PORTRAITS FROM AN ISLAND
Since the opening of Britain’s first photography gallery, The Photographers Gallery, London, in 1971, photography has slowly been accepted as a major art form in the UK. Walter Benjamin re-evaluated art in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, (first published in French 1936). In light of the advancement of photography and printing he raised questions about a new value for art, one that would be based on politics and that due to the new medium’s ability to be mass reproduced, this art would be more democratic, he believed. In Britain accepting photography as an art form has taken a long time and it has become quite a different kind art form than the one Benjamin envisioned. The Tate Modern employed its first photography curator, Simon Baker, in 2009 and started collecting photography in earnest for the first time in its long history. In 2007 Tate Britain staged its first ever photography exhibition How We Are; Photographing Britain for which the employed an external curator Val Williams. How much later than our neighbors in North America who valorized the photograph as art from as early as 1955 when The Family of Man exhibition was curated by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Photography has come a long way from its inception in 1839. It was always known as a medium that could faithfully record fragments of the world around us but only relatively recently has been popularized as an art form. Still in 2014, on BBC Radio 4 I heard Andrew Motion (ex poet laureate) and Fiona Graham-Mackay (painter) discussing the differences between painting and photography in portraiture as Graham-Mackay painted Motion’s portrait:
Motion: “I greatly prefer it (being painted) though to having my photograph taken, because even though the photograph happens much more quickly I feel much more invaded, by its (pause), which is odd, because it is a machine”
Graham-Mackay: “I understand that completely, the eye will pick up something which a photograph will never do, perhaps that’s where the relationship thing comes in and why it can be quite a pleasant thing to do, because there is more time involved and it is more of a relationship, there’s a lot of space in a sitting, we’re both vulnerable at this stage and you don’t have to like each other”
Motion “No, I can imagine that, but you just would get a different me “ 1
The idea that a photograph can represent who a person actually is has long been debated, and it has been generally accepted that though the image of a face and body represented in a photograph might tell you something about a time and a place, it does not so often tell you much about that individual person. The relationship of the photograph to memory (both collective and personal) is inevitable, its indexical relationship to the world frequently capturing our imagination. The portrait photographer might attempt to translate something about the person through pose, expression, gesture, lighting or framing (for example) and the viewer might read something about the person from their portrait, but ultimately this imagined truth could only be verified by the viewer who knows the subject or by the subject themselves and even then the information would be, to some degree, subjective.
I have for a long time been interested in the idea that the photographic portrait is primarily a representation of a time and a place (a society) and to some extent a record of a performance (spurning a gesture and an expression) that has momentarily exploded out of the relationship between the photographer and their subject. Barthes commented on how he automatically took a pose for a photograph:
“once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” 2
as well the photographer can affect this pose depending on the way he or she acts or even directs the subject. I am not so interested in what the photographic portrait says about an individual (except in photographs of friends and family when sentimentality wins over other interests) but more about what it says about a collection of people, a group, a place, a time and even a society and as well I am interested in the actual nature of the photographic portrait itself; how it is made and what happens in that space between photographer and subject.
Daniel Meadows made the series, National Portraits, shortly after he left art school. In 1973 – 74 Meadows travelled around the UK on a double decker bus (that he bought second hand) photographing people that he met on the street – making a democratic portrait of a nation poised on the verge of massive social change. Of course Meadows could not be sure that social upheaval was around the corner but what he did know is that no one had done this before and that he would collect a vast array of characters that would provide an archive of the people of Britain at a particular time. He called the bus the Free Photographic Omnibus and inside the bus there was a gallery and a darkroom, he covered 10,000 miles in the bus, shooting pictures, printing them and then giving them away. The work was not initially taken up (by the editors and curators of the time), as if no one could assess what was interesting about these photographs, were they simply too ordinary? At the time they must have looked so everyday, straightforward, and the photography that was being exhibited at the time was rarely about the everyday or what we see in on our backdoor steps. National Portraits did not surface as an exhibition or book until 1997 (over twenty years after they were made) when Val Williams curated the project and Meadows returned to the road to re discover many of the people he photographed in the 1970s and re photograph them as they were now (i.e.: late 1990s). The resulting pairing of images draws us to look attentively at the changes in his subjects over the twenty year period, changes in style, ageing – what has happened to these people in between, how have the changes in society affected them? Martin Parr started working as a photographer around the same time as Meadows, they studied together at Manchester Polytechnic. Parr was interested in people and life style and in an early project June Street 1973 the interests of Parr and Meadows collided as they collaborated to make a set of photographs of the residents of June Street all at home in their living rooms. Each June Street room was roughly the same size and as the photographers moved from house to house we witness the changes of wallpaper, carpets, furniture and ornaments like a changing backdrop in a miniature theatre with the families like players acting out a variety of roles. Parr’s latest work Stories from The Black Country is the result of five years photographing in the Midlands where he was commissioned by Multistory simply to photograph everyday life. The Black Country is an area of the West Midlands in England, north west of Birmingham, it is known as a bleak post-industrial area where unemployment figures have been some of the highest in Britain over the last ten years. The Black Country supposedly got its name from the huge quantities of smoke pouring out of the numerous foundries while others say it was named because of the incredibly rich seams of coal to be found there. In Stories from the Black Country Parr avoids the harsh camera angles and brash colour evident in some of his earlier projects and instead appears to delight in the energy, frivolity and sincerity of his characters. There are moments of Parr wit in this series as in Man with Champion Leek but it is a different kind of humor; this is a sensitive and dignified documentary about everyday life in Britain.
My own work, deeply influenced by the 1970s and 80s works of photographers such as Parr, Knorr and Meadows, continues the theme of the everyday and in the series Back to the Village I photographed the rural customs and rituals of villages in Hampshire in the South of England. The South was an area rarely touched by documentarists before the 1980’s; an area of outstanding wealth and good health it was not deemed worthy of photographic interest. Like my predecessors I have been fascinated by looking at the overlooked and as well in narrating stories about English life that lend a different tone to how we are represented. The many masks in Back to the Village create a sense of unease, a sense that something uncomfortable lurks beneath the surface, this is not the village life we see in the quaint picture postcard image of rural England. Later in the project Resort 2, (photographs from Butlin’s Bognor Regis, 2009 – 11), a story about adult parties in the famous holiday camp Butlin’s, I continued to celebrate the British enthusiasm for costume and dressing up picturing men and women in carnival style dress partying for long weekends on the Sussex coast.
In the early 1980’s Karen Knorr photographed a series of gentlemen’s clubs in London for the series Gentlemen 1981 – 83. Angered by the refusal to let women into these establishments Knorr persuaded a number of club owners to let her in to document these out of date institutions that would soon (thankfully) mainly disappear. Instead of a simple documentary approach Karen worked to stage each scenario with the care of a studio photographer working on an advertising commission – in each image there were gestures and expressions, or simply room layouts, that represented ideas about the society she was photographing and in one image a woman appeared, as if by magic, to subtly question the authority of this patriarchal order. Knorr worked with texts that were written by her but created out of the types of things that she might have overheard and read in the clubs and placed these texts beneath the images (in beautifully designed format and within the frame). The texts looked like short poems and ironically summed up the nature of these people and the patriarchal values that the clubs promoted. In 2011 Knorr was commissioned by Pop Magazine to create a contemporary version of the Gentleman series titled Ladies 2011. The ladies were all selected from the great and the good of London elite society and then photographed at Home House, an exclusive club with a beautiful Adams 18th century interior, the rooms of which acted like the rooms in the gentlemen’s clubs, to encompass these women in comfort zones that they looked familiar with. Karen collected quotes from her subjects, quotes from a series of questions she asked them. The questions ranged from: Have you ever lived in fear? to What do you think about the “Arab Spring”? The resulting highly stylized images combined with texts again speak ironically about upper class society and seem to ask whether our elite are actually in touch with the society most of the rest of us live in.
Jason Evans was one of the early contributors to i-D magazine (founded London, 1980), an innovative fashion magazine that still today promotes street style to young people across the globe. The magazine had an independent point of view making it stand out from the other glossy fashion magazines of the time. It posited ideas and an appreciation of dress that appeared to come from the young people themselves as opposed to coming from the over priced fashion houses. Strictly, made in collaboration with the stylist Simon Foxton, first appeared in i-D in 1991, I remember seeing the work and thinking how unusual it was – when did we ever see young black men dressed as dandies and placed in the comfortable London suburbs? This stylish work remained of interest to photographers, curators and editors reminding us that fashion photography (often dismissed by the art community as simply “selling frocks”) reaches a massive audience and so is a powerful context in which to make social and political commentary.
Tessa Boffin, was a lesbian photographer. Her work was concerned with sex and sexual fantasy, and she explored lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender issues, Boffin was frustrated by the way we prioritize reality in our image making and in The Knights Move she wanted purely to explore fantasy.
“I wanted to throw this equation into question by looking at how our identities as dykes are constructed through historical role models, both in fact and in fantasy.”3
The Knights Move begs us to reconsider what we think we know about history and about representation of women, the work contests our limited knowledge about both the real and imagined lives of women throughout European history. Trish Morrissey first took photographs when she was 10 years old after having won a small 120 camera in a writing competition. She started working seriously as a photographer in 1995 and made the series Women with Moustaches between 1998 – 99. The final work, for this series, was published in the Independent newspaper and was the first work I had seen that glamourized women with facial hair. Women with Moustaches questions conventional attitudes towards female beauty and plays a role in redefining female identity. To find her models Morrissey advertised in a local London newspaper and the headline ‘Wanted- women with moustaches’ was displayed on billboards outside numerous East End newsagents. The project astounded many people when it came out, banishing much of the negative imagery that surrounds women who dress and act outside of the codes of convention set out by our patriarchal society. Later work by Morrissey, Front (2005 – 07), emerged out of the interest she developed in family photography and the vernacular by re staging the real followed by the staging of fiction. Her seaside portraits, titled with proper names, do include “real” people but immersed in each “real” group is an imposter – Trish herself. Like a cuckoo, Trish immerses her self in the various female roles she takes over. These are the ultimate non-self self-portraits; it is Trish yet it isn’t, these are families but they are not. The question of who we think we are and how does photography operate to re affirm our positions dispelling our insecurities looms high in these seemingly casual yet actually beautifully formal photographs. What is the value of the family album and why do we keep one? The onus of the traditional documentary photographer is disputed in this work and Morrissey compels us to re evaluate what we have grown up with.
Nigel Shafran also photographs the family, his real family, his wife Ruth. Ruth on the Phone (1995 – 2004) is a comedic play about life in the Shafran household – this is a long term project that as well as being quietly humorous is an intimate observation of Ruth at home, one that also charts a history of changes within the domestic environment. Shafran has made his name photographing the banal and the everyday in his immediate surroundings gently observing the clutter on the draining board for the project Washing up (2000) or the strange arrangement of objects in his dad’s office for Dads Office (1997-99) – there is an obsessive quality to Shafran’s style, his work creating a revolutionary family album, one that records tiny and discreet moments.
Wendy McMurdo became interested in photography in the mid 1980s when she was studying at The Pratt Institute in New York. She is fascinated with the modern world, and with the development of new technologies both in photography and in the world around us. Her work indicates both an interest in new technology as well as an interest in the psychology of the self. Her work in the exhibition concentrates on early play and is extracted from a larger series where she has worked, through digital manipulation, on removing parts of images to leave players (often children and young people) bereft of whatever item or object they were playing with. These performative portraits arrest their child subjects in the centre of the frame surrounded by sparse, yet decorative domestic or school room space, masked and posed tentatively as if waiting for something or someone. They are disconcerting images, replacing heads and faces with masks and headdresses leaving us unsure of who we are looking at and suspended in a space between fantasy and reality; an anxious state pointing to our very adult uneasiness about the state of being a child.
Since early 2000 Anthony Luvera has been working collaboratively with homeless people. The work started in London when he was documenting conditions for homeless people in the inner city. Right from the start of this work Luvera remained a politically concerned artist. Not satisfied with the images he was creating in his documentation he invited his subjects to photograph their own lives and tell their own stories. Giving the people he was working with disposable cameras (for ease of shooting) he directed them to tell their tales and inform the world about what their lives were like. The resulting images were fascinating but Luvera was not convinced and as well was burdened by the knowledge that this method had been tried and tested on so many previous occasions – he wanted something different, something more substantial and ultimately more dignified. Changing his format from 35mm to 5×4 camera he started to work on the series Assisted Self Portraits where he would plan collaboratively with each subject the location and look of the portrait. The project involves a lot of discussion and a building of trust between Luvera and his subjects before they even get to make a photograph together. Once in situ Luvera sets up the camera and then invites his subject to check the point of view. Then the subjects get into position, chose their own expression and pose and shoot the image using a cable release (frequently you can see this in the image). It was a challenging project not least because many of his subjects did not want to be the centre of attention in this way. The images, often printed large scale are dignified and make the viewer think twice about how predictable the conventional media representations of the homeless really are. In a way these collaborative portraits are disconcerting because for once the homeless have power in their hands and this is something that no one is familiar with, the portraits in this exhibition come from a series made in Brighton.
Also interested in documentary and keen to step outside of tradition Gareth McConnell works as both an artist and an editorial photographer. McConnell’s earliest work documented aspects of life in Northern Ireland, where he was born, and included close ups on political murals and portraits in a local pub. In Sex, Drugs and Majik McConnell takes portraits of British ravers (that he has been making for several years in Ibiza) and seems to turn them inside out, adding a kind of multiple layering and sometimes hallucinatory colours. There is nothing straight-forward about these portraits, they dance like multiple mirrors in front of our eyes, we are lured into the enticing designs, unclear about how we are supposed to interpret them. There is a hint of an influence from surrealism in McConnell’s work, the work is like a poem with the hypnotic sound of trance music punctuated by dark moments in between parties emerging from the pictures.
In Gone Astray Portraits, Clare Strand takes Charles Dickens as her mentor and using Gone Astray Household Words, 1853 (a novella by Dickens that discusses getting lost in the city) as an influence she creates characters using models taken from the London streets and brought into her studio to stand in front of a painted back drop. On first look these portraits appear to have been made in the 19th century but on closer inspection we notice all the tropes of modern life about her characters. These sometimes crestfallen, sometimes damaged characters are comfortably dressed, they do not look typically homeless or poverty stricken yet each one displays an aspect of brokenness either to their body or to their attire. The underworld and a collapsing city come to mind.
Natasha Caruana also used a form of restaging in her portraits of clowns; growing up in a circus community and then rejecting that community (as a teenager) affected the way she pictured her father’s clown friends and colleagues. For each portrait sitting she took with her a large, ornate gold frame and invited her subjects to take poses from history – she asked them all to pose as ancient Mariners like Nelson, Howe and Blake . The effect of this pose and the addition of the mirror is to re define Caruana’s relationship to these clowns – to fix them in frames, distanced from herself, and to invite them to pose out of character almost shifts them as subjects into a new world –one that they don’t quite belong to. Arguably the clown does not quite belong in any world but the photographer has subverted the position of these clowns, these are not just documents, they perform a narrative imposed by Caruana – heroized and distanced in one frame.
When Neeta Madahar invited her female friends to be photographed for the series Flora I don’t think any of us realized what kind of process we were going to be exposed to. After months of planning and selecting clothes, wigs, make up, objects and colours the models arrived in Madahar’s hired studio to be photographed each image taking a day or more to complete. The photographs were influenced by the artist’s fascination with the Madame Yvonde (1893 – 1975) archive, which she had researched extensively and as well some of the other portrait photographers from the 1940s like Angus McBean who were influenced by the surrealist movement. Madahar’s portraits are bold, they radiate brilliant colour, there is a playfulness about them yet it is serious play. These are lavish portraits and her women are all intense either in their stare or in what they are immersed within.
Andrew Bruce’s work, Tender, comes from a very different starting point to most of the other artists in this exhibition, these are self-portraits with dead animals, all road kill. Bruce collects the animals when he can, as he is not a driver he relies on friends and family to cart the dead and often flea ridden beasts back home to his garage freezer where he stores them until ready to take the photograph. The young male body, almost translucent, seems fragile and strong at the same time. Holding crushed sometimes bleeding animal bodies Bruce seems to be heroizing these dead bodies, asking us (human beings) what we have done and why. These are ironic images about life, death and the misadventure of human progress. The motor-car, our own proud invention, responsible for all these killings. Bruce appears to be gently delivering these bodies, comforting them as if his gestures could redeem us somehow. For Tender Bruce was still working in series’ since then he has developed a different way of working, he no longer works on groups of pictures but instead on single images. The Opening was one of the first single images and it links to Tender. In The Opening Bruce has moved on from deliverance and appears to be taking his road kill into a dark abyss reminiscent of the mysterious blackness that the hunters chase their prey into in Uccello’s Hunt in the Forest.
Sharon Boothroyd works with constructed photography and narrative. In this early series she stages scenes based on conversations with children and young people growing up with divorced parents. The conversations are between the fathers, who have been separated, and the children – If you get married again, will you still love me?, the title of the work, was one of the questions a young person asked his father. Staging scenes based on emotionally loaded spoken words Boothroyd dissects these heart-wrenching moments examining the psychological state of her subjects through the directed poses of actors in selected locations. These images leave us feeling helpless and even slightly depressed, they point to a society that has a set of rules that people cannot live by and that when the system breaks down there is no-one there to pick up the pieces – we are shoved out in the cold – almost like an Orwellian nightmare.
Eileen Perrier made the project Peckham Square Studio 2014 during a commission for Peckham Platform, the work is part of a larger, ongoing Portable Studio Project. Perrier has been working in portraiture since the beginning of her interest in photography and has frequently been concerned, like Meadows, to represent the people – everyday people passing by on the streets of Peckham – a kind of democratic portrait of a place. Unlike Meadows, Perrier was working with a large format camera and inviting those people into her studio to sit supported by a Victorian style headrest in order to have their portrait taken. The headrest was a vital piece of equipment in Victorian photographic terms providing the means to keep sitters still during long exposures. Perrier’s exposures may not have been as long as those of the Victorians but at an 1/8th and of a second it would have been difficult to keep everybody still and so achieve the pin sharp focus that enables large scale prints of this work to be made and for the (ordinary) people to be monumentalized.
Essay © Anna Fox 2015
Exhibition curated by Anna Fox and Amit Sheokand 2015
Special thanks to University for the Creative Arts and to The One School Goa
- A Portrait of Andrew Motion, Fiona Graham-Mackay and Andrew Motion,
Radio 4, 30th December 2014.
- Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes,
- Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs, edited by Tessa Boffin and
Jean Fraser, Pandora, London 1991