Sunday, 14 December 2008

The power of the sub-editor

Let me preface this tirade by saying that I really, really like our sub-editors. They are both brilliantly cool, intelligent creatures and I quite like them a lot.

Having said that, I never knew such a thing as a sub-editor even existed until I started working on the magazine. After I wrote my first review for publication, I filed my copy blissfully unaware of the torture the subs would put it through in the sake of cutting the word count (which was only 18 words over I might add) and generally making the piece 'more to their liking.' When the review was published, I hardly recognised the writing as my own. I felt violated - perhaps an overreaction - but at least in academic discourse, if someone doesn't like what you've written you have the scope to argue it out - they don't just rewrite or chop whole sections of your paper.

There's a brilliant, and surprisingly well known, email from Giles Coran about this very same issue. In his email, he positively flips out on the subs at the Times for removing the letter 'a' from the final sentence of his copy. While I always found his rant amusing (which you can check out here:, I never really understood the depth of his raging frustration until now.

My most recently published review, the Polidori bit I just posted, has also been forced to kneel and beg for mercy in front of the subs desk. The crazy thing is that you don't actually get to see the changes made by the subs until the piece is in print. Very sneaky! So I thought it would be fun (and perhaps cathartic?) to post the actual copy that made it into print so you see for yourself the damages inflicted by the power of the subs...


It's disadvantageous to know that the pictures in Canadian photographer Rober Polidori's show are of the Palace of Versailles before seeing them. The Disney-esque mythology of Louis XIV's royal château in the suburbs of Paris is power enough to threaten Polidori's beautiful collection, taken over the last 20 years. (I added this sentence, but it said something like, 'The Disney-esque mythology of the royal château is powerful enough to overwhelm the delicacy of Polidori's beautiful collection of photographs, taken over the last 20 years' - and also calling it Louis XIV's is technically inaccurate, as it was Louis XIII who constructed the initial hunting lodge).

In contrast to the usual attempts to capture the palace's grandeur in wide-angled panorama, Polidori has taken a micro approach, capturing fragmentary views of the palace. Although the photographs are spatially restricted, they remain visually demanding; partly because of the decorative nature of the interiors, but also because of Polidori's excellent framing. Seemingly arbitrary crops juxtapose intricate wallpapering with wooden mouldings and richly textured paintings.

Polidori is a meticulous technician, but what gives his pictures such impact is his use of large-format film - a Kipp Wettstien aerial photography camera is his weapon of choice ('weapon of choice' - may that my prince come to awaken me from my cliché-ridden nightmares). Images of coloured wallpaper are so lifelike, they look like the real thing (this just makes me sound like a poor writer - the sentences, at least to me, now feel so robotic it's a machine writing them, not a person).

The intellectual forces behind this series is restoration and revisionism. This is intriguing, given Polidori is primarily know for his exquisite, controversial images of destruction in Chernobyl and post-Katrina New Orleans. Change, natural or man-made, the selective process of curation of the destructive force of nature obsesses Polidori (completely alters the emphasis).

(The brilliant bit about the painting of the revolutionary, Marat, is entirely removed, which is a central example of the kind of historic anachronism brought about because of the restoration process)

There is also the question of how the act of restoration is in some way subsumed by a nostalgia complex. Though nostalgia often saves historic buildings, the saving is typically accompanied by shocking anachronism. Consider Versailles' latest restoration programme and its proposed removal of king Louis-Philippe's grand staircase, added during the last major rebuild of the château in 1837. Constructed during the Bourbon restoration, it doesn't complement our fantasy of Versailles as a 17th-century fairytale palace and so must be removed (I included this in my final draft, mostly because it's good stuff).

Polidori's cleverly framed images highlight our fascination with antiquity while also mocking anachronistic intrusions. An image juxtaposing a CCTV camera with the elaborate panelling of Louis XV's daughter's salon is similarly witty (not if you don't understand the historical context which makes it so witty - also cut). Each provide a loaded snapshot of modernity versus history; a reminder that 21st-century Versailles was made by us, for us (the snappy for of aphorism loved by subs. Of course the last line evades the chopping block).