I Am Now You – Mother by Marcia Michael @ Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP is a charity that works internationally in photography and film, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights. ABP stands for the Association of Black Photographers.

Originally based in Brixton, ABP moved to a new, purpose-built gallery and offices at Rivington Place in Shoreditch in 2007. It is here that the ABP gallery is currently hosting two FREE exhibitions of photography.

I Am Now You – Mother by Marcia Michael

In I Am Now You – Mother Marcia Michael (b.1973) ‘visualises the act of matrilineage through the body of her mother, Myrtle McKnight.’ In practice, this means she has taken photos of herself and her mother, naked and clothed, sometimes alone, sometimes together.

I Am Now You – Mother, from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017) by Marcia Michael

I Am Now You – Mother from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017) by Marcia Michael

According to the introduction, Michael:

uses photography and oral history to retrieve lost and reimagined narratives of her matrilineal ancestry, creating an intimate dialogue between mother and daughter in order to visualise history from her mother’s memory.

In the artist’s words:

My desire is to recover a visual and aural narrative of my matrilineal history and reunite the present with the past. The body is testament to the refusal to forget. The body, my mother’s body, is all of my histories.

The introduction again:

Adapting call and response as a visual methodology, Michael’s call for historical understanding is met by her mother’s response permitting the search to be mediated through her body. The resulting visual conversation is unsettling in its revelatory rawness, and affirmative in its courageous offering: a ‘dialogue of matrilineage’.

In practice, it is the photos of Michael’s mother’s naked body which are most visually interesting. She’s no longer young and she is quite big, but these are – as I see them – big pluses. A lot of the youngish women artists I go to see take photos or videos of themselves naked (for example, Aneta Grzeszykowska, in the review of Calvert 22 I’ll publish tomorrow). Indeed Michael includes one striking photo of herself reclining in an armchair stark naked in this exhibition.

But most of us are not young and trim, and get quite sick of being bombarded by images of svelte young things in movies, adverts, on the internet, on TV, and even the art world.

Even in the art world, realistic depictions of the older human body, or of fat people, in less than pristine condition, looking less than ‘buffed’, ‘ripped’ and ‘hot’, are relatively rare, photos even rarer. (This is part of the reason I immediately loved the paintings of Jenny Saville when I saw them at the Sensation exhibition 21 years ago.)

So while I quite liked the obvious visual comparisons and connections which Michael’s draws with her mother – like the double portrait in the painting below, wearing the same dress – hopefully you agree with me that the really visually interesting part of the work is the central shot of their bare bodies, skin against skin. It’s not rude or provocative. It is, in purely aesthetic terms, a really interesting composition of curves and contours, a study in human flesh, such as artists from Rubens to Freud have made, shot in a wonderfully intimate way which captures the play of light and shade on brown skin.

In purely visual terms, it is a fascinating and entrancing composition.

And then it has this added layer of meaning, which is that it is the juxtaposition of the bodies of a mother and her grown-up daughter. If you have children of your own, it comes freighted with all kinds of added meanings and memories of your own cuddle time with your kids, evocative of that childhood intimacy, but also marking the distance from it which adult bodies have travelled.

Partus Sequitur Ventrem from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017) by Marcia Michael

Partus Sequitur Ventrem from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017) by Marcia Michael

Many of the photographs’ titles include the Latin Partus sequitur ventrem –  ‘that which is brought forth follows the womb’.

This historical law, which decreed that the social status of the mother is inherited by the child, shapes the mother for Michael as both maker and marker of history.

Some of the works – tryptichs or juxtapositions of three images – really drill down into the notion of the body, exploring all the strange and plangent postures it is capable of. I was particularly troubled by this one. As in a religious tryptich the left and the right panels are in one style, and act as introductions or pointers towards the central one whose importance, here is emphasised by the way it is in colour, contrasting with the outer panels’ black and white.

Both types of image are unnerving. The one on the right is in shadow and hard to make out, but the image on the left is well lit and this makes the marks on the back all the more striking and obtrusive. What are they? I happen to be reading about slavery in a  history of America so thoughts of whippings and beatings sprang to mind, but these marks cannot possibly be caused by anything like that. Can they? What are they?

And the central image of the two female bodies, intimately linked, entirely stripped of any sexual or sensual connotations, become studies in the shapes the body makes, and – again – almost abstract studies of light and shade, light falling on the central thigh and the buttock above it, contrasting with other darker shadowed areas of the image.

Partus Sequitur Ventrem, from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017)

Partus Sequitur Ventrem, from the series The Object of My Gaze (2015-2017)

What does each of these images do to the mind and imagination, what do they say? And how much more your reactions are complicated by their placement next to each other.

All the wall labels, the introduction and Michael’s own statements emphasise the theme of the mother and the handing down of identity from mother to daughter – no doubt that was the conscious aim of the project. But the impact of the images, on the viewer less limited or restricted by this perspective, is much bigger, much weirder, much more puzzling and uncanny.

Remembering You Remember Me

There’s also a video, projected onto one wall, titled Remembering You Remember Me. (In this installation photo, you can see the tryptich or single photos of Michael and her mother on the left-hand wall, and then how the right-hand wall is covered with a blown-up photo of woodland, trees and tracks; and how it is onto this backdrop that the video is projected.)

Installation view of I Am Now You - Mother

Installation view of I Am Now You – Mother

In this video a very old, white-haired Myrtle McKnight is presented in five simultaneous streams next to each other, in each one each retelling the birth of her child.

The words, and the sounds we all make when speaking (the ers and ums) create a powerful and disorientating effect. It reminded me of some of Steve Reich’s early minimalist works where tapes of human speech are spliced and repeated with variations to produce disorientiating and challenging sounds.

Here, the many voices of Myrtle McKnight, set against each other, create a more troubling effect, an unearthly, sometimes angular and discordant, strangely poignant sense of the fragility of human identity.


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Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta by Franklyn Rodgers @ Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP is a charity that works internationally in photography and film, cultural identity, race, representation and human rights. ABP stands for the Association of Black Photographers.

Originally based in Brixton, ABP moved to a new, purpose-built gallery and offices at Rivington Place in Shoreditch in 2007. It is here that the ABP gallery is currently hosting two FREE exhibitions of photography by black photographers.

Devotion: A Portrait of Loretta by Franklyn Rodgers

For some years photographer Franklyn Rodgers has been taking large-scale portrait photos of the most important person in his life, his mother, Loretta. More recently he has branched out into taking portraits of Loretta’s circle of friends and family. To quote the man himself:

Devotion – A Portrait of Loretta represents the connectivity between faith, family and friends, echoed in the wider social experience assigned to them in their time and location. It is a meditation on strength, resilience, fortitude and the ability to endure. It is an idea through which the connectivity it brokers opens up the reconfiguring of survival, rooted firmly in the legacy of a cultural matriarch. To pay homage, both as Loretta’s son and as an artist, in recognition of a way of thinking that represents a coping mechanism to collectively overcome, forgive and conversely transform: a process of creation through a different lens. Evidenced over time in the cultural landscape that now defines our nation.

The photos are enormous and capture a staggering amount of detail.

Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006 by Franklyn Rodgers

Loretta Rodgers, 31 January 2006 by Franklyn Rodgers

Friendships

As the director of ABP, Dr Mark Sealy MBE, puts it:

Loretta and the devoted network of relationships that are presented in the exhibition could, if we so choose, unlock the face of our own humanity. ‘Identity is not only a departure from self; it is a return to self’ (French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas) This unlocking process, however, only becomes possible at the point in which we fully recognise the civil responsibility we have for both Loretta and her friends. The underlying theoretical question with which Rodgers’ photography works presents us fundamentally concerns our understanding of what it means to actually look into the human face.

Installation of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Installation view of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Confrontations

It is certainly true that the size of the portraits, and the way they are cropped very closely so as to be, literally, in your face, is almost forcing a response, coercing you to engage somehow, forcing us ‘to unlock the face of our own humanity’ maybe.

Mrs Iris Simms (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Mrs Iris Simms (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Care

Probably the portraits are a mirror and you project onto them your own concerns. Because I cared for both my parents as they died, and have been the main carer for my children, these enormous portraits trigger emotions of care and concern in me. These women look as if they have lived. They look as if they have suffered. I found myself uncomfortably moved by them. Unsettled by their unrelenting gaze.

Sealy again:

Through his photographs of his mother Rodgers invites us to enter the sacred realm of human recognition. In his hands the camera is repurposed as a device that aids the case for greater safekeeping and care across the human condition.

Installation of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Installation view of Devotion by Franklyn Rodgers

Technical fluency

But maybe that’s just me, my life experiences, which I’m projecting onto them.

On the technical front, I am astonished at the pin-prick clarity of such enormous prints. Having recently seen the vast photographic prints by Andreas Gursky at the Hayward Gallery, and the massive photos by Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery, I realise that we are living in an age when photos can now be blown-up and printed on an enormous scale without losing – in fact, enhancing – a tremendous, an almost intimidating, clarity of detail.

But whereas Prager’s and Gursky’s photos are almost entirely staged to capture large groups of people or (in Prager’s case) bizarre scenes, Rodgers’ photos obviously have a completely different feel. I wouldn’t call it ‘intimate’, they’re too big for that. But about as close up as you can get to a human face. And determined to capture every pore and blemish of the skin.

Looking again, I realise that all the faces are completely expressionless. I think it was at the National Portrait Gallery’s 2017 exhibition that I noticed that not a single one of the 70 or so portraits on display showed a single person smiling, let alone laughing i.e. it’s a common trope or convention of 21st century portraiture, to remain completely expressionless..

Maybe smiling or laughing immediately limits a portrait, because the viewer knows what mood the sitter is in. Smiling or laughter defuse the tension between viewer and portrait.  Whereas depicting blank unsmiling portraits makes the face so much more powerful, inscrutable and mysterious.

What, you find yourself asking, is this array of senior citizens thinking? About their experiences of being black in Britain? About the nature of identity in a society mediated by images? About what’s for dinner? Who knows.

Time

As T.S. Eliot wrote a hundred years ago, ‘Time is time and runs away.’

Sealy again:

The act of photographing his mother’s face also marks Rodgers’s awareness of time moving uncontrollably fast. This sense of temporal dis-ease creates the conditions of having to act in the present and take responsibility for the now. Rodgers’ photographs of his mother and her circle of friends are therefore an invitation to look into their faces as part of a self-reflective journey to one’s own humanity, because, ultimately, it is only when we can recognise all the Lorettas of the world that we can then recognise ourselves.

Loretta Rodgers, Crown (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

Loretta Rodgers, Crown (2013) by Franklyn Rodgers

It’s a room full of intense, brilliant and powerfully questioning portraits.


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Shirley Baker: Personal Collection @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Three years ago the Photographers’ Gallery held the first ever solo exhibition of acclaimed street photographer Shirley Baker (1932-2014).

Now, downstairs in the Print Sales Gallery of the Photographers’ Gallery, for the next month, there’s a small display of 27 rare vintage and lifetime prints from Baker’s own collection, each one stunning in its own way, and all for sale.

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Slum clearance

Housing was a critical issue after the Second World War. House building had ceased for six years and some 475,000 houses destroyed or made uninhabitable.

Unhygienic and rundown slums, which had been widely reported on between the wars, remained a big problem in many cities, especially in the manufacturing towns and cities of the North, where they had been thrown up in a hurry by Victorian developers and then left to decay.

In 1956 the Conservative Government under Anthony Eden passed The Slum Areas improvement and clearance Act 1956. The Act defined ‘a slum’ as:

An area unfit for human habitation because of dilapidated buildings, overcrowding, faulty arrangement and design of buildings, narrowness or faulty arrangement of streets, lack of ventilation, light or sanitation facilities or any other combination of these factors.

The act was one of several measures, and new funds, designed to encourage local authorities to clear out the old Victorian slums and build bright new airy homes fit to live in. There was much debate among architects, planners and authorities, about how best to rehouse the people whose homes were being knocked down, and one result was the proliferation of new concrete tower blocks across all England’s cities and towns in the 50s, and especially the 60s and 70s.

Manchester 1968 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1968 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Altogether some 900,000 slums were cleared in the 1950s and 1960s and two and a half million people were re-housed.

Shirley Baker

Born in Kersal, north Salford, Lancashire, Baker’s family moved to Manchester when she was two. After school, she studied photography at Manchester College of Technology, and took other courses at Regent Street Polytechnic in London and the London College of Printing.

Baker started working as an industrial photographer for fabric manufacturers Courtaulds before working freelance, as a photographer for other businesses and as a writer and photographer on various magazines, books and newspapers, including The Guardian.

In 1960 she began work as a lecturer at Salford College of Art and it was during the fifteen years that she held this post, that she made a huge collection of unposed, spontaneous photographs of people living in the area in Salford and Manchester during a time of massive slum clearance.

Manchester 1967 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1967 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

According to Baker she didn’t consciously embark on what would turn out to be such a prolonged project:

Wandering the unpicturesque streets of Manchester and Salford with a camera seemed quite crazy to most people at the time.

But she saw it as her personal duty to be there with her camera, to represent peoples’ experiences.

Mums and kids

Manchester 1963 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1963 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Around 90 per cent of the images feature women and children. Men are conspicuous by their absence. While the photographer had a particular interest in the role of women as mothers, carers and nurturers, there is also a practical reason: the men were mostly at work during the weekdays, which is when she went a-shooting.

The men you tend to see are those at the end of their lives, sitting around, watching time drift… and a few others who couldn’t get work, who you might call feckless.

The back-to-backs were squalid and crowded, with families often sharing two rooms and few if any green spaces. Deprived of playgrounds and parks, little girls pushed their dollies among the cracked pavements and boys set up cricket games in the rubble-strewn streets.

Time and patience

Baker was frustrated in attempts to find a permanent job in the 1950s, partly because she was a woman in a man’s world. it was only after she married a doctor in 1957 that she gained a measure of financial freedom and, crucially, time – time to wander the streets of Salford and Manchester, time to get to know them intimately and time to set up her camera in good locations and…. wait.

Her photographs have a sense of planned spontaneity. The settings seem to have been carefully chosen and framed, but with the human subjects within these frames acting independently and naturally. Part of the ‘beauty’ or the effect, is in the contrast between the careful framing (generally involving architectural elements, houses and walls) and then unexpected spontaneity of the people.

Her technique was to observe quietly, camera set up, waiting for something to enter the frame and fill it with life. And what life! Again and again her photos demonstrate the triumph of the human spirit over real poverty and deprivation. And cheeky kids. Long suffering mums and cheeky kids up to no good.

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

As she explained in an interview:

Whole streets were disappearing and I hoped to capture some trace of the everyday life of the people who lived there. I wanted to photograph the mundane, even trivial aspects of life not being recorded by anyone else. My sympathies lay with the people who were forced to exist miserably, often on end, sometimes years, whilst demolition went on all around them.

Some squatted in old buildings, trying to hang on to the life they knew. They didn’t have much. Things were decided for them…

What happened next

Baker’s photos capture the reality of what it meant when Manchester councils embarked on their programme of tearing down Victorian terraced houses to make room for larger, ‘modern’, low-rise flats in areas such as Salford and Hulme.

She saw the process as a needless attack on the street life of the area’s poor but vibrant communities, reducing the areas families had lived in for generations to smouldering rubble.

Salford 1964 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Salford 1964 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

These new ‘brutalist’ flats and tower blocks (such as the infamous Hulme Estate) were a utopian attempt to solve the housing crisis in the Manchester area at the time, enthusiastically supported by architects, designers, planners and councillors.

However, within 20 years, due to poor construction, high crime rates, and pest infestations, many of these buildings went the same way as their terraced forefathers, only with new layers of urban alienation – rotting windows, broken lifts, smelling of piss, covered in graffiti, crack dens. As one writer commented:

The upper floors had wide walkways which were envisaged as ‘sophisticated streets in the sky’ but which ended up providing handy escape routes for drug dealers and other ne’er-do-wells who could make a quick getaway by bike.

This is why I have an abiding dislike or suspicion of architects and town planners: their forebears sold millions of British citizens down the river, condemning them to live, raise children and die in dirty, faulty, crumbling, crime-infested blocks of flats which, from time to time, go up in flames like fireworks (Grenfell Tower, built in 1974).

These are my pictures. They are the observations of one person. And they tell only a fraction of the story.

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

Manchester 1966 © Estate of Shirley Baker. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery

For sale

The 27 works by Shirley Baker which are on display in the Print Sales Gallery of the Photographers’ Gallery, many of them rare and vintage prints, are all for sale. Prices range from £750 to £2,500 plus VAT for stamped, annotated and signed prints.

A video

On YouTube there’s a slideshow of Baker’s photos made for an exhibition held at the Lowry a few years ago.


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Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Silver Lake Drive is a major new exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, the first mid-career survey of American photographer and filmmaker, Alex Prager (b.1979). The exhibition stretches over two floors, tracing Prager’s career especially over the last ten years, bringing together 40 photographs and all six of her films to date.

Be warned: I loathed this exhibition. It epitomises for me almost everything I hate about modern America, modern art and modern culture.

3:14pm, Pacific Ocean, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

3:14pm, Pacific Ocean, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

The end of America

Let’s take a moment to consider, quite literally, where Alex Prager is coming from – the United States of America.

Although it has by far the largest economy in the world ($20.4 trillion, compared to China’s $14 trillion and Japan’s $5 trillion), is at the forefront of the digital revolution, and bombards the world with its cultural products and brands, to the educated outsider it sometimes seems as if America has become, in the past generation or so, in many ways a failing state. Consider:

– America’s war on terror, its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, its extraordinary rendition, its black op sites, its legalising of torture and its waterboarding, its use of drone warfare to bring death from the skies all across the Muslim world.

– America’s dire race relations, its black men shot on a weekly basis by its racist police, home of the largest prison population in the world (2.2 million), mostly blacks and Hispanics.

– America’s war on drugs, kicked off by President Nixon back in 1971 and a dismal failure, 21 million Americans now battle serious drug addictions, the curator of the Thomas Cole art exhibition was telling me last week how terrifying the scale and destruction of the opioid epidemic is becoming.

– Entire American cities like Detroit, Birmingham and Flint have gone bankrupt, abandoned in smouldering ruins, urban wastelands, blighted generations.

– America’s high school massacres (23 so far this year) are just the most tip of by far the highest rate of murder by firearm in the developed world, some 11,000 homicides involving guns occurred in 2016, but despite this, the pitiful inability of America’s lawmakers to rein in gun ownership.

– America’s shameful healthcare system which condemns scores of millions of citizens (11% of Americans have no health insurance) to misery, unnecessary pain and death.

– America’s grotesque inequality, with 750,000 Americans sleeping rough every night and 21 percent of all children in poverty, a higher rate than any other developed country. In 2011 the 400 wealthiest Americans owned more wealth than the bottom 50% of all Americans combined.

– America’s elephantine consumption of resources, with 5% of the world’s population it consumes 25% of the world’s fossil fuels and creates half the world’s solid waste.

– America’s pioneering place in the forefront of consumer capitalism, vast corporations devoted to the creation of entirely false needs and wants, slick American marketing and merchandising of junk food, junk music and junk movies to screw money out of a glamour-bedazzled population of drones. Fat food and fizzy drinks rich in high-fructose corn syrup have helped just over 40% of Americans to be categorised as obese.

– America’s new wave of digital corporations busy embedding surveillance devices (mobile phones and tablets) in every home in the world, recording every phone call, tracking all your movements, logging every ‘like’, in order to build up data profiles of every human on the planet on a scale the Stasi or the KGB could only dream of.

– America’s rotten political culture which means the two main parties can barely talk to each other, a paralysing political polarisation which regularly prevents the signing-off of the federal budget and so brings the entire government to the brink of collapse. America with its Tea Party and its Moral Majority and its President Trump. Nations get the leaders they deserve and so America awarded itself a bullshit artist, a dumb-ass, know-nothing, braggart, pussy-grabbing bully-boy.

This is America today.

Thank you Lord Jesus for Donald Trump

Thank you Lord Jesus for Donald Trump (Photo NOT by Alex Prager, courtesy of Business Insider)

Why fetishise American culture?

Why on earth would any other nation look up to or respect this toxic, spoilt, inequitable, over-privileged, environment-destroying, resource-stripping, war-mongering, increasingly unhappy and fractured country?

But despite all this, the British cultural élite loves America. Film critics, art critics, literature critics, theatre critics, ballet critics, music critics, photography critics fall over themselves to praise the flood of cultural imports from the land of hyper-capitalism, drug abuse, gun violence and its mindless, debasing, consumer culture which pours over Britain and Europe like mass-marketed, slush-puppie-flavoured effluent (this week’s cultural highlights including Solo: A Star Wars Movie, Deadpool 2, Jurassic World and Ocean’s 8).

Alex Prager’s America

To me, Alex Prager’s photographs and films come right from the core of this drugged-out, unwittingly privileged, terrifyingly shallow and superficial culture. It takes a lot of effort to be this heartlessly narcissistic.

The Big Valley: Susie and Friends (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Susie and Friends (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The big picture

Americans like big. Big Mac, Big Whopper, extra fries, large Coke, Cinemascope, three-D movies, Technicolor, widescreen, obesity, surplus, excess.

Same here. Prager’s photos are enormous, so big that each one gets a wall to itself.

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery

Not only big, but very LOUD – overlit and packed with pin-prick, crystal-clear, digitally-enhanced details, a surfeit, a superfluity, a plethora of minutiae.

There are no out-of-focus backgrounds in Prager’s photos, no receding depths of mystery. Nothing is mysterious, not visually mysterious. There is job lot after job lot of Americans posed and photoed in hyper-real, digital clarity.

Sets and actors

What is the source of this hyper-reality?

Well, from the start of her career Prager’s approach has been to shoot on movie sets, creating carefully staged scenes heightened by hyper-styled costumes, over-makeup, bright lighting and the use of a richly saturated colour palette, all of which are designed to give the images a relentless visual intensity.

There is nowhere for the eye to rest. There are no shadows or out of focus bits to provide light and shade.

Thus, all of the people in this photo are actors, hired for the job, elaborately dressed, made-up, staged and arranged in order to create an entirely fake composition, posing as a slice of reality, while all the time knowingly signposting its own artificiality.

The main strategy of all Prager’s photos (and films) is to draw attention to their own artificiality.

Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach), 2013 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach) 2013 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

That’s it. If you like elaboration, artifice, contrivance, kitsch and camp and fakery, then you’ll love the arch, knowing tone of Prager’s work. You’ll love the way her ‘Americans’ dress in a distinctively off-kilter way: the women generally wearing 1960s hairdos and dresses, many of the men sporting hats as if they’re extras from the Mad Men TV series.

Anaheim, 2017 © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Anaheim (2017) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Grist for intellectual theorists

If you’re an intellectual who likes this kind of artifice and contrivance, this is precisely the kind of knowing, self-referentiality which has been celebrated and theorised by (predominantly French) critics for the past 60 years: the names of Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault spring to mind and I’m sure appropriate texts can be mined from all of them to pad out descriptions of Prager’s hypertextuality and cultural intersections, with maybe a splash of Deleuze and Guattari thrown in, not forgetting Jean Baudrillard who theorised that reality had ceased to exist since we now live in a world entirely mediated by screens and images.

It is art designed to go straight from cultural producer to cultural analyst without its feet touching the ground.

Installation view of Alex prager at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of Alex Prager at the Photographers’ Gallery

And if you’re into film theory, there is literally no end to what you could find to write about Prager’s referencing of her 1960s filmic look and style, her use of actors and scenes and so on. And that’s before you get around to the fact that she has, with a kind of deadening inevitability, herself started making films.

Or, as the exhibition introduction puts it:

Prager’s distinctive works cross the worlds of art, fashion, photography and film, exposing the human melodrama and dark unsettling undercurrents that are threaded through her subject matter. Referencing the aesthetic principles of mid-twentieth century Hollywood cinema and fashion photography, as well as such photographers as William Eggleston, Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman, each of her images is packed with a multitude of emotional layers and narrative possibilities.

Are they ‘packed with a multitude of emotional layers’, though? Do they ‘expose the human melodrama and dark unsettling undercurrents that are threaded through her subject matter’?

Where is the melodrama in a load of actors posing on a set made to look like a beach?

Influences

Picking up on the photographers mentioned in that last sentence, some of Diane Arbus (1923-71)’s magnificent photos of circus ‘freaks’ were featured in the recent Barbican exhibition about Another Kind of Life. I’ve loved Arbus’s work ever since I watched a documentary about her back in the 1970s. She holds an unflinching lens up to a bewildering array of life’s outsiders, freaks and unfortunates. Unlike Prager, Arbus has soul (albeit a troubled, sometimes bewildered kind of soul).

Cindy Sherman seems a much more relevant comparison. Born in 1954, Sherman is known for her ‘conceptual portraits’ i.e. where she or a model dresses up in a persona, generally of a troubled, challenged or weeping woman, before photographing herself.

This approach, of dressing up and performing for the camera, in its knowing artificiality, in its arch mockery of any genuine feeling or emotion, seems to me a direct precedent for Prager.

Dazed women in the photos of Alex Prager

About half the time Prager’s photos focus on women, often in distress or with the blank ‘so what’ look of Valiumed-up housewives.

Here a characteristically thirty-something woman, dressed in a characteristically retro, 1960s dress and jacket, is having trouble coping with a flock of pigeons. A reference to Hitchcock’s The Birds, by any chance? Fancy writing an essay about Hitchcock and Prager? Go right ahead. Hundreds already have. Thousands will…

The empty road and dominating power lines (along with the comedy knock knees) emphasise the sense of abandonment, alienation and helplessness. Help me, help me.

The Big Valley: Eve (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Eve (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Crowds

Prager’s best-known series is probably Crowd which depicts crowds on the beach, in airport lobbies, in seats at the theatre, each figure presented in isolated poses with a kind of hyper-realistic, super sharp focus. The curators think that these photos draw:

attention to individual characters and stories and hint at interior lives, separate from outward appearances.

Personally, I found them contrived, artificial and intensely irritating. Note the late 1950s/early 1960s clothes and haircuts in this photo, reminiscent, in its fake homeliness, of the Back to the Future movies.

Orchestra East, Section B (2016) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong.Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Orchestra East, Section B (2016) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The only upside to looking at some of the photos was that, after a while, I noticed the recurrence of certain faces, presumably the same actors dressed and set up in different scenarios.

In particular, I began to hope that the light-brown-haired woman dominating this shot, and who appears in a number of other photos, was really Matt Lucas who might at any moment start to mutter catchphrases from Little Britain. ‘Computer says no,’ maybe, or, ‘Want that one’, which would be particularly suitable for American gluttony.

But no. My puerile sense of humour is way out of place. There is no humour, no warmth, no emotion, not a flicker of irony or sparkle in any of these photos. Just digitally print-perfect robots dressed as people, sometimes in crowds (on the beach, in the theatre, drowning in the sea) sometimes solitary women having breakdowns, sometimes in deliberately bizarre and contrived situations.

3:32pm, Coldwater Canyon, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

3:32pm, Coldwater Canyon, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist

For fans and devotees of Prager, I can see how there is not only masses to write about her artful ‘intersection’ of Hollywood, consumer culture and the artifice of everyday life but, also, and inevitably, with a feminist perspective on the role of women in her photos (and films).

American feminism that is, feminism drenched in American cultural values i.e. a particular type of rich, white entitlement. (‘Hillary should have won. It’s our time. Me too. I want more. Give us more.’) Thus the curators:

The female figure functions as a central protagonist in Prager’s tableaux and is singled out for attention through composition, camera angle and costume. The women in her frames are often shot in extreme close-up to capture exaggerated emotion, wear highly styled and codified clothes and sport elaborate, improbable hairstyles.

The Big Valley: Desiree (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

The Big Valley: Desiree (2008) © Alex Prager Studio and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong. Courtesy Alex Prager Studio, Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

Does this photo of a woman capture her ‘exaggerated emotion’? I’d have thought that that is exactly and precisely what all of Prager’s photos do not do. Surely that should read ‘exaggerated indifference’.

Dehumanised

On a different floor of the Photographers’ Gallery there’s currently a wonderful exhibition of black and white photos by English photographer, Tish Murtha, a documentary photographer who took quick, on-the-hoof but nonetheless beautifully composed and deeply moving photos of the unemployed, the poor and wretched of her hometown Newcastle, during the 1970s and 80s.

In almost every one of her photographs the humour, the cockiness, the indomotable charm of her subjects leaps out, alongside her own empathy, her compassion, her concern and her tremendous artistry.

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers’ Gallery

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers’ Gallery

All these human qualities – care, compassion, empathy, humour, fun, larking about, playing, joking, being in real trouble, helping each other out, community and concern – every faculty and emotion which make human existence worthwhile, rich and full, seem to me to have been surgically removed from Prager’s artificial pictures of artificial people leading artificial lives.

It is as if someone has rewritten Ira Levin’s horror classic The Stepford Wives to celebrate the transformation of human beings into emotionless, perfectly made-up, lemon-dress-wearing zombies.

They are like photographic accompaniments to David Byrne’s many songs about rich white Americans having nervous breakdowns.

You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here? (Once in A Lifetime by Talking Heads, 1980)

Alex Prager’s films

Having spent so much time working with actors, sets and make-up it was pretty inevitable that Prager would take the small further step into the ‘medium of film’ itself. According to the gallery:

In her films, (which draw upon film noir, as well as the work of Maya Deren and Alain Resnais), women take centre stage in open-ended narratives, portraying a range of sharply contrasting emotional states – often with the camera trained in extreme close-up on their faces.

Her first film, Despair starred Bryce Dallas Howard, while her second short La Petite Mort (2012) starred French actress Judith Godreche, with narration from Gary Oldman. Prager sees these immersive film installations as ‘full-sensory versions’ of her photographs; an attempt ‘to show the before, now and after of one of my images.’

Indeed, the exhibition presents Prager’s entire filmic oeuvre on various monitors and in darkened rooms around the gallery, her oeuvre to date consisting of six films, namely:

2010 Despair starring Bryce Dallas Howard
2011 Touch of Evil
2012 La Petite Mort starring Judith Godreche, Gary Oldman
2012 Sunday
2013 Face in the Crowd starring Elizabeth Banks
2015 La Grande Sortie starring Emilie Cozette, Karl Paquette

Some of them are on YouTube. Judge for yourself.

Despair (2010)

The use of Bryce Dallas Howard, star of the unnecessary Jurassic World (2015, box office $1.672 billion) and the just-released Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Jurassic World but with an exploding volcano) says it all.

When Howard throws herself out of the window it isn’t as a result of any realistic emotion or psychology, but as emptily as a fashion statement. And she doesn’t fall, she floats elegantly, dreamily down as you might float on Valium or opioids, floating high in American La La Land where nothing means anything, where any human not on a screen or the cover of a fashion magazine fills you with stress and anxiety and the wish to escape.

‘Portraying a range of sharply contrasting emotional states’? Really? Surely it’s the opposite.

La Petite Mort (2012)

A student friend of mine, very stressed about his degree course, one night made a list of all the books he’d have to read in order to get the good degree everyone expected of him. He left it on his study table and walked down to the railway station. It was late at night, no one around, so he climbed down onto the line and walked it a bit, before carefully laying down with his neck precisely on the rail. A train came along and decapitated him.

Compare and contrast the messy, deeply upsetting reality of death-by-train with the opioid dream of Prager’s female character in this pretentious film. Hit by a joke train from a Keystone Cops movie, she flies cartoon-style through the air and lands in a pond from which she emerges with her hair totally untouched by the water, Valium-open-eyed at the whole experience.

I can hear a brainless Valley Girl, film studies student cooing over it: “It was like so totally, you know, like completely random, like so crazee, it’s just such a cool film, don’t you think she looks so cool when she comes out of the water, it’s like such a great idea, I totally love her films.”

For me films like this represent the death of film, the death of psychology, the death of intelligence, the death of culture.

Broadly speaking American culture reflects American society and American politics, which are all in a kind of life-after-death situation. The entire reason for there being a nation called America as a refuge from troublesome Europe, as a place to go and build a new life, as a place to live out the American Dream –

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…

has evaporated. It is dead, defunct. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. The Wild West frontier was closed a century ago, there is nowhere left to emigrate to, no escape. Americans are all locked in with each other now, with the result that they over-eat, take vast quantities of mind-numbing drugs, and go on shooting sprees at their local schools or shopping malls.

America voted for a leader whose Big Idea is erecting huge walls to keep them at bay – them, the outsiders, the Mexicans, the Muslims, the enemies – and hunkering down in a paranoid Fortress State, making the misery more bearable by munching opioid painkillers and watching Alex Prager movies.

No reason left to exist and yet 325 million people are condemned to go on living in the wreckage of all those historical illusions and expectations, they don’t know why – taking mind-suppressing drugs to cope with the suburban accidie, staring blankly at their multiplicity of screens – toneless, affectless, incapable of communicating with other people, staring in bewilderment at each other as if they’re magazine adverts come to life.

Still from Despair by Alex Prager

Still from Despair by Alex Prager. Help. Help me.

Do any of the people in Prager’s films actually talk? You know, like, maybe talk to another person, to another human being? Speak? Communicate?

No. Because they are each trapped within the doped-out prisons of their own consciousnesses. Trapped in the solipsistic nightmare which is contemporary America. Lost, in every sense.

La Grande Sortie (2015)

Paris. Style. Fashion. The ballet. The stage. Performance. Artifice. Parting lips of sexual arousal. The uncanny. The sinister. The face in the audience. Help. HELP!

The unhappy country

Pity the Americans. So rich, and so unhappy.

“Over a broader time frame, our subjective well-being has declined across the board in each and every state, even as the economy has sprung back to life. America is growing increasingly unhappy.”

For me, Prager’s photographs and films – highly professional, carefully contrived and immaculately finished as they undoubtedly are – are at the same time blank-faced symptoms of America’s epic cultural and social decline.

Through them an entire nation is crying, ‘Help us. We don’t know how to talk to each other, how to communicate, how to feel anything any more. We don’t know how to live. Please, please help us.’

The neediness of all these rich white Americans made me want to puke.

But then again, maybe you like it. I’ve tried to present enough evidence a) for you to make your own mind up, and b) to explain my own, personal, rather extreme, anaphylactic abreaction to her work.

1970s album art

I had a strong sense of déjà vu all the way through the show’s two floors, a sense that I had seen its slick, gimmicky, elaborate heartlessness somewhere before.

It was only later, scanning the Intertubes, that I realised Prager’s photos remind me of rock album cover art from the 1970s, which was also designed to convey a sense of alienation, contrivance and cynicism by creating apparently realistic scenes offset by jarring details.

For example:

On the Beach by Neil Young

On the Beach by Neil Young (1974)

Or:

Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd, cover art by Hipgnosis

Wish You Were Here (1975) by Pink Floyd, cover art by Hipgnosis

These albums are both over forty years old. Nothing, it seems, changes in southern California, land of rich white people in therapy and on tranquilisers and, like, God, so depressed.


The book of the exhibition

Thames and Hudson are publishing a hardback survey of Prager’s work, Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive to coincide with the exhibition. It contains 120 photographs summarising Prager’s career to date.

Curator

Silver Lake Drive is curated by Nathalie Herschdorfer and produced in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts Le Locle.

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Tish Murtha: Works 1976 – 1991 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

This is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, full of fantastically acute, beautifully shot and desperately moving photos of urban poverty in the England of the 1970s and 80s.

Patricia ‘Tish’ Murtha, born in 1956, was surely a street and documentary photographer of genius. Look at these photos! As inspired, vivid and alive as her chaotic, unpredictable subjects.

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers' Gallery

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha and The Photographers’ Gallery

Works 1976 – 1991 is a major exhibition of Murtha’s work being held at the Photographers’ Gallery, a retrospective of an exceptionally talented photographer who sought out and recorded the social deprivation and instability of 1970s and 80s Britain through a series of blistering black and white photographs.

Using both vintage and contemporary prints, the exhibition reviews the six major bodies of work or projects which Murtha undertook during her working life, namely:

  • Newport Pub (1976/78)
  • Elswick Kids (1978)
  • Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979)
  • Youth Unemployment (1980)
  • London by Night (1983)
  • Elswick Revisited (1987 – 1991)

Newport

In 1976, aged 20, Tish Murtha left her native Newcastle-upon-Tyne to study at the influential School of Documentary Photography at Newport College of Art, in Wales, under the guidance of Magnum photographer David Hurn.

Hurn contributes memories of Tish to the exhibition catalogue. Apparently, he and a colleague interviewed candidates for the course not by looking at their portfolios but by asking why candidates wanted to train as photographers. Murtha gave the pithiest reply – ‘I want to learn to take photographs of policemen kicking kids’ – and was offered a place on the spot. It was the right-on 70s, man.

The earliest series in this show, Newport Pub, dates from this period, Murtha went to photograph the realities of everyday life for the regulars of a typical public house, the oddly named ‘The New Found Out’, in a characteristically deprived area of the town.

Newport - Ex Miner - New Found out pub (1977) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Newport: An ex-miner in the New Found Out pub (1977) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Murtha felt an obligation to the deprived communities of her home in the North East, and had deliberately chosen a course of study which would make her a more effective photographer, one who could highlight the social disadvantages that she herself had suffered. This was to remain her lead motivation.

Elswick Kids

On returning to the North East, Murtha created a set of photos titled Elswick Kids, documenting the children playing on her local streets. Though not exhibited at the time, it led to her getting hired as a community photographer by the Side Gallery in Newcastle, as part of a government-funded scheme.

Even if there’s the suspicion that the sweet little things in this photo were posed or arranged, the kids running round in the background weren’t, and all of the Elswick Kids sequence, like all of the photos she ever took, are just stunningly composed, with an extraordinary gift for bringing out the humanity and life of kids and people, even in the most wretched and abject circumstances. Note the natural framing of the two rows of terraced houses out of focus but securing the composition. And just enough of the brick wall to give a base line and explain what the sweet little things are sitting on.

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Elswick Kids (1978) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

For me her eye for composition, for the way she frames the subjects, her impeccable feel for the correct angle of attack and the beautiful lines and geometry latent in the world around her, are breath taking.

Juvenile jazz bands

Murtha produced two bodies of work while on the scheme. One was Juvenile Jazz Bands which does what it says on the tin, documenting the children’s marching bands which were an important part of life in the North East.

Initially made with the backing of the band organisers, Murtha defied their expectations of glamorous images and instead produced a more critically-engaged imagery, focusing on the regimental drills and militaristic nature of the bands.

She was also drawn to the impromptu and unofficial Jazz Bands that sprung up, self-organised by the children who had been rejected from the official troupes, and Murtha paid them equal attention in the series.

The background of this photo reminds me of the crappy tea rooms in the shitty new town I grew up in. Plastic furniture, peeling paint over rotten wood. Streets lined with fag ends and chewing gum. Old dears with cheap hairdos shuffling along supported only by their worn out shopping trolleys.

The salient detail, what Roland Barthes called the punctum, ‘that accident which pricks, which bruises me’, the slight incident which brings the image alive, is the white shoe of the lady in the window. But there is much to savour in the way the marching baton has been caught at the moment it exactly parallels the rotting wooden lintel of the shop; the majorette’s left arms raised to create an angle between left and right arms. The stern look on her podgy face. And the extraordinary array of badges across her uniform.

Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Juvenile Jazz Bands (1979) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Youth Unemployment

Murtha’s interest in unemployed youth grew out of her own experiences and an earlier project she had created in Newcastle for the housing charity Shelter. In any case, it was all around her.

Shot in west Newcastle, Youth Unemployment combines dazzling images of poverty and boredom, a wonderfully alert sense of the subjects’ humanity, as well as her ever-present sense of architectural form i.e. her sense of the built environment as a stage set, her ability to line up the right actors against the right backdrops, backdrops which match the dereliction of place to the abandonment of people.

Murtha saw the dereliction of young lives up close and the people that populate her series were often friends, family and neighbours, living in an economy devastated by the closure of the North-East’s factories and mines.

Youth Unemployment (1981) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Youth Unemployment (1981) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Youth Unemployment is Murtha’s most celebrated body of work. It even made it to the level of real working politics: on the 8th February 1981, Murtha’s work was raised as a subject for debate in the House of Commons.

The Guardian’s photography critic Sean O’Hagan wrote about it:

There is much grittiness and poverty on display here… and, everywhere you look, class rears its divisive head. Tish Murtha’s black-and-white portrait of a couple lounging on a bed, watched from an adjacent cot by their curious child, is a study in enervation . . . [it] was taken in 1980. It could, though, be 1930.

Could photos like this be taken in 2018?

London by night

After the Youth Unemployment exhibition in 1981, Murtha moved to London where she was commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery to create a series on the sex industry in Soho for the group exhibition London by Night (1983).

Alas, sex. Favourite subject of newspaper and magazine editors, film-makers and curators everywhere.

Murtha gave her contribution a fillip by collaborating with one of the sex workers she met, Karen Leslie, who worked as a dancer and a stripper and supplied pithy, pungent texts for the final photographs, for example:

As far as most strippers and peep show dancers are concerned, audience is too elevated a term for the men who watch. They are punters and bloody wankers to boot.

The unavoidable glamour of professional photography

I found the text and photos a bit disjunctive, in the sense that while Leslie’s words are consistently jaded, cynical and disenchanted, Murtha’s photographs are cool and stylish.

Because, in my opinion, photographs – photographs of almost anything – are always glamorous. Not in a Vogue, 1930s glamour shoot kind of way. But ever since the 1930s there has been an ever-growing alternative definition of glamour, which (in the work of Weegee, for example) takes in gangsters and organised crime, speakeasies, dingy side alleys and so on. All those films noirs from the 1940s helped to invent the aesthetic of ‘the city by night’. The Naked City TV show from the 1950s shed a seedy-glamorous light on ‘the eight million stories in the naked city’. Raymond Chandler and a million other pulp fiction authors.

In Britain there had been a long tradition of gritty black and white photos of working class, with dingy back alleys and Hamburg strip joints featuring in the photos of Bill Brandt going back to the 1930s. The strip clubs of Soho had been attracting photographers for decades.

Anyway, my point is that city lowlife, especially nightclubs and the sex industry, had been lent a sort of glamour for decades before 1981. The subject matter is old. The new thing, the thing to savour, is Murtha’s brilliant talent for composition.

From the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

From the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Thus when the curators would have you believe that the image, below, together with Leslie’s text, ‘still stand as a powerful critique of the sex industry’, I think they’re wrong. I think they’re wrong to think there was anything very new or innovatory about commissioning a set of photos of Soho strip clubs. Seems like a very clichéd idea to me. And the selection of photos here don’t seem to me to provide much of ‘a powerful critique of the sex industry.’

Instead I found Murtha’s photos of Soho, of dark alleys, nightclub doorways, half dressed women hanging round under smashed streetlights, incredibly glamorous in a well-established, trashcan kind of way.

As evidence look at this photo. Is it ‘a powerful critique of the sex industry’? I don’t think so. I think Karen Leslie looks fantastic in this photo. Louche, wild, threatening, full of power, a feline animal, a woman-tiger about to pounce on the grubby men who’ve paid to see her tits and are finding themselves uncomfortably intimidated and threatened by her naked presence.

'Karen with Punters at the Sunset Strip Club’ from the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

‘Karen with Punters at the Sunset Strip Club’ from the series ‘London by Night’ (1983) by Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

I don’t think these photos are an ‘indictment’ of the sex industry – I think they’re a celebration of the power of the women who work in it. Like all Murtha’s other works, they celebrate the human spirit, the ability of imagination and humour to overcome even the most wretched, deprived and sordid of environments.

Elswick Revisited

The final series in the exhibition, Elswick Revisited, touches on racism and the impact of increasing cultural diversity in the area she knew so well i.e. Asian families were beginning to move in among the white working class, introducing new layers of disorientation, puzzlement, resentment and fear for all concerned.

These last photos capture the beginning of a transition from an entirely white working class culture to the contemporary multi-cultural society we all live in, with all its benefits and problems.

Urgent?

The curators think that:

Parallels to contemporary living conditions, austerity politics and growing social inequality, bring a timely urgency to viewing Murtha’s work.

Do they? I literally don’t know. I don’t know what life is like in 2018 Newcastle. Are there rows of burned-out buildings and derelict lots where filthy kids play, and crappy council flats where unemployed men lounge and smoke the days away, and pubs full of knackered ex-miners?

As Jesus said, the poor are always with us. No political system we know of really seems to have alleviated the problem. Who can say whether the condition of the chronically poor and disadvantaged is worse or better than it was for the unemployed and socially abandoned of 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998 or 2008? I know from social history that most working class homes in the 1960s did not have inside bathrooms or toilets. Now, in 2018, most do. In basic, practical matters, my impression is that the population of Britain is much better off today than it was in the 1960s and 70s.

Admired by photography students, lionised by the Guardian

Although Murtha’s photos are obviously driven by a very strong social conscience and a desire to publicise poverty in order to get something done about it, they exist, nowadays, in up-market galleries and expensive art books. As soon as these scenes became photographs they exited the ‘real’ world and entered the world of art and photography professionals.

In that respect Murtha’s pictures remind me of the brilliant photos of 1930s dustbowl farmers taken by Walker Evans. Taken with the obvious intention of publicising the chronic poverty of their subjects, the photos, or at least the original prints, have ended up becoming prized possessions in collections put together by people like multimillionaire glam rock musician Sir Elton John. His fabulous exhibition of black and white photos was the basis of a massive exhibition at Tate Modern, The Radical Eye, two years ago.

Is that what Walker Evans would have intended for his work, for his searing images of rural poverty? To be hung on the wall of Britain’s most famous multi-millionaire gay couple?

And so Tish Murtha’s photographs, will they change anything, will they help ameliorate ‘contemporary living conditions, austerity politics and growing social inequality’, will they do anything particularly urgent?

No. They will contribute to the aesthetic delight of the Photographers’ Gallery-going classes (including me, maybe you), and readers of the Guardian and other right-on publications, where they will no doubt be reviewed in tones of indignation and righteous anger, with an obligatory nod towards present-day arguments about food banks and immigration.

Karen on overturned chair (1980) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers' Gallery

Karen on an overturned chair (1980) Tish Murtha © Ella Murtha. Courtesy of Ella Murtha & The Photographers’ Gallery

Amid these voices, the photographs’ original motivation melts away. Their incorporation into contemporary matrices of art historical discourse – picked up and used as evidence for the culture of complaint and anger and victimisation we live amidst – will proceed effortlessly but also without result or effect.

But I think that Tish Murtha’s photographs, although they a) come from that particular time and impoverished place, and b) easily fit into contemporary discourse about austerity and inequality, although they encapsulate that era and empower that kind of discourse, they also transcend them.

Because those claims to interpretation and meaning are built on the subject matter of the photos.

But I think her art – her eye and technique, her brilliant knack for composition and framing, her use of light and shadow, her ability to catch ordinary street people on the wing, the depth of field she creates so we are consistently drawn deep in in into the images – all of this bespeaks a critical talent which far outlives her time and place.

She was a photographer of genius.


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Killed Negatives @ the Whitechapel Gallery

The Farm Security Administration Photography Program

The Great Depression of the 1930s wreaked havoc on America’s farmers. Collapse in demand coincided with several years of drought-like conditions to turn a lot of the mid-West into what contemporaries described as the ‘dustbowl’.

President Roosevelt instituted a broad set of economic policies designed to stimulate the whole U.S. economy, referred to as the New Deal. To help and support farmers struggling in real poverty, often close to the starvation line, Roosevelt set up the Resettlement Administration (1935–1937) which was succeeded by the Farm Security Administration (FSA).

Among numerous other strands of activity, the FSA commissioned a photography program which ran from 1935 to 1944. The aims were to send America’s best photographers to the poorest parts of the country to expose and document the terrible extent of American rural poverty. The shots were used in government publications to justify government spending and were widely distributed to newspapers and magazines to alert urban readers to the terrible conditions in the countryside.

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

Installation view of Killed Negatives at the Whitechapel Gallery

In total the FSA photography programme generated some 175,000 photographs, amounting to a vast pictorial record of rural American life between 1935 and 1944.

The photography programme was headed for most of its existence by Roy E. Stryker, in his capacity as head of the Information Division of the FSA. He launched the photography program in 1935 and continued to oversee it after it underwent various administrative mutations, through until 1944.

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

Roy Stryker, head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression

The programme clinched the reputations of some of the great photojournalists including Walker Evans (1903–1975), Dorothea Lange (1895–1965) and Russell Lee (1903 – 1986), who produced heart-rending images of rural life which have also come to be seen as great art. Books were compiled from the photos – such as the influential Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941) which had an elegiac text by writer James Agee and photographs by Walker Evans. Original prints of the more famous shots now command large sums at auction. (N.B. An exhibition of Dorothea Lange’s photos is just about to open at the Barbican.)

So far, so well known. But there is a little-told aspect of the whole programme which this exhibition is designed to bring to a wider audience.

Strict control and killed negatives

For what is not often mentioned is the iron control which Stryker exerted over the photographers and their work.

Stryker personally selected the photographers and gave them detailed briefs or ‘shooting scripts’ to work from. He kept in close touch with ‘his’ photographers, via letters and telegrams sending his responses to the photographers’ work and giving detailed suggestions on how they could improve, which locations they should be going to, what they should be snapping – always cajoling and instructing them on how to take the kind of images which the Administration needed to support and validate its work.

Most harshly of all, Stryker developed a ruthless method of editing work he didn’t like. He examined every roll of film by every photographer, as they were posted back to, and developed at, the Administration’s Washington headquarters.

And if he didn’t like it, if it wasn’t good enough quality, or was off subject, then Stryker personally mutilated the negative with a hole puncher. Any prints made of these rejected images would be definitively unusable because of the big black dot plonked right in the middle by Stryker’s hole puncher.

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

Untitled photo by Russell Lee, possibly related to Mr. Tronson, farmer near Wheelock, North Dakota, August 1937

And so thousands of negatives by American photographers were systematically destroyed in the 1930s, these irreparable images becoming known as ‘killed negatives’.

The exhibition

This one-room free exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery display presents about 70 prints made from some of the thousands of negatives rejected and mutilated by Stryker, shedding a fascinating sidelight on this well-known period and its photographic output.

Some photos you can see straight away aren’t that powerful and not good enough to be included in a book or magazine article. But quite a few others have the potential to be really powerful.

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper's wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

Untitled photo by Arthur Rothstein, possibly related to Sharecropper’s wife and children, Arkansas August 1935

The 70 or so prints are hung in a great cluster across two walls of the gallery. Nearby are display cases showing original correspondence from Styker to his snappers, demonstrating just how much detail he went into when critiquing the work of his photographers. The cases include examples of the typed-out shooting scripts which the photographers were given, alongside a selection of the photographers’ personal and administrative records. Both the letters and the shooting scripts give a really candid insight into the tone of voice used among these professional men, and into the day-to-day practicalities of selecting destinations, finding likely subjects, hiring cars, arranging hotels and so on.

Censorship to surrealism

So far, so interesting and so much a contribution to a little-known aspect of a well-known part of photography history.

But bringing all these killed negatives together like this has the odd effect of creating a distinct aesthetic. Having a big black circle added to them somehow lends quite a few of these images a strange surreal beauty.

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Untitled photo by Paul Carter, possibly related to Tobacco fields devastated by the Connecticut River near Northampton, Massachusetts, March 1936

Viewed from our modern perspective, eighty years later, and taken together, as a collection, the effect of the ‘black spot’ stamped harshly onto faces, buildings and landscapes is to transform old images into something weird, extra and beguiling.

And so, quite unexpectedly, something which ought to be a dry historical footnote has been turned, by selective curating, into a kind of work of art in itself.

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George's County, Maryland, November 1935

Untitled photo by Carl Mydans, possibly related to Transients clearing land. Prince George’s County, Maryland, November 1935

Contemporary responses

So much so, that the collection has prompted responses to the killed negatives from contemporary artists, some of which are included here.

Etienne Chambaud (b. 1980) responds to a Walker Evans ‘killed negative’ by attempting to fill the hole. William E. Jones’ (b.1962) work Punctured is itself created from a sequence of ‘killed negatives’. Bill McDowell’s (b. 1956) art book Ground takes ‘killed negatives’ as its subject. Lisa Oppenheim (b. 1975) is interested in the space obscured by the hole; her print After Walker Evans fills in the hole in a photo of wooden shacks with colour detail, while blacking out the rest of the image.

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Killed Negatives, After Walker Evans (Untitled) by Lisa Oppenheim (2015) © Lisa Oppenheim. Courtesy The Approach, London

Interesting and creative, aren’t they? But can’t really compete with the originals’ peculiar combination of black and white nostalgia for a time of terrible poverty with this strangely modernist feature of the random black dots lifting them into Marcel Duchamp territory. Fascinating and eerie.


Related links

Other exhibitions currently on at the Whitechapel Gallery

Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

Work in Process @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographers’ Gallery is a real Aladdin’s cave with exhibitions spread over floors 3, 4, and 5, as well as a funky café on the ground floor. Downstairs in the basement there is an excellent shop selling not only all kinds of books about photography but also cameras and film. Next door to it is a room which serves a double function. Here you can buy top quality prints of works by photographers associated with the gallery – there’s a rotating display of great pictures by the cash till.

But three of the walls of this room are also taken up by rotating displays of new work by up and coming or established photographers.

For the next week or so there’s still time to catch a really nifty little exhibition (16 works in all) by five new and exciting women photographer-artists, titled Work in Process.

What the five have in common is their astonishingly inventive approaches to the idea of a photograph, they all push the boundaries and possibilities to amazing lengths. Or, as the blurb puts it, they all share:

process-based practices focusing on the photographic surface, interacting with it in challenging and innovative ways.

Julie Cockburn (b.1966, UK)

Cockburn draws on her training as a sculptor to re-invent vintage photographs as unique, contemporary works of art. Having selected old vintage photos, she then meticulously applies hand-embroidery and other mixed media to create really beautiful works. Not just adding to the images but transforming them into something genuinely magical and inspiring. On display is Gust (2018), made specially for  this show and her largest embroidered work to date.

Gust (2018) by Julie Cockburn © Julie Cockburn. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist

Gust (2018) by Julie Cockburn © Julie Cockburn. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist. Not available to buy

Jessa Fairbrother

Fairbrother has been working on a series titled Armour Studies (Regarding Skin). The examples here show her taking what are in themselves beautifully composed black and white shots of naked female models, generally sitting or bent over and from the back so as to conceal breasts and belly. Using a sharp contrast between extremely white bodies and a pitch black background Fairbrother has already produced starkly beautiful images. But she then proceeds to create a maze of intricate needle perforations across the surface of the silver gelatin prints. They include zoomorphic, sometimes floral patterns, sometimes looking like larger pebbles sitting on sand, the patterns spread all across the stretched white skin of the subject creating images of strange and haunting beauty.

Dragonfly I (2017) by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist

Dragonfly I (2017) by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist. £1,750+ VAT

Alma Haser (b.1989, Germany)

Haser is represented by two startlingly different but equally inventive approaches to distorting and reinventing the idea of ‘the photograph’.

Her recent series, Within 15 Minutes (2017-2018), is based on taking high quality colour portraits of people, then using a manufacturing process to convert the photos into 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles. So far so interesting but what gives the images their unique twist is that Haser assembles the jigsaws with some bits subtly out of place and some bits blank. The resulting images are still recognisable, but dislocated and beguilingly unnerving.

Lee and Clinton (1) 2017 by Alma Haser © Alma Haser. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist

Lee and Clinton (1) 2017 by Alma Haser © Alma Haser. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist. £1,250+VAT including frame

Haser is also represented new three-dimensional works from a project titled Pseudo (2018). These are three-domensional collages in which she takes a botanical image as starting subject, taking numerous shots from related angles, and then lays several ‘takes’ above each other and cuts holes in the upper layers so you can see through into the same/similar image on the layer beneath and the layer beneath that. Not only this bit the pieces of oringinal image which have been cutaway are stuck elsewhere on the image as if they’re floating away. These have to be seen in the flesh to give their full 3-D effect but still images of them (as below) still convey their beguiling beauty.

Rhodanthemum (2018) by Alma Haser © Alma Haser. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist

Rhodanthemum (2018) by Alma Haser © Alma Haser. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist. £1m200+VAT including frame

Felicity Hammond (b. 1988, UK)

Hammond takes the conversion of photographs into sculptural form to new extremes. Her series Surfacing (2017) begins with photographs of adverts for future sites in the city. Hammond prints digital collages of these real and imagined spaces onto acrylic and then, making moulds to vacuum them, creates abstracted, futuristic works which seem to be melting and drooping and bulging out of the frame at you. Another strange and unsettling way of bringing photos into the third dimension.

Surfacing (formation 01), 2017 by Felicity Hammond © Felicity Hammond. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist

Surfacing (formation 01) 2017 by Felicity Hammond © Felicity Hammond. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist. £1,250+VAT including frame

Liz Nielsen (b.1975, Wisconsin)

Nielsen omits the camera altogether to produce her vivid, abstract photograms. The works are created using an alternative darkroom process, involving handmade negatives with coloured gel transparencies and found light sources, including torches, bicycle lights and mobile phones.

Landscape Shapes (2017) by Liz Nielsen © Liz Nielsen. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist

Landscape Shapes (2017) by Liz Nielsen © Liz Nielsen. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist. £4,350+VAT including frame

Thoughts

Interesting, aren’t they? All of them are stunning as images in their own right quite apart from the ways they each play with the idea of ‘the photograph’ in thrilling and fun ways.

Between you and me, I found any of these women’s works much more visually pleasing and imaginative than much of the work shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize and on display in the upstairs gallery. I like fun. Fun is good.

Buy one

All but one of the sixteen pieces on display (the exception being Gust) are on sale at prices starting from £1,200 + VAT. I’ve indicated the price in the caption to each photo.

If I had the money I’d buy almost all of them and hang them all round my house to brighten up the place and make me smile and think.


Related links

  • Work in Process continues at the Photographers’ Gallery until 9 June 2018

The photographers’ websites

Other blog posts about photography

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

To my embarrassment I’ve never been to the Photographer’s Gallery before. It turns out to be a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street East. It’s a bit of an Aladdin’s Cave with stuff going on everywhere – with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, as well as downstairs in the basement.

Since all the exhibitions are FREE (before noon) and the ground floor houses a comfy café with wifi and cakes, this is quite a cool place to meet up with friends or just to take some time out.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I was just in time to catch the tail end of the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs, which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to trace both common threads but also different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest a more nuanced and suggestive ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women. I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes. Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady. O’Grady was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between is Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but used to be on TV in the 1980s in the most outrageous outfits.

I’ve read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare isn’t packed with cross-dressing sexual ambivalence, or as if it hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies – in fact, as if there isn’t good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper eviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behavior and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn of the century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image, and extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term itself coined to describe newly independent and assertive (generally upper class) women in the 1890s. The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

What’s interesting and amusing is that Lifshitz has found an entertaining collection of photos showing women in just such mannish costume – as soldiers, sailors and so on – designed as a satire on their silly, foolish ambitions – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. ‘Women of the Future’ is was called.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices and jokes around ‘traditional’ costume.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was reasonably common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

A preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms? The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid and later 19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain black, stiff and constricting clothes, for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled, more intense, and this was reflected in cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order. In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All classes felt more threatened. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious, as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century, not to mention the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by Malthus writings which speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs, yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channeled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any resiling from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared. This explains the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, a ‘deviation’ from straight heterosexual sex for the purposes of procreation within a marriage contract, which was all the Church of England and official society would allow.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take for example this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as some Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, found themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour, and wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire. Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped up make up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.,

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just like dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even before that they are simply inhabiting a body of the wrong gender and have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, she became a famous French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

And off to one side is a room which, in sharp contrast to a lot of the rest of the show, exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum, ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ except the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican show about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men. Casa Susanna explained in a Guardian article. The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

Similarly, some of the women dressing as men are famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of 1960.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints done the old-fashioned way. Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide, for example the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes them seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize @ the Photographers’ Gallery

To my embarrassment I’ve never been to the Photographer’s Gallery before. It turns out to be a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (number 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street East. It’s a bit of an Aladdin’s Cave, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, as well as downstairs in the basement, next to the excellent shops of photography books and equipment.

Since all the exhibitions are FREE (before noon) and the ground floor has a comfy café with wifi and cakes, this is quite a cool place to meet up with friends or just take some time out.

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize exhibition 2018

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation is a Frankfurt-based non-profit organisation which focuses on collecting, exhibiting and promoting contemporary photography. Deutsche Börse began to build up its collection of contemporary photography in 1999 and it now comprises more than 1,700 works by over 120 international artists.

Together with The Photographers’ Gallery in London, the foundation awards the renowned Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize each year. Each year a long list of entrants is boiled down to a short list of four. This year they were:

  • Mathieu Asselin
  • Rafal Milach
  • Batia Suter
  • Luke Willis Thompson

The work which got them onto the short list has been on display at the Photographers’ Gallery since 23 February. On 17 May the winner was announced and it was Luke Willis Thompson, who picked up first prize and a handy £30,000.

So what is his work and the work of the other three photographers like? I’m glad you asked.

First the competition criteria. The prize ‘rewards a living photographer, of any nationality, for a specific body of work in an exhibition or publication format in Europe felt to have significantly contributed to the medium of photography.’ The press release states that ‘All of the projects share a deep concern with the representation of knowledge through images, where facts can be manipulated and meanings can shift.’

I was to be surprised at just how knowledge- and information-based the work of all the finalists was.

Mathieu Asselin

The room devoted to Mathieu Asselin is a ‘photographic interrogation of global biotech giant, Monsanto’. It was originally conceived and published not as a display but as a photobook, and the exhibition contains a number of documents, legal forms, invoices and testimonies, among much else that Asselin has assembled to document what he sees as the nefarious activities of this huge biotech corporation.

It has the overarching title Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation and has been five years in the making. The book – and the excerpt of works here – are the result of a meticulous investigation supported by archival documentation, court files, personal letters, company memorabilia and photographs.

David Baker at his borther Terry’s grave, Edgemont Cemetery, West Anniston, Alabama, 2012 © Mathieu Asselin. Courtesy of the artist

David Baker at his brother Terry’s grave, Edgemont Cemetery, West Anniston, Alabama, 2012 © Mathieu Asselin. Courtesy of the artist

This photo shows David Baker whose brother Terry died at the age of 16 from a brain tumour and lung cancer, caused by exposure to PCB, a chemical manufactured at the nearby Monsanto Chemical works. A variety of toxic chemicals are present in the soil and water of Anniston at far higher than legal levels. In Asselin’s account Terry is just one of Monsanto’s victims.

Monsanto is known as a leading manufacturer of insecticides DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange and of genetically engineered seeds. Another photo shows one of the many farmers who Monsanto have pursued through the courts, accusing them of abusing the company’s property rights by harvesting crops contaminated by, or originally sown from, seed genetically engineered by Monsanto.

Twenty years ago I did the research for a television documentary which tried to bring out the grotesqueness of a possible future in which Monsanto and a handful of other biochem companies could develop genetically engineered food crops:

  1. which only respond to Monsanto-produced fertilisers, insecticides and so on – so that if you buy the seed they have a monopoly of all the other products you need to buy to grow them
  2. and in which these companies own the intellectual copyright of the resulting grain crop, which you are not allowed to resow without paying them a licensing fee. Environmental activists were trying to get this practice banned before it could take off in the EU and the documentary followed their efforts.

So the ‘Asselin room’ certainly includes a variety of photographs, but also just as many legal, environmental and similar types of documents, blow-ups of newspaper articles and of Monsanto promotional images, as well as examples of the company’s attempts to change their negative public image through children’s TV shows and marketing campaigns.

Installation view of the Mathieu Asselin room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of the Mathieu Asselin room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery

I came, I saw, I read, I took it all in and it seemed a lot more like photo-journalism than a photography display, as such.

Rafal Milach – Refusal

Milach is Polish and his work explores issues and ideas around abandoned aspects of the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics. He is particularly interested in the way governments and states distort and control information. To quote:

Rafal Milach’s project focuses on the applied sociotechnical systems of governmental control and the ideological manipulations of belief and consciousness. Focusing on post-Soviet countries such as Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Poland, Milach traces the mechanisms of propaganda and their visual representation in architecture, urban projects and objects.

I found the most arresting items in his room to be:

1. A brilliantly stark photo of a viewing tower in Georgia. This was commissioned for the Black Sea village of Anaklia by the then-President of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, in 2012, as an ostentatious way of showing the world a new and modern Georgia under his pioneering administration. It was a form of architectural propaganda.

Then, when Saakashvili fled the country after a coup in 2013, the tower was abandoned half-built, leaving the structure, unused and useless, standing in an eerie, unpeopled wasteland.

Anaklia, Georgia, 2013 by Rafal Milach © Rafal Milach. Courtesy of the artist

Anaklia, Georgia, 2013 by Rafal Milach © Rafal Milach. Courtesy of the artist

2. On a monitor is running a ‘rap’ video in which a Belarussian woman, Xenia Degelko, is singing to an enraptured crowd. The point is that this is a government video created by the Belarus government using ‘youth culture’ tropes to promote a patriotic pro-government message and is thus an example of Milach’s overarching theme of government manipulation, and what he sees as the need for refusal.

Not a photograph, though, is it?

3. Another wall displays a line of print-sized images. These are photos of hand-made objects used in the chess schools based in government buildings across Azerbaijan. Each one is an optical illusion designed to help young Azerbaijanis’ spatial imagination and abstract thinking skills. Seen through the slightly paranoid lens of Milach’s project, they are included here as yet more examples of way that governments can manipulate young minds.

Installation view of the Rafal Milach room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of the Rafal Milach room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery

Batia Suter – Parallel Encyclopedia #2

My teenage daughter’s bedroom wall is covered with photos of herself and her mates, posters of their favourite bands and tickets to gigs, images torn out of magazines and so on – images which speak to her, which say something, which click.

Batia Suter does the same thing. She collects books, often second-hand ones, full of images, and selects the ones which light her candle. Then she blows them up into large (two or three feet across) prints and then – this is the best bit – hangs them on the walls of galleries, thus creating, in the words of the commentary:

an encyclopaedic collection of visual taxonomies that expose the shifting and relative meanings of printed images depending on their context

Unlike the rather minimalist hangings of the previous two rooms, Suter’s work is definitely ‘immersive’ covering all four walls from floor to ceiling.

Installation view of the Batia Suter room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers' Gallery

Installation view of the Batia Suter room at the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery

The way the images are unframed helps them to meld together. And neighbouring images bring out new aspects and details you hadn’t noticed in the individual works on their own. For example, it all looks very organic until you see the big pic of a vacuum cleaner and the even more incongruous close up of a printed circuit!

Her work is an exploration of how visual formats affect and manipulate meaning, depending on where and how they are placed. Apparently she has amassed a collection of over 1,000 publications to use as source material. What a simple, elegant and beautiful idea!

Luke Willis Thompson – autoportrait

As you enter the 5th floor room there’s a very loud noise of machinery which I thought must be some kind of building works going on next door. But on crossing the gallery and walking into the pitch black alcove behind it you find a really old-fashioned 35mm film projector at work. It’s this that’s making all the racket.

Film projector for Luke Willis Thompson's work, autoportrait

Film projector for Luke Willis Thompson’s work, autoportrait

And what is it projecting?

A silent black and white film showing a close-up of the face of a young black American woman, Diamond Reynolds.

In July 2016, Reynolds broadcast, via Facebook Live, the moments immediately after the fatal shooting of her partner Philando Castile, by a police officer during a traffic-stop in Minnesota, United States. Reynolds’ video circulated widely online and amassed over six million views.

In November 2016, Thompson established a conversation with Reynolds and her lawyer, and invited Reynolds to work with him on an aesthetic response to her video broadcast. Acting as a ‘sister-image’ the artwork would break with the well-known image of Reynolds, until then only known as a distraught woman caught in a moment of violence, and then distributed far and wide as a shocking news story.

Shot on 35mm, black and white film and presented in the gallery as a single screen work, autoportait continues to reopen questions of the agency of Reynolds’ recording within, outside of, and beyond the conditions of predetermined racial power structures.

Regrettably, it doesn’t look like the video is available on YouTube. Here’s a photo I took of it. Diamond is recorded, successively wearing a couple of different outfits, in all of them looking screen left, downwards, silent and expressionless.

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

Still from autoportrait by Luke Willis Thompson © the artist

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018

To my surprise, this is the work which won the £30,000 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018.

There’s no doubt that it’s a sensitive and moving work in itself; that it’s a thoughtful response to the way the young woman’s image was ‘kidnapped’ by the circulation of the tragic video footage on Facebook, and that this is a careful effort by her, and Thompson as intermediary, to reclaim her image in a way controlled by her, to portray herself as more than the weeping victim of a moment of police violence.

But it’s not at all a photograph, is it, and certainly not a body of photographic work.

I wonder what established photographers make of the fact that one of the most prestigious prizes in photography was won by a film, that two of the other entries (Monsanto and Refusal) were essentially book projects which contained a lot of video, TV and text-based content as well as photos – and that the fourth entry (Batia Suter’s) didn’t include a single original photograph but was instead a collage of previously-existing images.

Also, the imperial dominance of American culture and values is a bugbear and bête noire of mine, so I was disappointed that, although the competition specifically mentions ‘Europe’ among the entrance criteria, two of the entries (Monsanto, autoportrait) are about entirely American subject matter.

The videos

Three of the entrants have a video about them on YouTube. If you click on the first in the set, about Mathieu Asselin, and view it on YouTube (by clicking the word YouTube at the bottom right) you’ll see the videos about Rafal Milach and Batia Suter in the menu on the right.


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The Great British Seaside @ the National Maritime Museum

‘Don’t take boring photos’ (Tony Ray-Jones)

To my shame I hadn’t been to the National Maritime Museum since it added a new exhibition wing back in 2011. The new wing is a startlingly modern, light, bright and airy building with a number of galleries showing the history of the Royal Navy through the centuries across two floors.

The temporary exhibition space is down some wide stairs (or you could take the swish glass lift) into a light airy reception area, then through swing doors and into half a dozen large, well-lit rooms.

The Great British seaside

It’s a simple idea. Bring together photos of the British seaside by four great English photographers of the past forty years or so. To quote the exhibition blurb:

From the abandoned piers to the dazzling arcades, celebrate the British seaside through the lenses of Britain’s most popular photographers, featuring Tony Ray-Jones, David Hurn and Simon Roberts and new work by Martin Parr.

Examine the ambiguities and absurdities of seaside life through this major exhibition of over 100 photographs. All four photographers share a love of the seaside which reveals itself in playful and often profound representations of the British by the sea while still bringing their own distinctive take on the seaside experience.

Ray-Jones gives us a social anthropologist’s view, Hurn’s is a nostalgic love letter to the beach, Parr provides an often-satirical examination of class and cliché while Roberts explores our collective relationship with, and impact on, the coast.

The Great British Seaside includes images from the archival collections of each of the photographers, new films, and new work by Martin Parr.

Tony Ray-Jones (1941-72) 20 photos

Three years ago the Science Museum held an exhibition, Only in England, which featured black and white photos by Tony Ray-Jones, and was curated by Martin Parr. Both there and here, Ray-Jones emerges as a brilliant, inspiringly acute observer of the quirks and oddities of the English. A big wall label quotes his aim:

‘I have tried to show the sadness and the humour in a gentle madness that prevails in a people.’

In the mid-60s Ray-Jones set off on a two-year-long mission in a camper van to capture the oddness of English life: he was worried about the creeping Americanisation infecting English life (as, I think, every generation since about 1920 has been) so he wanted to capture in photographs the enduring and endearing qualities of the English before they disappeared.

The result is a treasure trove of black and white images of the English bravely enduring the grim weather, cobbly beaches, and freezing winds of their inhospitable seafronts.

Eastbourne, East Sussex c.1968 © Tony Ray-Jones. National Science and Media Museum

Eastbourne, East Sussex c.1968 © Tony Ray-Jones. National Science and Media Museum

Ray-Jones’s images show working class people wearing thick clothes, in respectable haircuts or wearing cloth caps, the women in shawls and cardigans, gathered into protective groups, munching on sandwiches, sharing round the thermos flasks of tea, squashed into deckchairs, with a tin of Fray Bentos corned beef part of the general picnic.

There’s an image of one old man wearing a thick suit and shirt, a cloth cap on his head, with his trousers rolled up, standing in seawater up to his knobbly knees. Ah, the English!

The overwhelming impression is that the English don’t know what to do with their seaside. They treat it as in inconvenience which has somehow invaded their living rooms – so the old ladies on show here have clustered together behind their tied-together windbreaks, put on extra layers to keep warm, and continued knitting or reading the paper as if they were still indoors.

For the most part, the adults don’t know how to dress or behave. A million miles away from being ‘beach body ready’, the old boys figured here are still wearing their best suits, the old ladies their necklaces and even decorative hats.

Only the kids, the under-12s, have a clue. For some reason they are licensed to wear swimming trunks and actually go into the sea. Maybe it was seen as a childish thing to do while the old (who look really, really, really old) paddle in the shallows or warm up another brew on the carefully protected gas heater.

A handful of pictures of badly dressed, long-haired teenagers snogging on the beach under the disapproving stare of a deckchair attendant make you realise this is not the 1930s or 40s. These young lads could be Mods, but even their provincial gracelessness makes you realise what a long, long time it took for the shiny London fashions and liberal attitudes of the 1960s to penetrate beyond the bright lights of Swinging London.

Here’s a trendy young woman making herself at home on the horribly cobbly beach at Brighton and playing singles on her Dansette portable record player. I wonder what the singles are. More importantly, and so English, she is on a seafront beach fully clothed.

Brighton, East Sussex c.1967© Tony Ray-Jones, National Science and Media Museum

Brighton, East Sussex c.1967 © Tony Ray-Jones, National Science and Media Museum

David Hurn (b.1934) 20 photos

The Museum has taken a lot of time and trouble to stage the exhibition, including a number of humorously seaside-themed accessories, for example a little flowerbed width of white cobbled stones in front of some of the exhibition walls.

Among these features is a ‘Seaside Cinema’, a kind of fairground booth decorated with pavilion-style stripes and its name beaming out in shiny fluorescent lights. It has one or two life sized stuffed seagulls perched on the walls. Alas, it is not showing ‘What the Butler Saw’ or other saucy seaside entertainment, but the rather more worthy content of four 3-minute videos, one for each of the photographers in the show.

These films turn out to be extremely useful, revealing insights into the biographies and approaches of the three surviving photographers, in particular. YouTube has a brief selection of clips from them which give you a good flavour.

In his video interview, David Hurn emphasises his own working class roots in the coal mining community of South Wales. He was born in 1934 in the depths of the Great Depression and he remembers as a small boy how the mines used to close for two weeks for safety and repairs and so entire workforces and their families went on holiday at the same time. He remembers whole villages catching trains down the valley to the coast en masse.

Thus some of his photographs feature people who he knew all lived in the same street, for example a classic photo of a group of twenty or so fully dressed adults who have created a circular windbreak and are all huddling against the chill wind on an otherwise deserted beach. They’ve paid for their holiday in windy Aberavon and they’re damn well going to enjoy it.

Whistling Sands, Pothoer, Aberdaron, 2004© David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Whistling Sands, Pothoer, Aberdaron, 2004 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Possibly his most striking photo is of an attractive young woman in a bikini lighting a cigarette, watched by a more traditional family who are slouched, fully dressed, against a wooden groyne. It is a striking image in itself but lends itself to numerous interpretations. The old boy and his wife are looking on disapprovingly, the adult son is looking on with – shall we guess – lust in his heart, his wife can’t be bothered. And bikini-ed babe herself? Represents a kind of Julie Christie breaking free of the shackles and limitations of grim, repressed English physicality.

Herne Bay, Kent 1963 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Herne Bay, Kent 1963 © David Hurn / Magnum Photos

Martin Parr (b.1952) 41 photos

Why has Parr got twice as many photos as the other three? This becomes clear when you walk into the room titled ‘The Essex Seaside’ where a wall label explains that the National Maritime Museum commissioned Parr in 2017 to take photos of London’s beach resorts i.e. the ones within easy train journey of London. Whitstable, Margate and Ramsgate on the North Kent coast suggest themselves, let alone the obvious Brighton, but Parr ended up concentrating on resorts along the Essex coast of the Thames Estuary.

Hence there is a room giving a selection of his seaside photos – like the other three – PLUS this extra room devoted to 20 photos from the Essex seaside project.

COLOUR

But the most important development is that, as you enter the Martin Parr section, the exhibition changes from the black-and-white and fairly standard print size of Ray-Jones and Hurn, into a new world of vivid colour and BIG prints.

Martin Parr is colour photography with a vengeance.

Margate 1986 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Margate 1986 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

There’s no doubting that Parr’s images are big and bright and striking. But coming directly from looking closely at the grainy old images of Ray-Jones and Hurn gives the visitor a strong sense that with colour something is lost and something gained. I tried to figure out what and why:

BLACK AND WHITE

  • gives a a feeling of history, a mood of nostalgia, conjured by the old clothes, old hairstyles, old ‘looks’
  • black and white photos are somehow more homely, unthreatening, even inviting
  • in black and white photos all elements of the composition are equal; there is a kind of democracy of details – you are drawn to elements of the composition in structural or diagrammatic terms i.e. shapes and patterns, lines and shadows, are much more prominent or discernible

COLOUR

  • big colour photos undoubtedly have an advert-type ‘hit’, are more prone to deliver impactful images – but the downside is the loss of subtle integrated composition you get in black and white

The more I looked at Parr’s big professional photos the more I found the garish colours disparate, jarring and distracting. There’s a huge print of an Asian woman on a beach with her head leaned far back, finishing off a big green bottle of Sprite. Your eye is immediately startled, grabbed, overwhelmed by the greenness of the plastic bottle, and by the vivid colours of her husband’s top and her nearby son’s t-shirt.

After half an hour spent cultivating a sensitive approach to the subtle details in the works of Hurn and Ray-Jones, it is like someone has turned up the volume to earsplitting level.

Somehow, in colour photos like these, the main central image tends to shout, to dominate and drown out the wealth of smaller, minor details which are what make the black and white photos so quaint and – dare I say it – endearing, lovable almost.

Dorset from West Bay 1996 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Dorset from West Bay 1996 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Where black and white warmly invites you in, colour pushes the viewer away.

In his video interview in the ‘Seaside Cinema’, Parr makes a number of revealing points.

Experimentation One is how, over the course of his career, he has experimented with different cameras and different lenses. Recently he has been using a long lens. This explains works like the massive print showing a woman in the centre of shot wearing dark sunglasses in which her entire face is strongly out of focus.

I didn’t like this photo at all, but can see how it forms part of a continuum of technical experimentation which might intrigue and instruct other photographers and students.

Cruelty A few years ago I visited an exhibition of Parr’s work devoted to London’s annual Lord Mayor’s Show or, more specifically, to the bedraggled visitors and crowds who come up from the suburbs and out of town to line the route of the parade despite the fact that, the year in question, it was tipping down with rain.

It was in reviews of that exhibition that I first read the criticism that the clarity and detachment, and the vibrant colours which Parr uses, can often result in images with a harsh and even a humiliating clarity.

There is a ghost of contempt for his human subjects hovering around some of Parr’s big, unsparing photos of poor, fat, tasteless chavs and their pitiful seaside amusements. Something merciless.

Photography as therapy This suspicion was confirmed by the video about Parr in the ‘Seaside Cinema’. An amiable, easy-going-sounding bloke, he explains that he has had a love-hate relationship with Britain all his life and that his photos are a sort of therapy which help him work through his feelings.

His comments really crystallise something about these big, garish, colour photos, which show the English in all their obesity and bad clothes, inhabiting a decayed world of derelict bus shelters and overflowing litter bins. Not very far beneath the surface briliance is contempt and, maybe, even despair at the wretched human condition.

None of the works by Ray-Jones nor Hurn make you feel that.

Simon Roberts (b.1974) 21 photos

The fourth ‘Seaside Cinema’ video, in effect an extended interview with Simon Roberts, is just as interesting and revealing, as he explains his approach, his aims and techniques.

Among other things, Roberts says that he likes to take photographs from above and to prove it we saw footage of him standing on the roof of his traveller van parked on some beachfront esplanade, and photgaraphing downwards onto the beach.

Cleethorpes Pier, North East Lincolnshire, 2012 © Simon Roberts, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London

Cleethorpes Pier, North East Lincolnshire, 2012 © Simon Roberts, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London

Raising his point of view like this means that many of his photos have not only a horizon and foreground but what he appeared to call a ‘midriff’.

In this central stretch of the image Roberts is at pains to look for narratives, stories and incidents. Thus, in the photo above, the pier provides the horizon and there’s the dad digging in the foreground who provides maybe the foreground focus of the image – but there’s a whole load of other small narratives going on all over the ‘midriff’, to distract and amuse and entertain the viewer.

The Roberts room is the final room of images and what became obvious was:

1. The size of the prints – some of them are simply huge, even bigger than Parr’s, several yards across

2. The emptiness – the example shown above is a relatively standard example of a seaside snap, with a pier and people in the sand – but a lot of Roberts’ images really aren’t actually like that at all. The best ones are Big and almost Empty. I realised after looking at them for a while that two things were going on on these bigger, more atmospheric works:

1. He has an almost classical regard for the horizon. There is almost always a horizon in his seaside photos and the horizon is always horizontal. Sounds obvious, but the horizon hadn’t been much of a concern for the previous three photographers; often the sea level was quite obviously wonky because the photographer was concentrating on the human subjects in the foreground.

Not so in Roberts’ work:  in almost all his 21 photos there is a dead straight horizon and it is exactly parallel to the top and bottom of the frame, giving the whole thing a very composed and classical feel.

2. And the second thing is how many of his beaches are almost empty. Striking examples are:

Some of them are more cluttered with people, seafront roads and buildings than these two, but there were quite a few others which managed to transform the English beach into not only a surprisingly beautiful but even a haunting and spiritual location.

The progression of images

The human mind has evolved to find patterns even where there aren’t any.

I went back to the start and walked slowly back through the exhibition, noticing the progression from minutely detailed black and white sociological studies (Hurn and Ray-Jones) which reek nostalgia for a black and white 1960s, then turning into studies of long-haired layabouts from the 1970s – which suddenly and dramatically morphs into the big, brash, supercoloured images of Martin Parr, a vulgar brashness we might associate with Mrs Thatcher’s 1980s and Tony Blair’s 1990s – and then the show ends with a completely unexpected turn into Roberts’s genuinely haunting and spectrally beautiful images from the 2000s.

I don’t know if we can draw any conclusions at all from this progression, but that’s how it felt.

Effort and staging

I mentioned the tremendous effort the National Maritime Museum has gone to in order to make the staging and setting of this exhibition really special.

This photo shows you the ‘Seaside Cinema’ booth in the background (alas, you can’t see the stuffed seagulls) and a row of deckchairs laid out in front of some photos by Martin Parr.

Installation view of The Great British Seaside showing deckchairs facing two photos by Martin Parr with the Seaside Cinema in the background

Installation view of The Great British Seaside showing deckchairs facing two photos by Martin Parr with the Seaside Cinema in the background

Outside the exhibition itself, in the main ‘lobby’ area, they’ve gone to the trouble of creating a ‘British Seaside set’, complete with an enormous backdrop, two deckchairs and various blow-up plastic seaside toys, all designed for you to sit in with your mates and take selfies of each other.

The nearby gallery attendant kindly offered to take a photo of me and I was tempted for a moment to roll up my trousers and put in a knotted hankie for the occasion, like one of the old boys in a David Hurn photo, but managed to resist the temptation.

Installation photo of the selfie set outside the Great British Seaside (photo by the author)

Installation photo of the selfie set outside the Great British Seaside (photo by the author)

Conclusion

This is a very interesting and thought-provoking exhibition, on one level a sociological tour of the English and their seaside holidays, a social history of changing attitudes and seaside dress; on another level a selective history of the development of photographic technique and attitude over the last 50 years, taking the seaside as its guiding thread.

And, on a simpler level, it just contains lots and lots of beguiling, striking, brilliant, repellent and haunting photographs.

And the funkiest take-home message for any budding photographers?

In his video interview David Hurn says that one of the most important things he ever learned from Tony Ray-Jones was – to wear comfortable shoes. The good photographer, the really inquisitive, curious, exploratory and investigative photographer, is going to be on his or her feet for up to twelves hours a day in order to catch that perfect moment, that perfect shot.

By all means invest in good kit, in good cameras and lenses and the rest of it but also – Respect Your Feet!

The promotional video


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