Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Ed Bankston's Red Rippers: Viet-Boogie Recollections Of A Hell-For-Leather Military Man

The latest piece of archaeology by the Paradise of Bachelors label is an extraordinary album of Viet Vet country boogie. First released in 1983, and sold through a small ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine, it’s the work of Vietnam veteran Edwin Bankston, who wrote the songs in the decade following his service aboard the aircraft carrier Kittyhawk. The ad read: “For a lot less than a box of ammo to sharpen your eye, you get an album that will nourish your heart and mind for years.”
“I started playing in bars when I was 15,” Bankston recalls. “I lived in a rural area, and we’d play Friday and Saturday nights for five dollars a night. I always thought that would be my life, playing music, but then I got in the service. When I got out, I still thought of myself as a musician but music’s a tough business, and if you’re gonna have success you’re gonna have to give up a lot as far as family goes. I had three kids, and I got to a point where I had to make a choice – either I’m gonna keep doing this, or just become a square and raise the kids. I chose the kids.”
Much of the record is Waylon Jennings-style country boogie – “I’m a soldier of fortune, a hell for leather mercenary man” he sings on “Soldier of Fortune” - but there are occasional 1980s’ period flourishes; on “Firefight”, Bankston embellishes the chorus “here you are, and death is all around you” with a Chicory Tip-style riff.  “I grew up with Johnny Cash and Johnny Horton, an old rockabilly type guy. I liked Creedence Clearwater … I always thought of myself as a country guy, but Waylon led us country guys away from straight country – he opened the doors for a lot of musicians, to say that you don’t have to sound like Hank Williams anymore. You can sound like whoever you want.”
Bankston viewed the war as “a perfect storm of psychic wackiness”, and if Vietnam Blues sounds like a Ry Cooder character piece, the song gains poignancy from the singer’s investment in the subject and, perhaps, his awareness of his potential audience. When he sings about being “a hell-for-leather mercenary man” the line “if you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time” packs a heavy punch.
“I started writing these songs because I felt kind of estranged from what we call now popular culture. I was playing round different places, and a funny thing happened. Several times I’d take a break from the set, and a guy would come up to me and say, who did such and such a song? I’d say, well, that’s one of my songs. He’d say, ‘Really?’ and we’d get to talking and he’d say, ‘Well you should write a song about this,’ and he’d start telling me about some particular experience that he’d had. You’re always looking for an idea for a song, and I’d go back and forth with these guys, and generally they’d say, ‘Yeah, you kind of got it there’. One song that made it on the album was called Firefight, about a firefight in the jungle, which i never did, but an old marine suggested that to me. I said, ‘Tell me about it’. So his remembrances are what’s in that song.
“As veterans, we all felt pretty rejected. Our fathers were the World War II generation, and they all came back and were hailed and feted. But then we would come back, and we got the opposite reactions. Some people were openly hostile, but even amongst people that weren’t, there was an attitude of: we don’t want to hear about it, just pretend it never happened. They were just ready to put it all out of their minds, which kind of left us hanging. 
“The album was less about that than how unhappy we veterans were with how the whole thing turned out looking back. We were just doing what veterans have always done. We didn’t start the war – we weren’t making any policy or anything, we were just there doing the dirty work, just like soldiers have for thousands of years. I understand the American public was just tired of the whole thing, they wanted it to go away.”

Monday, February 18, 2013

Chris Boot: Magnum, photojournalism, and the flawed reality of great photography

Thomas Hoepker: View From Brooklyn, New York City,
USA, 11 September, 2001, in Magnum Stories

During the course of researching his book about the photography of John Hinde, documenter of the Butlins holiday camp empire, Chris Boot came across a quote from Fellini. “All great photographs,” the great director said, “have something wrong with them.”
In the case of Hinde, whose propaganda for Billy Butlin’s camp was anthologised in the book Our True Intent Is All For Your Delight, the flaw was reality. The pictures were lavish, beautifully lit affairs, in which real holidaymakers did their best to make a visit to Butlins resemble a weekend in Paradise. “What is fascinating,” says Boot, “is that the holidaymakers are not quite playing their roles adequately. Those photographs are like plays.”
Boot was appointed Executive Director of the Aperture Foundation in New York in 2011. Prior to that, his London-based company published idiosyncratic photography books, such as Bliss, Martin Parr’s collection of impossibly romantic European postcards. “We treat postcards, and their view of the world, as somehow inevitable,” says Boot. “Yes, it’s cheesy, but we have to remember that people invented these ways of looking at things.”
Boot’s interest in photography was honed during his lengthy stint as director of the Magnum agency, in both its London and New York offices. “That doesn’t really constitute running it, because it’s the sort of anarchic thing that nobody runs. It’s a place of freedom, in the sense that photographers want to be part of it and at the same time have a context in which to distribute work and collaborate with like-minded photographers.”
The history of the agency is related in Magnum Stories (Phaidon), which Boot edited. As well as offering handsome portfolios by Magnum founders Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the book offers a subtle reinterpretation of the history of photography. Magnum is often viewed as a bastion of photojournalism: in fact, according to Boot, it was established in opposition to photojournalism, a form established by LIFE magazine in which editors, not photographers, controlled the context of the pictures.
“Robert Capa was very smart, and he saw the possibility for non-photojournalists working in the context of magazine picture stories, and the potential for Magnum to achieve its goals by not being a group of photojournalists. He recruited Cartier-Bresson to that idea, and that made the idea stronger. Even at that stage, in 1947, you would have described Cartier-Bresson as an artist who was using photography. He certainly wasn’t a photojournalist. And that was the dominant tradition of Magnum – Robert Capa was the exception. The majority of its photographers were interested in what they were interested in, and for them, this was a way of earning a living.”
The changing magazine market has limited the opportunities for photographic essays, partly as a result of the power of television. “You can’t account for it entirely in terms of technological change, or other media. You just have to look at Britain in the early 1990s, when you suddenly got a mass of magazines emerging: The Sunday Correspondent and the Independent. I don’t think there has been a point in Britain when more photo stories were being published than then. Those magazines didn’t work, so maybe that tells us something.”
Digital cameras and the spread of camera phones have also shaped our expectations. The most immediate photos of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and the torture pictures of Abu Ghraib, were taken by amateurs, with little regard for composition or artistry. “Photography is as ubiquitous as the opportunities that present themselves,” says Boot, “and it’s no longer exclusively in the hands of the photojournalist, the way it once was.”
Boot’s championing of postcards, and his publication of Martin Parr’s pictures of commemorative Saddam Hussein wrist-watches, show that he isn’t precious about his subject. “People’s current visual literacy is incomparable even to when I was a child. You just have to look at the story of colour – how many colour photographs did we see when we were children? And now we live in a world that offers colour photography as wallpaper. The audience is much more sophisticated, but a photograph will still excite you for the same reason that it always did; it shows you something that you hadn’t seen before, it shows you something in a way that is appealing, it engages you with the subject. Or it is just plain beautiful.
“Photography does quite clearly influence the world. The way people now see Britain has been influenced by Martin Parr. Think about Little Britain, that vision has been informed by a photographer’s view of the world. And that’s one of the things that photographers do. They explore ways of seeing things which, when they take hold as ideas, do affect the ways we relate to the visual environment.”
Now that everyone is a photographer, Boot has some encouraging advice. “Instead of seeing your holiday pictures as failing, put them away for a few years. Let them mature. Photographs do mature, they do change over time. And that is what’s scary, when you start to think about the billions of photographs that have been taken. They are all interesting. They are all revealing.”