JOHN STEZAKER AT THE WHITWORTH GALLERY

Through The Looking-Glass With Scalpel And Ruler

If you take two old photographs, cut them up carefully and splice them together what do you get – still two old photographs or now one brand new image?  This is the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t world that you enter when you visit the Whitworth Gallery’s current exhibition of John Stezaker’s work.   The curatorial commentary is pretty sure what we are looking at: these, it says, are images waiting to be discovered again and new art is made from them.   Either way, it is of interest to any photographer because it invites speculation on the photographic medium itself. 

The exhibition is clustered into five main groups.  Most are based on old film publicity stills but one set  – and perhaps the most approachable to start with –  takes plates from old art or anatomy text books and slices through them, then juxtaposing the demi-images left so that it often seems to be something like the same body.  Like this.

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(John Stezaker.  Fall VIII, 2010 © John Stezaker, courtesy The Approach, London. Photo: FXP Photography)

It is startling.  First you see one body and then you see two.  It is a through-the-looking- glass-world and it takes a certain visual effort to step into and out of it.  I spent some time in front of these particular images letting them promote a speculative frame of mind then moved on, diving deeper into the rabbit-hole.

The four other clusters are based on old movie publicity shots which of themselves are both strange and familiar.  The familiarity comes from the continuing use of the still in cinema advertising but the strangeness comes from their old-fashioned, black and white stiltedness.  Some of the publicity shots are head and shoulder studio images of the stars of the day.  My understanding is that the others are stills recreating scenes from the film and not out-takes from the film itself.  So already they are ripe for interpretation since they are recreations of already fictional narratives. 

The first cluster lays an old postcard of moving nature (mostly waterfalls) over a body or face reconfiguring that character perhaps as a tumult of natural energy, as in the image below.

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(John Stezaker, Siren Song V, 2011 ©John Stezaker, courtesy The Approach, London.  Photo FXP Photography)

Another set takes five separate head-and-shoulder matinee idol shots and each splices other such images on top: profile to full frontal, side eye to frontal eye, side mouth to frontal mouth.   Like this.

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(John Stezaker, Marriage (Film Portrait Collage) XXXII, 2007 ©John Stezaker, courtesy The Approach, London.  Photo: FXP Photography)

They are remarkably eye-catching.  You scan the image and its conventional parts make up a highly unconventional whole.  When you look at the detail it is standard but when you pan back there is a jolt.  That jolt is important because it is strong enough to make you look again and again and to try to figure out what we are looking at.

Further on, a triptych features a simple rectangular white cut-out on three publicity shots of a film starring Ida Lupino.  An old chap standing next to me peered hard at one of these and then turned to me.  I thought he was going to make an erudite remark but what he actually said was:  “I always fancied Ida Lupino when I was a lad.”  When I thought about it later his remark added a dimension: these photographs were living history to him whatever the metaphorical intent of the collage itself.  A little later I found myself too in self-congratulatory mode when I spotted a young Kenneth More in another of the shots – he himself a star from my youth.

We might look at these images in many ways, they are so suggestive.  We could see them as a subversion of the photographic medium itself, or indeed of the cinematic medium.  We could see them as a deconstruction of the photograph with suggestions of malleability, recycling and infinite meaning over time.  We might contemplate the sheer arbitrariness of form in the face of their spliced couplings (and triplings, too, since some use three images).  They also present themselves as light-hearted – or learned – wordless commentaries on the still and moving image and the relationship between the two.  I find my own thoughts tending to centre in this digital age on their highly analogue nature.  Digital splicing celebrates its invisibility while the splicing in these collages celebrates its visibility.  This tells us something about both media and their utter and irreconcilable difference.

I don’t think that you necessarily have to see these as brand new images.  In the end their exact form, since it is contingent on the component stills, is not central.  It is more the process and the thought behind it which spark off interesting ideas and contemplation.  For the practising photographer they might stand as a very useful way of thinking about the medium and its forms.  Even in the absence of that it would take a dull eye indeed not to linger over such unusual work.

(The John Stezaker Exhibition is on at The Whitworth Gallery, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15 6ER  until June 2018.)

 

 

EMPTINESS

Photography On A Theme

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A third exhibition (see below for the first two) I visited in Dubrovnik was at the city’s Museum of Modern Art (http://ugdubrovnik.hr/en/?file=home)  where fifteen Croatian photographers* had work displayed on the theme of Emptiness.  At the entrance there was a quotation from the Tao Te Ching: “He who reveals himself does not shine.”  It wasn’t clear whether that quotation had been part of the theme but it set a tricky tone for this viewer certainly.  Since, by its nature, photography depicts things, how can it go about revealing nothingness?  Most of the photographers had taken the stance that emptiness is an absence: dark prints revealing little; empty factories and disused offices; the absence of humans; fields; and so on.  These were all accomplished and confident works which held their own on the gallery wall and repaid study.  Yet, on reflection, they seemed to me not to have grasped the nettle.  Why is the static and unused more empty than the moving and used?  The one series that did seem to have something to say about that was O Njoj (About Her) by Jelena Blagovic (which you can see here).  These were photographs of her mother’s home which made a very effective use of light and simplicity to create what Jelena called a “mnemonic landscape”.   This was the use, I felt, of something to suggest nothing.  There was both presence and absence as we see in the two photos above and below.

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(Both photos courtesy of Jelena Blagovic from the series About Her/O Njoj)

  Let us remind ourselves (since the curator had made use of Eastern philosophy) that the Sanskrit word for emptiness is shunyata.  It was once explained to me that the root of this word (shunya) was the Indian mathematical term for ‘zero’.  And the circle that represents zero is significant because it is a line around a central nothingness – it represents therefore both nothing and also everything.   This was an idea that I felt was hovering over Jelena’s series.

I often ask myself, when I have been looking at sets of photographs on a certain theme, whether, had I not known the theme in advance, I would have been able to guess it from the pictures.  Often I have to accept that I would not.  The theme is more a riff than an organising principle.  In this case, however, the theme came through pretty clearly and that was a mark of the quality of both photography and curation in this exhibition.

(*The fifteen photographers:   Jelena Blagović, Boris Cvjetanović, Petar Dabac, Sandro Đukić, Marko Ercegović, Davor Konjikušić, Igor Kuduz, Antun Maračić, Ana Opalić, Marina Paulenka, Jasenko Rasol, Davor Sanvincenti, Sofija Silvia, Sandra Vitaljić and Borko Vukosav.  You can see more contemporary Croatian photography including some of these fifteen here )

 

WAR PHOTO LIMITED

The End Of Yugoslavia

                                 Photograph by Darko Bandic, by courtesy of War Photo Ltd.

                                Photograph by Darko Bandic, by courtesy of War Photo Ltd.

I was in Croatia recently and took the opportunity to visit War Photo Limited in Dubrovnik – an organisation whose purpose is to ‘educate the public in the field of war photography’ (http://www.warphotoltd.com/).  There were several exhibition rooms but in the time I had I decided to zero in on the photos depicting the conflict which took place on the disintegration of the state of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.  It struck me that this was one of the last wars – perhaps the last war – to be recorded largely on analogue media.    The result is that to this observer at least the photos look surprisingly historical and perhaps the reason for that is that they were taken by professional photographers.  There are searing and appalling photos but they all conform to the standards of the genre: they use colour, form, outline, framing and movement to create a dreadful impact on the viewer.  It is not therefore their content but their very style which creates their historical look.  The two photos shown above and below illustrate the point.

                                   Photograph by Paul Lowe, by courtesy of War Photo Ltd.

                                  Photograph by Paul Lowe, by courtesy of War Photo Ltd.

The advent of the mobile phone camera means that pictures of war are often taken now by witnesses, participants and increasingly by perpetrators and they bypass the conventions of the genre.  Many are unashamedly partisan.   And increasingly the professional photographer or reporter is seen to be parti pris.  Sophisticated modern viewers know that everyone – or everyone’s editor – has an axe to grind.  So the difficulty thrown up by conflict photography more and more is not so much obtaining the photograph as verifying it and this is compounded by the problem of volume – there are just so many pictures.  (For example, a statistic that I came across from another theatre recently is that the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic had to conduct forensic analyses of 26,948 images taken in government detention facilities alone.) 

An interesting contrast comes just down the main street of old Dubrovnik, Stradun, where in the Sponza Palace is the Memorial Room Of The Defenders of Dubrovnik: (http://www.tzdubrovnik.hr/lang/en/get/muzeji/5705/memorial_room_of_dubrovnik_defenders.html). 

This takes the monochrome identity card photos of the 400 plus men killed defending Dubrovnik during the 1990s war and displays them enlarged in grid form along the walls of the room with other memorabilia.  Some of them were still in their teens.  This, too, uses volume to effect. Yet so much is left to the imagination that the display has just as shattering an impact as the War Photo Limited exhibition. For those of us lucky enough to have grown up in the peace of western Europe in the second half of the twentieth century it is very difficult to imagine oneself in the circumstances of war.  We have all figured, however, in identity photographs of one kind or another and it is that which seems to join us subconsciously to these fresh young faces.

(My thanks to War Photo Limited and the photographers for permission to reproduce the above photographs for this article.)

THE HOUSE OF KINGS AND QUEENS

On Being Gay In Sierra Leone

An impressive exhibition in Hull entitled The House of Kings and Queens by Lee Price*.  The exhibition documented life in what was effectively a safe house for gay and trans people in Freetown, Sierra Leone (a city with which Hull is twinned).  Although female gay sex is not illegal in the country and the law against male gay sex is seldom enforced, homophobia is widespread for cultural and religious reasons.  Life for those who are openly homosexual or non-mainstream is tough and the focus of the exhibition was the half-life to which the openly LGBTQ are condemned there.  The text accompanying the photographs spoke of the cloud of secrecy in which gay Sierra Leoneans have to live and sought to portray the sense of liberation which they feel in the house.  I felt that the photographs showed more of the secrecy and less of the liberation.  Many of them showed figures glimpsed through doorways or looking out of windows and throughout there was a suggestion of longing, of inside and outside, and of estrangement.  There was a sadness and a darkness which was emphasised by the deeper tones and slight underexposure of the printing.  Many of the subjects were shown involved in minor tasks, or standing/sitting/lying listlessly, which added to the sense of waste or disengagement.  Some photographs depict and some suggest. Many of the photos in this exhibition seemed to me to straddle difficult ground by doing both – like a sentence which seems clear on first reading but which carries undertones that may surface long after you have read it.  Although ostensibly about the plight of gay people they could be read more generally as speaking of the mental and physical isolation which seems to be such a defining characteristic of modern times.  

(*I haven't been able to trace a website for Lee but if you google his name and the exhibition title you can find out about him and how he came to make the series.)

AUGUST SANDER

Seeing It For Real

To Tate Liverpool for the August Sander exhibition, Portraying A Nation.  Sander set out to do just that- to portray an entire nation – through an exhaustive photographic survey which placed the individual firmly within a social taxonomy determined by class, occupation and other factors.  It was an immense enterprise and I find it now, a hundred years later, rather an overwhelming one for the viewer.  You can still get what seems to be the whole series of photographs in several volumes but what we can make of such a thing almost a hundred years after its inception?  Thinking has changed so much and, since the second world war, political, economic, and philosophical trends have been to emphasise individuality rather than submerge it. Is the interest of Sander’s work therefore purely historical or is it sociological – can it still be amirror for us to look at ourselves?  The curators of the Tate exhibition seem to take the former view.  They see his photographs as being a history of the Weimar Republic:  “The faces of those he photographed show traces of this collective historical experience”.  I looked hard but I couldn’t see that.   The key to his work seems to me to lie more in the social sciences – the study of society and social relationships.  These are comparative portraits: each exists in relation to the others.  So a commentary which explored then contemporary ideas in sociology, psychology and ethnography might have opened the photographs up more for the visitor rather than a timeline of the rise of the Nazi party and the second world war.  Zero in on those faces: are they really so historical?   It is a fascinating exhibition: it is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle just as the picture is emerging from the disparate pieces – a picture which we would be hard put to assemble today.     

GRAFTERS

History or Photographs?

This fine exhibition seems to have flown under the radar of the photographic world.  It was first at the People’s History Museum in Manchester and now is at the Industrial Museum in Bradford and it takes as its subject the photographic representation of workers.    Curator Ian Beesley has divided the photos into eight roughly chronological types from the early criminal portrait,  images of Victorian science and technology, worker as accessory, worker as unit of scale, the WW2 worker hero, self-representation, the combined workforce photo and industrial landscapes.  Only 121 photos in all but they stand as some sort of tribute to millions of forgotten souls who laboured in anonymity and who,  even when being photographed, were largely doing the boss’s bidding.  It is hard to categorise the exhibition:  part ethnographic, part documentary, part straight historical record and part celebration.  Both the commentary and the accompanying poetry of Ian McMillan implicitly invite the viewer to see the images as a record of exploitation, hard lives, unsafe work, child labour, threadbare clothes and grinding poverty and quite rightly so.  But personally I prefer to see them more as celebration.  They were a class but every doffer, ligger, fettler, burler, slubber, corer, stamper, tipstretcher and quencher was also an individual.  Photographs may be evidence for historians but they are invitations to reverie and contemplation too.  We stare at the photos and the subjects stare back at us.  Who knows what they thought of it all?  We may have the vantage point of history but looking at these photographs we can make an imaginative leap and discard it if we wish.

HOW MUCH!?

The Price Of Fame

I discovered a surprising fact the other day.  It was at a ‘meet the artist’ session at a photography exhibition that had just opened.  I didn’t much take to the photos but the photographer had some interesting things to say.  This exhibition been shown over ten times before at venues around the world over the last couple of years.  The photographer was hoping for some sort of breakthrough, I think.  The total cost of staging those ten plus shows to the photographer personally had been just short of £100,000.  I was staggered.  A publisher had offered a book deal but required a £25,000 down payment.  What’s going on here?  In the back pages of newspapers and magazines there used to be adverts on the lines of “Publishers Looking For Manuscripts”.  At first glance it might have looked legit. but everyone knew that these were vanity publishers.  You paid a lot for a little plus marketing, distribution and the rest was all up to you.   You get a better deal in the photobook since you don’t have to do the post-publication legwork and many of the books are beautiful objects but it still doesn’t look like a smart move financially or professionally.  Even if you get your book published how many people are going to buy it or even see it?  It simply doesn’t seem an efficient way of getting your work before the public eye, if that is your aim.  You might get more people at the exhibition than would buy your book but you won’t get any royalties and the payback on any money you sink into it would be way over the horizon.  I wonder if we are in a bubble here: not an artistic one but an economic one.

STRANGE AND FAMILIAR

Pinning The Brits Down

I saw this exhibition at the Barbican last year and since I was flagging by the end then I thought I would pop into Manchester Art Gallery and have a look at the second half again.  The exhibition is curated by Martin Parr and is about the way the UK has been portrayed by foreign photographers (twenty-two in all) over the past seven decades or so.  The first half is mostly what you would expect: telephone boxes, British bobbies, milk bottles on doorsteps, bowler hats and so on.  It plays to a certain view of the UK in the fifties and sixties.  What is interesting about the more modern work though is that the instant recognisability has gone and what emerges is a process of homogenisation.  The Rinejke Dijkstra portraits of clubbing girls, the Bruce Gilden close-ups, the Hans van der Meer football landscapes and the Axel Hutte housing estates could all have been taken more or less anywhere in western Europe.  There is very little that is recognisably British.  The Hans Eijkelboom slideshow really drives the point home. 

That poses quite a difficult curatorial problem.  You choose photographers because they have something to say and say it well but then what emerges when you put them all together is something else.  So you are caught between the ethnographical and the artistic/documentary.  What you put on the wall as a picture has become data. This is one of the most fascinating characteristics of the photograph.  Just when you have decided what you are looking at it becomes something else.  You just can’t pin a photograph down.