Saturday 27 May 2023 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Saturday. 27/5/2023

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Saturday

In the picture

This week we survey the latest housing trend in Los Angeles, zoom in on badly behaved theatre crowds, plan a ramble around Medellín and update our summer wardrobes with some tennis-inspired cottons. But first, our editor in chief admires some amateur photography and ponders the future of book publishing.

The Opener / Andrew Tuck

Clicking into place

I like photography and admire photographers – handy when you work on a magazine. Yet the recent Photo London fair left me deflated: I’d seen many of the images numerous times before and there were also a lot of pictures that felt free of meaning, created to be decoration. One of my female colleagues, commenting on the prevalence of banal shots of pouty models and ladies’ bottoms, said that if she saw these on the walls of a potential date, she’d get her coat and go home. Though she did then say that there was a disappointing shortage of gentlemen’s tackle on show, which somewhat undermined her argument.

Perhaps the problem is that in our daily lives we are surrounded by so much amazing imagery – from the work of news photographers on the printed page to the skilled amateurs on Instagram – that lots of commercially targeted work just fails to engage us. We see it for what it is: wall filler. However, if you truly want to remind yourself of photography’s potency, head to the recently completed Photography Centre galleries at the V&A here in London.

The centre has been unfolding in stages since 2018 but this week saw the official opening of the final gallery spaces, designed by Gibson Thornley Architects. As well as the photography collection, there’s a library and a display of early cameras. And while there are plenty of new acquisitions and recent works on show, it’s some of the oldest images that are most arresting. They take you back to a time when photography was in its infancy and remind you that it is a marvel.

On one wall, for example, there’s a picture taken by the French pioneer of documentary photography Eugène Atget. It was shot on 17 April 1912 in his home city of Paris and shows a crowd gathered on the Place de la Bastille to observe a solar eclipse. Hands shield eyes as everyone looks skyward – but we don’t see the occurrence that they are entranced by; we look at them. It’s worth walking through the museum, ascending the stairs and pushing open the galleries’ doors just to see this one picture. It wasn’t taken to make Atget rich – he found little fame during his lifetime – nor was it taken to look cool or match the décor in someone’s expensive pad. And it’s sublime.

But let’s not forget the amateur. In a display case are three photograph albums that belonged to a wealthy French family – though the card says that researchers have not been able to discover their surname or who took the pictures. The albums are fat and date from 1912, 1932 and 1939, and a young boy, “Paul”, goes from infant to man across their pages. It’s the work of a family snapper and their fascination with shooting fancy cars suggests that they were not that different in their outlook from some of today’s Instagrammers. But again they resonate, tease out a story, remain alive. You look and can’t help wondering what happened to Paul – even those dates trouble you. The clouds of war were just out of shot in 1939.

Some years ago we were at a flea market and I found an album from the 1920s filled with rather less expertly taken pictures of a family, their pets (sadly the snappers hadn’t read any of the books and manuals on display at the galleries, written to instruct early amateur photographers on how to capture a beloved pet). But even so, who would have thrown this out? How had these moments of joy been cast aside? I bought it – I didn’t need it, I just didn’t want to think of it unwanted (perhaps fearing that this would be the fate of my own life-as-photo-album). It still sits on a bookshelf, its stories safe for now.

I attended a publishing conference this week and moderated a panel on the future of the bookshop, before meeting many of the reps who sell our books to retailers around the world. And it transpired that not only is photography becoming a decorative commodity but parts of the book trade are too. The Scandinavian agent explained that one of his region’s biggest online retailers now lets you search for titles not by topic or author but by jacket colour. There I was, thinking that the bookshop revival was a reflection of a return to reading, down to a generation that has ditched Kindles and loves print, but it transpires that many books are actually destined for coffee-table “book mountains”, their lovely spines never to be cracked open. Really, some days you almost give up.

THE LOOK / Black houses, Los Angeles

Bête noire

The Rolling Stones told us to “paint it black” – and some homeowners in Los Angeles are taking the directive to heart (writes Christopher Lord). In Silver Lake, where I live, you can find a curious jumble of architectural styles hidden among the hills. Of late, however, there has been an ominous trend of people buying up nifty homes and giving them a top-to-toe matte-black finish. So the stucco Spanish-colonial-revival villa has been transformed into a Stygian lair and the kitschy faux-Tudor ranch made to look about as fun and welcoming as the Bates Motel. Perhaps the most egregious are those who buy up midcentury marvels and daub them in a fine shade called “midnight oil”. The result? Rather than Hockney’s “A Bigger Splash”, it’s become Kazimir Malevich’s “Black Square”.

Image: Aaron Neubert Architects

What is inspiring this fade to black? Naturally, I have no friends who would perform such a paint job but it seems that the trend first emerged in about 2019 and there are many online exponents who talk about how it can make a house more “imposing” on the street, which is apparently a good thing. Yet California has a Mediterranean climate and it seems only right to lean into that with how one lives. A home that’s painted black will absorb more heat too so you might need to crank up the air conditioning. It might make sense in Scandinavian homes to opt for Nordic noir but here in Los Angeles let’s keep it bright and breezy.

How we live / Noisy theatregoers

Sound and fury

It’s about 21.00 on a weekday evening in the 890-seat Lyttelton Theatre on London’s South Bank and I’ve just missed what Richard Burton said (writes Josh Fehnert). Enunciate, man. The performance is of The Motive and the Cue, a gripping new play by Jack Thorne about Burton’s barnstorming 1964 run of Hamlet. The rub? The tipsy Hollywood star is struggling to work with his director and grandiose ghost-of-theatre-past Sir John Gielgud. It’s moving. Sadly, so is the audience. Relentlessly.

People are crinkling cans, tinkling ice cubes and emitting peals of oddly timed laughter at seemingly random junctures. Now a pair of numpties are hastily rising to leave at a key moment (one treads on my foot, the other punts over my G&T). They return to trample on a soliloquy. I’m not the first curmudgeon to moan about the foibles of my fellow theatregoers but this is all rather dramatic.

There have been no fewer than three phone-related interruptions – an alarm, a text and a call – followed by a hearing aid gone haywire, which sounds like a start-up modem from the early days of the internet. And what’s that innovative, enervating soundtrack to the emotional dénouement as Burton (Johnny Flynn) and Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) reconcile their creative differences? Oh, the rustling of a gentleman plumbing the deepest recesses of his bag for a blister pack of headache tablets. I wonder whether he can spare me one.

I swivel in disbelief but can’t catch his eye. Is anyone else confused by the kerfuffle? One laughing lady seems only to titter after the rest of the audience. I soon realise that she’s not amused by the action onstage at all but, like me, by the restlessly boisterous crowd. It’s a little funny, I suppose.

“Where will you sit for the first show?” Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) asks in the final scene of the play before any of the characters are aware that their run of Hamlet will go down in history. “I will sit up high so I can watch the audience,” says Gielgud loftily, departing with a doff of his hat. Maybe that’s the point of theatre that we’ve missed while getting peeved with badly behaved punters. Shakespeare’s crowd would have hissed, booed and boozed too. If we want peace, quiet and insulation from both the amusement and annoyance of other people, perhaps – to misquote Hamlet – a play isn’t the thing? Perhaps it never was.

Monocle Concierge / Your Questions Answered

Giddy heights

The Monocle Concierge is our purveyor of top tips and delectable recommendations for your next trip. It’s also on hand in audio form on Monocle Radio, with reports and the latest travel news from around the world. If you’re planning to go somewhere nice and would like some advice, click here. We will answer one question a week.

Dear Concierge,

What are the best things to see and experience in Medellín, Colombia and the surrounding area?

Many thanks,
Louise Marcotte,

Image: Alamy

Dear Louise,

Over the past two decades, Medellín, Colombia’s second-largest city, has successfully reinvented itself from a city that was infamous for violence and drug cartels to a forwarding-looking metropolis and a pioneer in urban renewal. Located in the Aburrá Valley and surrounded by lush green mountains, it is known as “the City of Eternal Spring” because of its year-round temperate weather and celebrated annual flower festival. The residents are friendly and proud. They share their home with digital nomads, backpackers, European and American tourists, and business leaders. Medellín tends to attract a youthful international crowd so it has a lively night scene. For a sunset cocktail with panoramic views, head to La Deriva, a popular rooftop bar at the Click Clack Hotel, or visit the Laureles neighbourhood with its strip of bars along what’s known as La 70.

Medellín is also Colombia’s fashion and art capital. Take a stroll through the leafy neighbourhood of El Poblado to find some of the best collections of clothes, swimwear and jewellery by Colombian designers along the Vía Primavera. The area hosts many of the city’s best restaurants. Restaurant XO has a great tasting menu with a modern take on Colombian seafood, fish and meat. We’d also recommend Sambombi for a cosy bistro lunch, with its simple wooden décor and a menu that changes most weeks. Try the gnocchi made from cassava or the red snapper sourced from Colombia’s Pacific coast.

The city is also home to one of Latin America’s most famous living artists, Fernando Botero, known for his sculptures and paintings of plump men and women, and his social commentary on Colombia’s history. Some of his most important work can be seen at the Museo de Antioquia and on the Plaza Botero (pictured).

One of Medellín’s highlights is its cable-car system: the first in the world to be used for mass transport to reach the surrounding hilltop settlements. Take it from Santo Domingo station and you’ll be rewarded with some sweeping views.

Culture Cuts / Visit, Watch, Listen

Summer hits

‘The Start of Something’, Gulsah Ayla Bayrak. Amsterdam’s exceptional photographic museum Foam is collaborating with Maqam, a cultural organisation with a Turkish, Persian and Arabic focus, for this show inspired by Ingres’s 19th-century Orientalist work “La Grande Odalisque”. Artist Bayrak grew up between Belgium and Turkey, and the works in this show explore the friction between exoticism and the art canon, using photography, collage and assemblages of images.

‘No Traces’ (‘Sin Huellas’), Amazon Prime Video. This “paella western” is a farcical comedy drama following two cleaners, Cata and Desi, who end up becoming wrapped up in a murder after they discover a dead body in the mansion that they have just finished tidying. This lands them in a tight spot: chased by the police, they’re also followed by hitmen and members of the family too.

‘Materia (Prisma)’, Marco Mengoni. Mengoni’s heartfelt ballad “Due Vite” was the dark horse of this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, placing at a respectable (and unexpected) fourth place. In this new release, he delivers a more danceable, pop-forward sound, which will no doubt make him the winner at bagni across Italy in the coming months. Collaborators Elodie and Ernia are both veterans of the summer hit; our money is on Mengoni’s duet with the latter on “Fiori d’Orgoglio”.

FASHION UPDATE / Palmes Tennis Society

Love all

Spring fashion is serving up tennis-inspired cottons, polo shirts and all-white sets (writes Natalie Theodosi). Driving the trend is a new crop of fashion labels bringing a more modern attitude to tennis culture, with refreshed designs and community events that encourage people to get involved in the sport, either by playing a game of doubles with friends or watching summer tournaments, a glass of chilled wine in hand.

Copenhagen-based Palmes Tennis Society is one such label. Since its launch in 2021, it has built a global market for its smart vests, tailored shorts and witty graphics, and is now expanding into shoes. Working with Brooklyn-based menswear label Blackstock & Weber, Palmes’s founder, Nikolaj Hansson, has designed his own take on the penny loafer, using white tennis-ball felt. Sourced from a factory in southern England, the material is a nod to a past era when tennis balls were white (the change to yellow was only made in the 1970s to ensure that they would be visible on TV). “We’re taking something formal, the loafer, and making it more fun and multidimensional, just like what we’re trying to do with tennis as a sport and culture at Palmes,” says Hansson.


Bringing it all back home

Stargard, whose name translates as “old town”, is the third-largest city in Poland’s West Pomeranian Voivodeship. Situated on the Ina river, it is home to about 67,000 people. Website Stargard.News covers everything from citywide issues to local talent, art exhibitions and events. Here, editors Emilia Chanczewska and Grzegorz Drazek discuss their transition from national to local news and some of the publication’s most memorable stories during its first year.

How did it all get started?
Both of us had worked as journalists for a national media corporation for about 20 years. By the end of 2020, we decided that it was high time we created our own local editorial office. We started last year and our project is still under development but with our special knowledge of our hometown, our local contacts and the help of our hard-working colleagues we are successfully gaining more and more new advertisers.

What have you covered so far?
In recent days, Stargard experienced the largest failure of its water-supply network. The entire city was left with almost no water. We covered this story extensively and were quoted by the largest news services in Poland. Another of our stories was about the abduction of a child in front of a kindergarten. The kidnapper was later found and arrested, and the child returned to her parents. It brought us great joy writing a story with a happy ending. Apart from hard news, we have also covered exhibitions, concerts and cultural events. We regularly post funny photos of our city. Above all, we run the series called “Stargard with Passion”, in which we showcase local athletes, cultural figures, unique craftsmen and simply positive people.

What’s your big story this week?
This week we are celebrating our first anniversary and we want to do so with our readers. We will invite them to various events and hand out invitations to restaurants and clubs of our advertising partners. We will also be covering ArtFestiwal Stargard 2023 and writing about the performances, exhibitions and shows that take to the streets.

Image: Alamy

What Am I Bid? / Autographs

Sign of the times

The highest price fetched by an autograph at auction is $9.8m (€9.1m), paid in 2012 for a copy of the US Constitution signed by George Washington (writes Andrew Mueller). That figure will not be menaced by the auction of musicians’ autographs by UK house the Saleroom on 31 May, unless there is a shoot-out between surprisingly devoted Nana Mouskouri fans (the current estimate is between €12 and €23 for a signed promo photo). The 637 lots on offer serve as a melancholy monument to a fading phenomenon. The modern fan wants a selfie, not a signature – and the decline of physical albums means that there are fewer things available for musicians to sign anyway.

Image: the saleroom

There are, nevertheless, opportunities here to own the scrawl of some genuinely titanic figures. While the likes of Roy Orbison, Bill Haley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis – €35 to €70 each should do it – would all have signed thousands of autographs, none of them will be signing any more. And each of these lots suggests a story in itself – one of the many tiny interactions of a performer’s life, of little import to them but unforgettable to the agog fan, as a singer applied their pen to pictures, tickets, programmes and whatever else the starstruck had in their pockets: €22-€35 should land you Meat Loaf’s signature on a scrap of lined notepad paper.


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