair helped to popularise the song, and provided inspiration for Kennedy and others to film English folk singers and customs.

In Ireland, Pickow photographed singers and musicians visited by Ritchie, such as the uillean piper Séamus Ennis and the singer Sarah Makem, mother of Tommy, as well as Irish rural scenes. Pickow's Irish photographs are deposited in the library of the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Back in the US, Pickow took photographs of jazz, pop and rock singers including Louis Armstrong, Tony Bennett, Nina Simone, Little Richard, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Jordan and Lena Horne, as well as the folk singers Pete Seeger, Josh White and Judy Collins, and many of his photographs graced their album covers. He also photographed visual artists such as Edward Hopper and Thomas Hart Benton.

Pickow travelled to Mexico, Peru, the new state of Israel in 1948 and Turkey, as well as Europe, taking photographs. Whenever the opportunity arose, he photographed musicians, local celebrations and ordinary people at work. His photographs were published in Life magazine, National Geographic and Cosmopolitan, and he was the principal photographer, and later partner, of the Three Lions picture agency.

Pickow was associate producer and one of the cameramen for Murray Lerner's film Festival, about the Newport folk festival between 1963 and 1966, when the commercial, political and ethnic aspects of the American folk revival came together at a single event. The film captures performers including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Johnny Cash and Peter, Paul and Mary. Pickow's camera work was also used in the 2007 film The Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan Live at the Newport Folk Festival. Pickow also filmed Ballads, Blues and Bluegrass (1961), directed by Lomax, featuring singers including Doc Watson and Jack Elliott.

Ritchie popularised the Appalachian dulcimer for folk song accompaniment, but as there were no manufacturers of the instrument, Pickow made a copy of Ritchie's dulcimer and supervised a small-scale business that supplied the burgeoning folk market. He supplied the photographs for Ritchie's songbooks, including The Swapping Song Book (1952) and Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians (1965), as well as for The Dulcimer Book (1963).

Pickow is survived by Ritchie and their sons, Jon and Peter.

• George Pickow, photographer and film-maker, born 11 February 1922; died 10 December 2010 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 13 2010

My blogging philosophy? Bob Dylan was right: play it loud | Jonathan Jones

Any writers feeling bruised by the internet hurly-burly should remember that authorship didn't always mean authority. Just ask Bob Dylan

I shouldn't really offer advice to celebrity tweeters and bloggers about handling the occasional shaft of abuse that may – just now and then – interrupt the civilised banter that is interactive online journalism. Stephen Fry's complaints about intemperate comments on his tweets recently drew attention to the pain that can be caused, the feelings that can be aroused, by the hurly-burly of these new media. He has stopped tweeting (albeit insisting that it's temporary, while he finishes a book).

So I won't offer advice on how to survive the storm of words, but I would like to propose a kind of aesthetic of blogging. Some writers seem to see it as an assault on their craft – and no wonder. For the past 250 years, going back to the rise of critics and pundits in the Enlightenment, authorship has been synonymous with authority. To be an author is to be a commanding voice – and that means by definition a singular voice, the more singular the better.

But the majestic author in a silent study is only one way of imagining authorship. In the Renaissance, a more polyphonous – "many-voiced" – attitude prevailed. The greatest writer ever, Shakespeare, didn't even try to publish his works in his lifetime: he shaped his plays in the give and take of popular theatre and threw away the most beautiful lines ever written at the groundlings. Who doubtless "blogged" back in their own way. Heckles are not recorded in the posthumous Folio edition, but surely they happened.

Modern creative figures have sometimes followed Shakespeare in choosing to speak against noise, instead of in the silence of the author's ivory tower. Bob Dylan is perhaps the most inspiring example to the modern journalist. In the early 60s, he played to silent, rapt audiences, but he chose to shatter that authority and to provoke people to answer back. The film of his contentious English tour, when he shocked folk fans with electric guitar and rumbling keyboards should be the inspiration to anyone who enters the lion's den of online journalism. "Judas", yells a heckler. Dylan turns to the band and delivers a manifesto: "Play it FUCKING LOUD." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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