Sep 082016
 



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David Rodriguez

Have I ‘gone anorexic’, as Loiza commented? My backside in this photo by David Rodriguez looks hideously puckered. What can I do, though? I can’t jog in this pollution. Must eat even less.

No email from Bel. It is four days since the funeral. What has it done to her?
    I’ll email her one of these wacky pics from David’s shoot. Maybe it’ll stimulate a response.

Dear David,
Again –
Gracias – a brilliant session! Fantastic pics – thanks for sending!
    This one disturbs me though. Reminds me of Nazi concentration camps where people had to line up naked just like this to be photographed. Sorry for this macabre association. Call me paranoid. I think it’s because yesterday afternoon I started reading J.G. Ballard’s autobiography: he was in a brutal Japanese prison camp at Lunghua right here in Shanghai… Then later I was looking at my flatmate’s books including war-photographer Lee Miller’s photographs of the liberation of Buchenwald death camp. So I’m a bit too focused on human brutality at the moment.

Dear Suki,
SHANGHAI TURNS ALL CREATIVE PEOPLE EITHER PARANOID OR CRAZY. Yes I know about the beautiful Lee Miller: I love the work of Man Ray! I try with his solarisation effect but not very successful. Getting the effect digitally is only fake.

Tuh – typical! Lee Miller recognised only as an appendage of Man Ray.

Dear David,
solarisation was Lee Miller’s invention as much as Man Ray’s. She does not get the recognition she deserves as a photographer. She photographed political assassinations. She photographed the suicided bodies of the mayor of Dresden and his wife and daughter. She’s got loads more WW2 photos in a book I’ve got here documenting bombed-out London. She took loads of photos of women at war and women in the armed forces.
Suki

Dear Suki
I know that Lee Miller was not just a pretty face (although, saying that, she was painted six times by Picasso). I know that she understood the Surrealist movement – after all she married the Surrealist painter Roland Penrose. His work I find kitsch and derivative so I am not surprised he became an organiser/administrator in the end. By the way, I have an email conversation with the current Director of Exhibitions at Penrose’s glorious foundation, your Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I pitch an exhibition concept to him. Wish me luck!

Dear David,
Picasso didn’t paint pretty faces.
Best of British luck with your ICA pitch!
Actually I’ve always thought it a bit weird that Roland Penrose got off with Lee Miller. As a pacifist and conscientious objector, how could he be together with someone whose adrenalin was fired (maybe even enthusiasm is the word) by seeking out and capturing human brutality on film?

I love sparring with fellow-creatives – something that is impossible with Aussie Cyril, my wet, malleable, acquiescent devotee.
    At this afternoon’s shoot, Cyril keeps popping truffles into my mouth.
    I must think positive. Melbourne has no brutal war history, no concentration camps. The sun is always shining. I could live off him and write without having to find paid work. No more modelling!
    Could I be plump and happy with doting Cyril?

Before bed, a final check for emails, texts. Nothing from Bel, despite the pic I sent.
    Wonder if she’s had her chest x-ray?
    Maybe that’s it. This silence. She’s found out she’s got cancer.


 

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Jan 212016
 

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8 Bel A13 (9210a) (550x640)

Bel

On my first morning in China, Bel snaps me the moment I sit up in bed.


    ‘Ni hao.’ Gravely Bel hands me a cup of green tea.
    ‘Bloody hell I’m in Shanghai!’ I pinch my own arm, laugh, a bit over-hearty; watch this strangely colourless, solemn woman, quite tall, average build, shoulder-length unstyled grey-flecked hair…
    Are the best photographers this nondescript kind, the type of personality who manages to be fly-on-the-wall, invisible?
    Bel is shoving apart the rickety sliding screens to the balcony.
    ‘Are they supposed to prevent mosquitos getting in?’ I show my blotchy arms. Alongside our beds – two singles jammed side by side in this teeny room – is an untidy stack of books. ‘Hey, wow, these are all on Lee Miller – I’ve just read her biography!’
    Bel, texting on the balcony, only nods – wordless, grey; the world beyond her also grey: scaffolded half-built tower blocks, pylons, more tower blocks, then the exotic silhouettes in the hazy distance of some of the world’s most awesome skyscrapers. Is Bel secretly texting a friend Jeezus why did I invite Suki here?
    Is there a sun, somewhere up above?
    What the hell am I doing here?
    Don’t panic. This must be ‘culture-shock’. Smile! I grab and flick through the first book off the pile.
    Bel comes back in, brings her i-Pad over and props it up on my shrouded knees. She points at the on-screen graph. ‘The government issues warnings when the Air Quality Index rating is over 100. Today looks like a good day; see – pollution report “moderate”. AQI only 79. “Respiratory symptoms will only be experienced by people with unusual sensitivities”.’
    ‘God!’ My exclamation comes out with undue force. ‘Everyone warned me about the pollution. Have you got “unusual sensitivities”?’
    ‘Dunno really. I’ve been coughing a lot. It’s worse in other places; they say breathing Beijing’s air is the equivalent of smoking forty fags a day. But it’s bad here. Watch.’
    She puts her palm down flat on the floor tiles, sweeps it sideways, shows me her upturned hand, the film of black smut. ‘It’s there every day, you can’t keep on top of it.’ Then she takes the book from my hand. ‘Ah yes – this one’s interesting because this woman Conekin talks about the dichotomies that underlie fashion photography – like, active-passive, male-female – which at first struck me as anachronistic; I mean surely they no longer apply in the 21st century?…’
    I blink. Is that a rhetorical question? Am I going to get breakfast?
    ‘…but now I think maybe they still hold true; I mean, there’s still this primitive Adam-and-Eve dynamic going on in the photographer-model relationship; well, in lots of spheres really…’
    Bel is – it’s weird – talking as though I’m not really there. More like, she’s addressing students in a lecture hall. Is she uncomfortable being one-to-one with someone? In her own home?
    ‘…but the great thing about Lee Miller is, she subverted all of that – even back in the 1920s and ‘30s – by being both model and photographer, and by being so assertive and free…’ Suddenly she stops, and for a single moment, her face shines. ‘It’s so great you’ve come!’
    Phew. That means she’s okay with me being here, right?

We set off to meet Lily Hong for breakfast in the staff canteen. Bel has fallen into her default mode of solemnity again. ‘The food in Shanghai is good,’ she offers, addressing not me but the footpath, ‘as long as you mentally blot out that food safety checks are corrupt, obviously. No point worrying about absolutely everything.’
    I am led beneath the shade of ornamental trees across the new-built grandiose faux-European college campus to the canteen.
    Lily Hong is waiting like an excited puppy dog, a pink bow in her hair. ‘Please take fried jaozi. Foreigners like very much.’ Beam. Squeeze of my arm. ‘I like your hairs.’ A pat on my head. She’ll be licking my ankles next. Lily Hong definitely alleviates the atmosphere.
    I think of having a laugh and a drink with my upstairs neighbour Tiffany back home. Being alone with Bel is no joke.
    I don’t know if I can hack it.


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