Paper folds

When David Simon first sketched out the structure for The Wire, his ground-breaking five season series that did so much to extend the potential of long-form drama, the final season may have felt like a problem. Based on narratives that drew on his own investigations and with an immersive approach that resulted in access to borrowed Baltimore homes, the series expanded to convey a polarised city in a way that seemed to caution us to the very condition of the country itself. But how to finish? After the drugs gangs that had held sway in housing blocks that had become desperately guarded territories… after the dockland contraband that sustained hidden economies whilst compromising port Unions and porous customs systems, the momentum was set. Audiences were committed and went with the series as it began to engage with more nuanced aspects of the city's structure. The shadow-play of political manipulation and the fallibility of those with ambitions to run for public office allowed plotlines to move deeper, when they could have so easily fallen into the caricature of singularly dimensioned roles. Those who earlier had appeared as felons saw their contributions expand to become fully formed humane lives, caring for young siblings and helping them negotiate an education system so stretched and vulnerable against the tides of violence and breakdown that flared in the streets outside. After such an emotional investment, the plight of an industry that simply reported on such worlds might, to some, have seemed a less compelling coda. It could have been more subdued, lacking the animation, the cliff-edge intrigue and discord that had gone before. Yet perhaps Simon’s willingness to foreground the Newspaper industry -by building, as he did, around the Baltimore Sun and its battle to remain relevant and viable- conveyed a learnedunderstanding of how these worlds interlock and engage. Each was a dislocated element of the same city, rife with the lure of marinas and lucrative real estate on the one hand and lost zones and wasteland on the other. With its fragmented districts walked and watched by speculators and the hopelessly cut adrift, the newspaper, facing its own economic battles, was tasked to ‘do more with less’ and, much like the city it continued to report on, had reached its breaking point.

Those last hours seemed a portent to something of the threat faced by long-form journalism generally and the Newspaper industry internationally. Steady downturns in readership and revenue have accelerated in the last twenty years, with circulation in the UK alone down by two thirds since the turn of the new century. There have been similar drops in India’s newspaper industry too and, in the United States, more that 1800 newspapers have closed down since 2004. News comes in other forms now, we’ve come to understand, if it’s news that interests us at all anymore. Given the ubiquityof social media platforms, given the short form vitriol of an era defined by forever waving and drowning flash mobs, we might imagine rigorous journalism has become peripheral -less based in reasoned witnessing, investigation and integrity and more about gratification and subservience. Complicit citizens have been herded into their own hegemony, all too ready to turn against each other after the most casual repost and sit poles apart, when they could be standing together. If only they knew who their real battles should be with... amore suspicious mind might think it suits some people to keep things that way.

When Noel Bowler published his long-term project, Union, in 2015, he’d completed an odyssey of sorts. Leaving his native Ireland, he'd travelled the world to photograph the offices and headquarters of the many Unions that still work towards their members protection and representation. Despite the dilution of employment laws and the constant challenges to security and wellbeing, he'd been moved to appreciate the efforts of Union workers as they supported their members, negotiating through conflicts and holding up careers that would otherwise have fallen. It might have been logical to amplify their efforts through a more conventional photography, one that would bring the faces and personalities of labour to our attention. Yet, whilst occasional portraits did emerge in the work, Bowler’s approach was at odds with the kind of forthright humanism that photographers might once have built their hopes around. He understood how so many tensions were kept from the surface, how so many arguments and strategies took place over phone lines, how the urgent intervention in a trade dispute might first come from the anodyne ordinariness of a simple office workspace. Through photographs of unpeopled interiors, he showed us desks and lobbies, the waiting areas and meeting tables that coalesced to convey the infrastructure of a movement built on determination and support, from where representatives stepped forward when crises flared, or when employment was threatened. In all of this, we began to recognise their labours and count their number. We could sense the matter of fact-ness of rooms that had seen tears, confrontation and arbitration, that no matter how unremarkable, were essential. Noel Bowler drew then, as he does still in this latest series, on an aesthetic primed by the notion of late photography, the kind of photography that returns to sift through evidence, the kind that infers that whilst the landscape is now quiet, the scorched earth and marks left behind may tell fateful tales and even prescribe something of the long term. It’s as if -and this is borne out in the waves of photography from the Dusseldorf School to the American colourists that Noel Bowler would have digested through formative years as his signature approach was consolidated – perhaps all we have left in photography now is metaphor. It’s an oblique approach, a slow form in a time of hurry. Based in scrutiny and study, it foregrounds reflection above immediacy and employs a strategy of recurring visual insistence. When we’re denied spectacle, we're left with the bare framework of an industry's soul and perhaps an insight that draws out questions about the long term, about where we're heading and what we've become.

They're not new questions, they just slip from view sometimes, given the pace of lives and the brief engagements that seem to dominate now in the swipe up, swipe left, hit the link world that surrounds us. But they're still uncomfortable, calling, perhaps, for a rethinking of the direction we’re heading in -for the pulling apart of what it would be easier to roll with and nigh on impossible to resist. Wasn’t it there in the mid 1960’s, long before the many technologies we navigate now, when Jeffrey Jones (-who later declared himself the protagonist in Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man) was called out by the singer in the year the US joined the war in Vietnam. There’s something happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr Jones? And isn’t it still here, amongst the conflicting threads and polemics that documentary maker Adam Curtis defined, in his 2016 investigation, as an age created by financiers, governments and those with the technological means to dispense with the old ways altogether, as they take commanding positions around politics, persuasion and the world they want us to believe in. Against such layers and fabrications, what might bring a reset - and what are the real costs, the ethical costs, the human costs that may come, if journalism is to play a viable role moving forward? When uncomfortable news is waved away as fake, with seemingly little reproach, when narratives grow ever more partisan and devout, when some media corporations are little more than heavily invested towers of Babel, peopled by pipers laundering their master’s tunes, perhaps the role of the journalist, its obligations and its influence, is more urgently than ever in need reappraisal and redefining.

For more than six years, Noel Bowler explored the condition of the newspaper industry now, visiting their offices and headquarters across Europe, Asia and the United States. He was looking to account for institutions that found themselves negotiating their place in a brutally contested and unstable sector. Newsprint monoliths were migrating to the web or paralleling their traditional versions with new formats, as they tried to stabilise a paper form in a digital age. Bowler was interested in those whose contributions sustained newspapers, those many lives and perspectives entwined with the progress or perils of an industry that on paper, seemed to be close to hopeless. In foregrounding the presence of the working lives, he might draw us closer to those charged with revealing or fanning the smoke and mirrors of worlds shaped by political imperatives and agent-pushed celebrity...and, beyond the dash to the next print deadline, he might bring forward a strategy through which to encourage our consideration of a sector that was, as much as the rest of us, trying to understand the way the world was turning.

By stretching from the left-leaning to the most conservative of titles, Noel Bowler crossed political sympathies and geographical prerogatives, regardless of affiliations or language, to bring human temperament to the fore. The commitment of workers begins to emerge as an underpinning and, no matter what their beliefs or the corporate agendas they roll out -and perhaps even in spite of those remotely based ownerships, who set targets for an employee’s endeavours, regular motifs recur. In repetitive isolation, each desk, with its cabled roots sunk into sockets in polypropylene-carpeted floors, appears singular. Each has been shaped by those tasked to roll with the tide or hold an ever more encrypted world to account and the photographer shows them as such. Desks, heavy with research, still accommodate the simplest of small plants, cultivated to thrive in the dry warmth of air-conditioned offices. Above lines of desktop screens, the steady piping of 24-hour news can be easily seen with a lift of the head -a steadily streaming reminder that the world’s attention can be erratic, timebound and transient.

On occasions that come like a jolt into another landscape, Noel Bowler photographs the studio spaces where online and supplementary content is generated. As somewhat stark additions to the series, they serve to confirm the plural expansions now implicit to an industry that needs to mark its presence on ever more fluent platforms, with the eternal need to produce and refresh content -and in spite of the anonymised gratuities they can follow and sometimes fester at the foot of digital features. The poison and bruising, so common amongst public responses to rolling content, may have gone unremarked, were it not for Bowler to happen upon a slogan, stitched into a tapestry hanging on a workstation and make a photograph...Never read the comments. The studio space, along with occasional details the photographer appropriated using free software in a nod to the ubiquitous circulation and easy plundering of imagery, is a brief departure from the grey cabinets and familiar tabletops that must once have been ordered with optimism from the Steelcase furniture catalogue. It's easy to imagine how they would have been briefly pristine, before paper piles began to establish themselves in spaces that now range from the calmly minimal to the distressed. Slowly moving through these photographs, it’s easy to sense the hours of engagement and the kind of office logic that dominates in these environments. Everything necessary is set out within easy reach. Ascetic, ordered booths are marked out by neat monitor hedges. Hessian panels serve as modesty screens, encouraging unhindered thought and maintaining discretion and focus. As if established over weeks and months, paper-heavy retreats are sandbagged with back issues. Ring binders of work in progress and completed, filed copy is neatly shelved, just out of eyeline but handy if ever needed. Old style coffee percolators and slim water bottles sustain and hydrate their owners, whilst offering the subtlest hints to hours of sub-editing and the young professional’s awareness of the toll that stale air can take on the skin and the mind. Long days merge into nights here as the photographer bears witness to a vocation bound to the prospect of last-minute revisions and familiar with the alarm of an unfolding event. Yet alongside this, the work brings forward another condition that has become increasingly apparent over recent decades. As economies falter, as technologies shift and traditional land uses seem no longer certain or necessary, the office space itself is in decline. More flexible - though we might say unstable- working patterns and the realisation amongst corporations that physical, concrete bases may no longer be needed, has primed a moment when the office space -and the patterns of cooperation and working relations it has always propelled- are no longer assured. It doesn’t take long for an empty office to become a ruin, stale with dust and redundant paperwork and the melancholy of a building that’s so suddenly and starkly nothing without those who breathed life into it. When personal effects can be gathered in minutes into the kind of cardboard boxes that sit under several of the desks photographed - the kind of boxes that became impromptu armour for Lehman Brothers employees, as they bailed out of their offices in a matter of minutes in 2008- redundancy can be a brief and cold drama, yet one that resonates over years. We've reached a more complicated moment to report on and even what we once believed concrete is no longer certain. Empires may fall.

In mid 2020, a BBC documentary series pieced together the structures and influence of the Rupert Murdoch news empire. In many ways it seemed to temper the global decline in revenues by focusing on a different kind of authority. Despite the low-bar tactics and anti-union strategies that would sweep aside employees overnight, despite the emotional trespass that had broken lives through witch-hunt editorials and phone hacking, regardless of the knee-jerk headlines that told lies at the dawn of tragedies, so awful that they could never be untold, it seems there is power in some press corporations yet. No matter how malevolent or discredited the morality, it became apparent, as the series unfolded, that some will still clamber for a place to bow at the court of their kingmaker. And how clear that was, watching the steady stream of politicians from all tendencies, hoping for a seat at the high table -for that pleaded for, career-changing (but rarely career-spanning) endorsement as they each took their turn. It was a revealing appraisal of the pathetic and the powerful, a mapping of the privileged, of the off-stage protocols that sustain and control political developments through a cat’s-cradle of power across newspaper titles and TV channels worldwide. Instead of the reporting of things, it would be better taken as the steering of things, the oblique but relentless shaping of agendas and policy, with editors carrying forward the empathies of those who direct them.

Speaking in the spring of 1994, in the week before he died, the British playwright Denis Potter spoke about the illness that was to take him a few days later. He said he had called his cancer Rupert, in a reference to the person he considered responsible for the pollution 'in what was already a fairly polluted press'. Dennis Potter, in so many, many ways, was ahead of his time. Such clarity can be a rare gift, but Mr Jones, we’re beginning to realise what’s happening here. In an era of misinformation and algorithmic creation that could easily make us complicit in our own fleecing, it can seem a relentless tide to hold back, but one that needs to be resisted, nonetheless. We're increasingly told 'what you're seeing and what you're reading is not what's happening' by politicians who defame journalists when held to account - politicians whose careers, whilst founded on gain, double-bluff and privilege have often drawn on their close association with figures in the news industries in mutually beneficial reciprocation. When newspapers corral their push for viability by tailoring content to give people what they want (but hardly what they need), the role journalists play has never been more important to recognise, to evaluate and to question.

Carefully, consistently, Noel Bowler's photographs allow us to do that, bringing forward -as they do- thoughts around slow journalism, purpose and viability and returning those questions to a conversation that so often falls in the confused sedation that the brief revolutions in technology bring. They stand as a stoic redress to the landslip of integrity and bluff that still prevails in some quarters of the industry. As titles fail and new strategies emerge, as the empires that underwrite them are stacked and counted and use every means to dominate and shape the news and how we reach it, even the very making of these photographs could be an act of resistance.

Ken Grant

February 2021

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