Vanessa Winship: And Time Folds @ the Barbican Gallery

This woman is a shit-hot photographer! This is great, great work! I couldn’t help yelping with excitement at some of her pictures. What an eye! What a fantastic eye for finding a good subject, for framing and composition! Each one packs a visual and aesthetic punch.

This is the first major UK solo exhibition of contemporary English photographer Vanessa Winship, who was born in 1960. The exhibition showcases over 150 photographs, along with magazines and diaries, extensive wall texts, experimental works and even audio tracks of Vanessa reading her own poetic prose to the accompaniment of hypnotically repetitive minimalist sounds.

Hand in hand with her photographic genius goes a fair dollop of pretentious curatorspeak and a variety of experiments which are interesting but, in my opinion, fail. But none of this detracts from the brilliance of loads and loads of the photos here.

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

Unknown pleasures

All the early photos in the exhibition are from photographic projects carried out in Eastern Europe, namely the Balkans, the area around the Black Sea, Turkey and Georgia.

This is a part of the world we almost never hear from. It has cultures and traditions we are completely unfamiliar with, languages none of us can speak (Albanian, Georgian). The people look different, they are from ethnic stock we are unfamiliar with. They dress differently, their ideas of casual, formal or traditional wear are from different worlds. Their histories, the sway of oriental empires over these lands, from the Sassanids onwards through to 20th century communism, have left the landscape and cities littered with statues to heroes we’ve never heard of and leaders whose grandiose visions have crumbled and collapsed.

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

The subjects, people and places are recognisably human, recognisably European, or at least Caucasian. They come from a recognisable twenty-first century – but it is not the twenty-first century we’re living in.

They are heirs to the colossal wars and dislocations of a twentieth century we can only read about, and to a blanket of totalitarian oppression we can’t really imagine, to centuries of peasant poverty, and they now live amid the crumbling concrete of the failed communist utopia.

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship. 'A choreographer of the states greatest dance company, the world at his feet, had gone on tour with his wife, a young and beautiful dancer. One night after a show a group had gone out to celebrate. They were strangers in that town and didn’t know the streets. A robbery occurred, his young wife had her jewellery snatched. There was a fight, and in the fray a terrible and fatal accident happened. He had fallen into a deep an impenetrable depression. No one knew what to do or how to console him.'

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship. ‘A choreographer of the state’s greatest dance company, the world at his feet, had gone on tour with his wife, a young and beautiful dancer. One night after a show a group had gone out to celebrate. They were strangers in that town and didn’t know the streets. A robbery occurred, his young wife had her jewellery snatched. There was a fight, and in the fray a terrible and fatal accident happened. He had fallen into a deep an impenetrable depression. No one knew what to do or how to console him.’

Discourse and obfuscation

Modern curators and art experts can run rings round us with the jargons of curatorspeak and political correctness, but often have a real problem describing the actual art – the stuff you see, the information the eye processes and transmits to the brain.

It is infinitely easier to write about issues, to invoke the language of sociology and the human sciences and a kind of water-down left-wing politics, to repeat at length the same old clichés of identity politics and political correctness, than it is to describe and explain the aesthetic thrill – what happens when we see and engage with the work.

So, for example, one of the many lengthy wall labels explains that Vanessa’s work is:

concerned with politics, identity, community, home, belonging, vulnerability and the body

which makes her sound the same as virtually every other contemporary artist alive today.

The exhibition includes quite a few of Vanessa’s own words and thoughts. For example, she tells us that her work explores the:

concepts of borders, land, memory, desire, identity and history

Identity, memory, desire, the body, history, community – yawn, it’s like a shopping list, it’s like a list of fillings at Subway.

I imagine a bored sandwich shop worker asking ‘Now, do you want to interrogate traditional gender stereotypes in your roll, or would you rather explore contemporary notions of the body and desire on plain white? And would you like to engage with some lettuce and mayonnaise?’ These are the art critical clichés of our time.

The guide tells us that Vanessa attended art school in the 1980s where she was introduced to post-modern dialogues which radically questioned photography’s ‘truthfulness’ and ‘objectivity’. Surely you have to be a moron to think that photography is truthful or objective? I mean, really, really, really stupid not to know how photographs are tampered with, and cropped, and photoshopped and posed and generally invented and made up in a thousand ways? Always have been. Roger Fenton re-arranged the cannon balls in the Valley of Death at the Crimean War in 1855 to make them look more picturesque. 1855! Lying with cameras has been going on ever since photography was invented.

Is there anybody anywhere who doesn’t realise that?

But it’s easy to write biography, to list the academies an artist attended, the courses she did, the ‘issues’ she was introduced to. By contrast, nowhere is there a description of Winship’s fantastically acute visual perception and technical ability, her gift at fariming, composing and capturing subjects to phenomenal effect. Because that is difficult.

The room of Black Sea photos, taken altogether, is one of the most powerful collections of photos I’ve ever seen.

Here are the people of a strange, remote region – the girls, the boys, the bored housewives, the police. Here are the men, unvarnished, foreign, inaccessible. Men from a completely different tradition and language, behaving, looking, talking from a completely different place than we’re used to.

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship. 'Comfortable in their victory, they were together as one. They seemed absorbed not only by the game, but also by echoes from their place in another time, when they were heroes.'

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship. ‘Comfortable in their victory, they were together as one. They seemed absorbed not only by the game, but also by echoes from their place in another time, when they were heroes.’

There’s a bunch of photos taken on board a fishing ship out in the Black Sea, bleak and cold and wind-wracked, the long nets trawling out from the rusted old equipment. It is an image of the world, the world of work, the work that billions of labouring people have to perform every day.

And yet the wall label tells us that Winship’s Black Sea series focuses on ‘the fragile nature of belonging and a plurality of truths and realities’.

Is that not a completely inadequate use of prose to even remotely capture the visionary precision, the solid realism of other worlds and other cultures which these rooms depict so marvellously? Does this photo depict ‘the fragile nature of belonging’? No. Lots, thousands of other things, yes, marvellously, yes.

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series Black Sea: Between Chronicle and Fiction, 2002-2006 © Vanessa Winship

The Humber

Bidding the East Europe rooms a reluctant farewell, we move on to discover that the second half of the show features a room of stunning photographs of the muddy estuary of the Humber river, near where Winship was born and grew up. She applies the same wonderful eye for composition, the same profound understanding of the power of black and white photography, to these empty windswept landscapes.

Untitled from the series Humber, 2010 © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series Humber, 2010 © Vanessa Winship

The wall label points out that her photographs ‘trace the roots of the materiality of this place’. I can see what they mean about the sheer slappy quidditas of the mud which dominates these images but… it still seems inadequate to even touch on the power of the images.

Experiments

Many of the photos are accompanied by extended captions and quotations from literary works. Fair enough, but I found the texts added little or nothing to the pictures. Her photos are so far away in a different universe of brilliant that the fairly pedestrian text, for me, just can’t keep up.

In one of the rooms of Balkan photos some pleasant ambient muzak pulses repetitively while Vanessa herself intones some of her own prose poetry.

There’s a room devoted to a project recording Turkish girls in their school uniforms, Turkey having had – apparently – ‘gender equality issues’ for some time. Who knew?

There’s a set of straightforward although rather haunting portraits of schoolgirls in their school uniforms. But next to them was a sequence where photos had been made into collages of the official documents, id cards and birth and school certificates of the girls. Fine, and I can see the conceptual point – they’re just not a patch on the straight photos.

Later on there’s a series – And Time Folds – inspired by Winship’s little grand-daughter, which amounts to several wall-sized arrangements of sometimes overlapping photos of the English countryside – trees, railings, flowers and so on – with her grand-daughter popping up in some of them, looking through railings, snuffling through the grass in wellies, a little like Christopher Robin in the Pooh books.

And they’re in colour, which has a strangely jarring effect after looking at so many photos in black and white. The colour – to my mind – somehow brings out their banality, their everydayness.

Untitled from the series And Time Folds, 2014-ongoing by Vanessa Winship © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series And Time Folds, 2014-ongoing by Vanessa Winship © Vanessa Winship

How do you like them apples? They’re OK but… lack the punch of the Balkan works.

she dances on Jackson

The final room was disappointing. Instead of building up to something even more weird and unexpected, it turns out that Winship won the prestigious Henri Cartier-Bresson prize in 2011 (the first woman to do so, cheers, fireworks, streamers), and decided to spend the prize money to fund a journey and a photographic investigation of… America 😦

My heart sank.

She still has a tremendous eye for character and composition, fat (excuse me, ‘heavy’) men being a speciality, here as in the Balkans.

Untitled from the series she dances on Jackson, 2011-2012 © Vanessa Winship

Untitled from the series she dances on Jackson, 2011-2012 © Vanessa Winship

But we have seen too many photos of rural and small town America. Winship discovers, like every other European who’s gone on artistic pilgrimage to small-town America, that the countryside is sparse, the small towns feel empty and listless with their rows of low-rise buildings and traffic lights hanging from wires, the streets are haunted by alienated skater youths and gawky listless teenagers, there are blacks hanging coolly on the corner, here’s a portrait of a smart young man dressed in his U.S. Army uniform – these may all have been new to Winship, and she captures them with trademark precision – but I feel like I’ve seen photos of them all, exactly these same subjects, hundreds of times before.

There is one really new and ‘experimental’ aspect to the and she dances on Jackson project, which is that Winship includes extensive samples of her diary entries and emails to friends, reverently shown in big display cases. These were, not to put too fine a word on it, trite and inconsequential.

I guess life itself is and can be deeply violent

she shares with a friend, in an email dated 7 November 2011, sent at 11:39, and addressed to ‘C’. (Every email includes the addresses, date and time of transmission.) Indeed, I think this is the first exhibition I’ve ever seen which features the artist’s emails as part of the display – and it is a dire warning to all other artists not to bother.

On 24 November 2011 Winship begins a diary entry with these words:

Walking down an empty street in Las Cruces we meet a young couple.

Turns out that the couple had hitch-hiked there, and, now she’s bumped into them, proceed to share some of their stories with lucky Vanessa who, in turn, has shared them with lucky us.

This is all, frankly, dull, unless you are a Vanessa Winship completist, in which case maybe you’ll want to collect all her emails, even the ones about the gas bill and the leaking gutter.

Summary

So some of the experiments – reading prose poetry over music, mixing coloured and different size prints in the And Time Folds sequence, and the inclusion of mundane emails and diary musings – do not, to my mind, succeed.

It doesn’t matter. Who cares? She can include her laundry list in her next exhibition if she wants to. Or a wall-high printout of her phone bill. Just as long as she keeps on taking such beautifully composed, wonderfully framed and arresting photos.

Untitled from the series Imagined States and Desires: A Balkan Journey, 1999-2003 © Vanessa Winship Extended caption: 'It was a strange city, and seemed to have been cast up in a valley one winter’s night like some prehistoric creature. It was not easy to be a child in that place' (Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone)

Untitled from the series Imagined States and Desires: A Balkan Journey, 1999-2003 © Vanessa Winship. ‘It was a strange city, and seemed to have been cast up in a valley one winter’s night like some prehistoric creature. It was not easy to be a child in that place’ (Ismail Kadare, Chronicle in Stone)


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Dorothea Lange: Politics of Seeing @ the Barbican Gallery

To live a visual life is an enormous undertaking, potentially unattainable…

This is a major retrospective of one of the best known documentary photographers of the 20th century, the American Dorothea Lange. It brings together some 300 objects – hundreds of vintage prints and original book publications through to ephemera, field notes, letters, magazines and books in which her photos featured.

It also includes a documentary film interview with her made towards the end of her life in which she explains her ideas and motivations.

Rarely has an artist or photographer been so overshadowed by one work, Lange’s super-famous portrait of a Migrant Mother which has come to symbolise the suffering of America’s Mid-Western farmers in the Great depression of the 1930s – forced to abandon their land due to bank foreclosures and catastrophic environmental collapse.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California, 1936 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

But the exhibition goes out of its way to present this period of Lange’s work in the broader, and more varied context of her entire career.

The show proceeds in straightforward chronological order, from her earliest professional photos of 1919 through to her last project in 1957.

Room 1 Portrait studio

In 1919 Lange set up a portrait studio in San Francisco, which she ran until 1935. The studio became a meeting place for San Francisco’s creative community, including bohemian and artist friends such as Edward Weston, Anne Brigman, Alma Lavenson, Imogen Cunningham, and Willard van Dyke.

There’s a portrait of photographer Roi Partridge, and of painter Maynard Dixon, Lange’s first husband and father of her two sons.

The style and mood are soft focus with plenty of self-consciously artistic poses from artists, writers, poets and musicians – people like the founder of the San Francisco Opera, Gaetano Merola. There’s a misty, soft focus, aesthetic feel to most of them, like the wonderfully romantic Woman in a black hat, and a beautifully caught mother turning away from the camera. The baby is rather rubicund but the mother’s pose has the self-conscious (and slender) grace of a Virginia Woolf.

Mother and child (1928) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Mother and child (1928) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

This is bourgeois, arty Lange – before she was ‘woke’.

Rooms 2, 3, and 4 – The Great Depression and the Farm Security Administration

In the early 1930s Lange began to notice homeless men hanging round on the San Francisco streets. Along with everyone else she watched as this trickle turned into a flood of homeless families, farmers uprooted from the Mid-Western states by crop failures caused by drought and over-farming and exacerbated by bank foreclosures by banks who were themselves fighting off bankruptcy. Altogether some 300,000 farmers and their families were forced to head West in the hope of getting work as casual labourers in California.

This, and the accompanying political uproar it caused, woke Lange from her aesthetic slumber and gave her a subject. She took her camera out onto the street and was soon snapping demonstrations, unemployed workers, and breadline queues.

This section of the exhibition displays some hundred photos she took of these subjects, as well as displaying some of the magazines they were shown in, alongside letters and diaries of her travels into the Dustbowl and among the temporary encampments set up by these poverty-stricken migrants all across southern California.

Lange was hired by the Farm Security Administration work (1935–1939) to publicise the problem in a range of government-sponsored publications. By association she was supporting the Roosevelt administration’s efforts to create a New Deal and support the farmers. She worked alongside other notable photographers, including Walker Evans, Ben Shahn and Arthur Rothstein.

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

White Angel Breadline, San Francisco, 1933 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

The photos show a wide range of subject matter including:

  • urban poverty in San Francisco
  • tenant farmers driven off the land by dust storms
  • mechanisation in the states of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas
  • the plight of homeless families on the road in search of better livelihoods in the West
  • the awful conditions of migrant workers and camps across California

Traveling for many months at a time and working in the field, Lange collaborated with a prominent social economist and expert in farm labour, Paul Schuster Taylor, who became her second husband. With him she published the seminal photo book An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in 1939. A copy of the book and associated letters and diaries are on display here.

Room 3 Migrant Mother

There’s an entire room devoted to the iconic Migrant Mother photo, rather as there used to be a room at the National Gallery devoted to Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks. And after all the two images have a lot in common, being images of a mother and baby.

But what justifies giving it a room of its own is the backstory to the photo. Driving along, Lange saw a sign to a pea-picking camp, took a detour to visit it, wandered round, saw this particularly wretched mother and her swarming infants in a truly pitiful make-do shelter, and asked permission to photograph her.

Because the final version is so iconic it’s lost a lot of its power to shock. The photos she took in the run-up to the final version were – to me at any rate – completely unfamiliar and their unfamiliarity recaptures that sense of squalor and abandonment. It’s just a makeshift tent in a crappy bit of scrubland, sheltering children in rags with nothing to eat. There’s nothing epic or artistic about it. It is pure misery.

Migrant Mother alternate takes by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migrant Mother alternate takes by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Architecture

It’s possible to become a little overloaded with Lange’s powerful images of the poor trudging along streets carrying all their earthly possessions in a blanket, or dirty men hanging round street corners begging for work.

The exhibition points out that Lange also had an eye for the stark architecture of the Mid-West. She shot buildings in a classic, square-on way which gives them a striking monumentality.

Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas, June 1938 by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress

Dust Bowl, Grain Elevator, Everett, Texas, June 1938 by Dorothea Lange. Library of Congress

There’s also a section which focuses on Lange’s interest in parts of the body. Photos of people’s arms, or legs, or torsos, capturing the arrangement of limbs in a self-conscious, posed, artistic way. The curators speculate that this may have been something to do with the fact that Lange had polio when she was seven, which left her right leg and foot noticeably weakened.

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, 1940 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Later in life Lange came to think that having to overcome such a physical trauma at such an early age had shaped her personality, her ambition, her refusal to quit.

It was the most important thing that happened to me, and formed me, guided me, instructed me, helped me and humiliated me.

Maybe her own personal struggle against illness predisposed her to be interested in the underdog?

Room 6 Japanese American internment

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the U.S. Government decided to round up and intern all U.S. citizens of Japanese descent. Even at the time many people thought this was a mistake and it has gone on to become a well-known radical cause célèbre.

Over the next year more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans were rounded up by the War Relocation Authority and housed in makeshift camps. Lange’s series of photos depict not only the Japanese-Americans themselves, but the architecture and infrastructure of the camps. There are bleak signs and posters attacking the Japanese, or in which patriotic Americans announced their loyalty.

It is the first time this series of works has been shown outside the US and Canada.

Centerville, California by Dorothea Lange. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry were housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 1942. Courtesy National Archives

Centerville, California by Dorothea Lange. This evacuee stands by her baggage as she waits for evacuation bus. Evacuees of Japanese ancestry were housed in War Relocation Authority centers for the duration, 1942. Courtesy National Archives

Room 7 California shipyards

As America swung into full wartime production mode, all aspects of agriculture and industry across Lange’s native California were called on to play their part. The shipyards at Richmond, California became an important centre for producing naval vessels. Along with friend and fellow photographer Ansel Adams, Lange documented the war effort in the shipyards for Fortune magazine in 1944.

The town experienced an explosive increase in population numbers and business of the endlessly changing shifts of shipyard workers. To quote the wall label, Lange was ‘drawn to images that transgressed accepted attitudes towards gender and race’ i.e. women and blacks.

Shipyard worker, 1943 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Shipyard worker, 1943 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

After the rooms full of photos of begging farmers, of the wrongfully interned Japanese, and of black and woman shipyard workers, you have got a good feel for the way Lange had made herself a portrayer of the underdog, a chronicler of society’s victims or defiers of conventional values.

She faced a problem, then, after the war, when America headed into a prolonged period of high employment and affluence. The wall label tells us that Lange disapproved of the arrival of mass consumer culture, cheap homes, a radio and then a TV, a fridge and an affordable car for everyone.

To me, it seems that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t produce tear-jerking images of utter poverty and wretchedness, begging the government for something to be done – and then be upset when people finally find work, employment, and can afford somewhere decent to live, a house, a car.

It seemed to me that Lange, by now a familiar figure on the Left, had settled into a posture of permanent opposition, even when Americans had never had it so good.

Room 9 Public defender

This comes over in the project she embarked on in 1955. California had instituted a new system of public defenders to represent the poorest plaintiffs in court, and Lange spent six weeks shadowing one of these new public defenders, Martin Pulich.

From the jaws of the most affluent nation on earth, Lange was able to pull a series of photos which still managed to focus on poverty, bad education and the sorry squalor of the criminal classes.

She has such a great eye. The courtroom shots are all powerfully composed. There are classic shots of a grim-faced judge sitting under an American flag, of Pulich standing next to a sequence of sorry, shame-faced defendants, of the defendants’ wives or girlfriends slumped in anguish in the corridors outside the court. Of prison vans and prison cells.

Public Defender in Court, Oakland, California (1955) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Public Defender in Court, Oakland, California, 1955 by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

In the era when more Americans had better paid jobs than ever before, bought their own houses and cars, and their kids were cruising round listening to Elvis on the radio, Lange was exploring the US legal defence system for the poor and disadvantaged through the work of a public defender at the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland.

I guess affluence and happiness are just such boring subjects for artists. There is an in-built bias in modern (post-Great War) art, towards always focusing in on the underdog, the downtrodden, the pitiful and the outcast. The many millions who have great jobs, drive big cars, have barbeques with family at the weekend? Not seen so often in ‘modern’ art, film or photos.

Room 10 Death of a valley

In 1956 Lange heard about a town in California that was going to be destroyed by the construction of a dam.

Death of a Valley (1956–57) was the series of photos she made in collaboration with photographer Pirkle Jones, to document the disappearance of the small rural town of Monticello in California’s Berryessa Valley as a consequence of the damming of the Putah Creek.

The pair set out to capture the traditional rhythms of rural life in spring and summer – and then to document the uprooting of the town, the literal carting away of many of the wooden houses and the digging up of the dead to be reburied elsewhere, before the developers moved in with their giant earthworking machines and the remaining buildings were burnt to the ground.

Her depiction of cowboy hat-wearing old-timers dressed in dungarees in village stores are classic evocations of small-town California life. More vocative shots of rugged, individual people.

What also struck me about this sequence was that Lange was rarely good with pure landscapes. The few shots of the valley, as a whole,, on its own, are flat. Whenever people enter the frame, the photos jump to life.

These photos haven’t, apparently, been displayed or published since the 1960s.

Death of a Valley by Dorothea Lange (1957) © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Death of a Valley by Dorothea Lange, 1957 © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Room 11 Ireland

In 1954 Lange made the only trip she ever made outside the USA, to Ireland. She spent six weeks in County Clare in western Ireland, capturing the experience of life in and around the farming town of Ennis.

Once again she demonstrates her terrific eye for spotting immensely characterful people and capturing them in richly evocative black and white photographs.

Ennistymon fair, County Clare Ireland (1954) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

Ennistymon fair, County Clare Ireland (1954) by Dorothea Lange © The Dorothea Lange Collection, the Oakland Museum of California

But also, this series clinched for me the feeling that, at some point, Lange stopped portraying the world, the actual world – the big wide world of the Cold War and supersonic jets and colour TVs and cars with big fins pulling into diners where Elvis is blaring out of the jukebox.

Her black-and-white vision of the underdog, forged in the Great Depression, was only a part of American culture, even back then – and became a slenderer, almost endangered vision of outsiderness, as the majority of America headed confidently into an era of unprecedented affluence.

It seems to me wholly characteristic that she had to go abroad, leaving America altogether, to seek out the kind of peasant ‘honesty’ and ‘truthfulness’ and the ‘dignity of labour’ and so on, which she was temperamentally attracted to but was ceasing to exist in the land of I Love Lucy and the drive-in movie.

Lange’s politics

Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts, Barbican, says:

Dorothea Lange is undoubtedly one of the great photographers of the twentieth century and the issues raised through her work have powerful resonance with issues we’re facing in society today.

Well, yes and no. There isn’t currently, in 2018, a great collapse in American agriculture forcing hundreds of thousands of farmers to migrate to the coast. There isn’t a world war in which people from the enemy nation are being interned in mass camps. Ireland is no longer a nation of sturdy peasants riding carts to market, but of financial over-reach and Catholic paedophilia.

If Alison means that Lange depicted poverty, well, when in human history hasn’t there been grinding poverty somewhere in the world? And when haven’t there been moralists, from Goya to Dickens, who have felt it their duty to record poverty and squalor?

1. This is a major overview of a really important photographer, showing how she brought an acute eye for the human, for human character, for the pathos of the human condition, to a wide range of embattled situations.

2. But it also made this visitor, at any rate, think about the nature of oppositional artists who thrive by focusing on the downtrodden, on society’s losers. It made me ponder whether this choice of subject matter represents a political act – in the sense that setting up a political party, making speeches, writing manifestos and hammering out party platforms is a political act – or whether it is more of a temperamental and artistic choice, a preferred subject matter – the subject matter which brings out the best in an artist and which they therefore learn to focus on it, as Stubbs specialised in horses or Bacon on screaming popes.

In other words, whether what Alison describes as ‘politics’ isn’t really, in fact, just a type of style.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Family Values: Polish Photography Now @ Calvert 22 Foundation

Calvert 22 is the foundation and gallery set up to promote art and culture from the former communist countries of Eastern Europe and the USSR.

The foundation as a whole is currently hosting a season titled Family Values: Polish Photography Now, a season of photography and events examining Polish visual culture from the second part of the 20th century through to the present day.

At the centre of the season sits the first exhibition devoted to Polish photography in the UK. The exhibition showcases the work of six photographers who all explore the themes of family and home and often, by implication, the nature of our familiar and social identities.

Zofia Rydet (1911 – 1997)

Having worked as a photographer in communist Poland since the 1950s, and gained some success, with exhibitions held and books published about her work, it was only in 1978, at the relatively advanced age of 67, that Zofia Rydet embarked on the monumental project that was to consume her until she died and to make her name.

She set out to make a photographic portrait of every person in Poland. (The population of Poland in 1978 was 38 million.)

Over the course of twenty years she photographed 20,000 people in their homes, the pace of the project only limited at the end by her increasing physical frailty. The work is known as the Sociological Record (1978 – 1997).

Installation view of photos by Zofia Rydet at Calvert 22

Installation view of photos by Zofia Rydet at Calvert 22

Much admired in Poland, Rydet is only now coming to wide international prominence. Her work – this vast sociological study – has never been seen in the UK before, and it is fascinating.

Most of the photographs were taken in the villages and towns of Podhale, Upper Silesia, and Suwalki. They are almost entirely portraits of children, men, women, couples, families and the elderly shot in their homes amid their familiar belongings.

She cajoled the participants into place and carefully arranged their belongings and possessions around them, subtle indicators of their everyday lives, random objects picked up on holiday or in shops, alongside religious icons and images which (we guess) have a much deeper meaning and power.

Rydet tended to photograph her subjects straight-on, using a wide-angle lens and a flash. The images are static, revealing, and somehow, at the same time, both bleakly realistic but also mysteriously moving.

Couples from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Couples from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Rydet broke the Sociological Record down into various sub-categories: TV Sets, Women on Doorsteps, Windows and Disappearing Professions. As you might expect, a key theme is The Family, and Rydet systematically photographed the family in all its possible permutations: men, women, children, married couples, teenagers, grandparents, babies, multiple generations simultaneously, the elderly and the infirm.

Children and Young People from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Children and Young People from the Sociological Record series (1978-1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

The exhibition features 35 photos – just 35 from 20,000! – which take you across or through at least three barriers –

  1. into a communist country, with all that implies in terms of low standard of living and shoddy consumer goods
  2. into an East European country, specifically conservative Catholic Poland, with its distinctive culture
  3. back to the 1970s and 80s where TV had only just arrived, and plenty of people still lived in cabins with very traditional furnishings
Women from the Sociological Record series (1978 - 1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy The Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Women from the Sociological Record series (1978 – 1990) by Zofia Rydet. Courtesy the Zofia Rydet Foundation and Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Note in this photos the peculiar combination of what looks like an embroidered image of the Polish Pope,  John Paul II, hanging on the wall above tacky, blow-up plastic balloons of Hello Kitty and an inflatable telephone. Are these jokes? Or prized possessions of the relatively poor and unsophisticated?

Rydet presents you with loads of deadpan images which invite you, the viewer, to try and puzzle them out. They raise all kinds of questions and thoughts.

Here’s a YouTube video, entirely in Polish which I can’t understand, but which gives a generous sample of stills from Sociological Record.

Józef Robakowski (b.1939)

Józef Robakowski is a leading Polish artist not least because he was one of the first Poles to work with video. In 1981, the year that martial law was imposed in Poland, he was removed from his post as professor at the Film, Television and Theatre State Academy at Łódź.

Forced back on his own resources, Robakowski developed the idea of film-making called ‘personal cinema’. One of the key works in this genre is From My Window which does what it says on the tin. For over 20 years, from 1978 to 2000, Robakowski filmed what he could see out the kitchen window of his apartment.

Film still from From My Window (1978-1999) by Józef Robakowski. Courtesy AK/BRANICKA

Film still from From My Window (1978-1999) by Józef Robakowski. Courtesy AK/BRANICKA

Looking down into the square below, Robakowski’s camera records the daily activities of neighbours or passersby, as well as stray cats and dogs. His retreat into the world of the everyday represents a resistance to the conformist values imposed on Polish citizens by the communist regime.

But the film is also, fairly obviously, a kind of ‘alternative surveillance’, carried out not by the state but by a citizen with an acute eye for incident and composition. A different kind of surveillance. One which claims to be non-political and innocent but… can the human eye ever be innocent of intention and control?

Presumably Robakowski shot a lot of footage. It is represented in the exhibition by a 20 minute-long video which is both humdrum and strangely absorbing at the same time. If you slow yourself right down to Robakowski Time, it becomes beguilingly enjoyable.

Aneta Grzeszykowska (b.1974)

Aneta Grzeszykowska has been responsible for a varied and interesting body of photographic work. In Album (2005) she took over 200 photographs from her private family archive and used Photoshop to remove her own figure from each picture. In Untitled Portraits she used Photoshop to create detailed colour photos of people who don’t exist but are creations using Photoshop.

Untitled Film Stills (2006) was a homage to Cindy Sherman’s work of the same title, in which Grzeszykowska took 70 self-portraits, in each one made up and dressed to appear as a female ‘type’, from housewife to ballerina.

Black is a 15-minute video which starts with her naked body, in black and white, against a jet black backdrop, and slowly bits of it are painted or become black, so that bit by bit her whole body is blacked out, leaving last of all her face, and mouth and then – pop! – all gone.

Black. 2007, videostills

Black (2007) videostill

As a heterosexual man, it would be hypocritical not to mention the pleasure that the sight of a svelte naked young women gives me. It’s noticeable the way that the women artists who make a habit of stripping off generally are young, trim and svelte. ‘Isn’t this kind of counter to everything feminism stands for?’ I asked my woman friend. ‘No, you idiot,’ she replied. ‘The whole point is that the artist is choosing to do this, on her own terms, and thus is empowered by being naked in her own time and space, at her own volition, for her own purposes.’ Still looks a lot like a pinup to me, I grumbled as I walked on.

Grzeszykowska is represented in this exhibition by works from a series titled Negative Book. This is a further working of the ideas of presence and absence obvious in Album, along with the black and white palette from Black.

In Negative Book, Grzeszykowska has taken photos of scenes from family life – from an apparently random selection of ‘ordinary’ families – and printed the negative – a simple strategy which is, nonetheless, quite haunting. But she’s gone a long step further by including herself in each of the photos, as an interloper.

Negative Book #23 by Aneta Grzeszykowska (2012-2013) Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

Negative Book #23 by Aneta Grzeszykowska (2012-2013) Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

But here’s the real distinctive thing about these photos – whereas the ‘families’ and all their surroundings appear in negative, she herself appears in a strange kind of spectral ‘normality’. Her figure has a kind of spectral glow, but isn’t the same kind of ‘negative’ as the other figures. Takes a while to really register this.

Negative Book #46 (2012-2013) by Aneta Grzeszykowska. Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

Negative Book #46 (2012-2013) by Aneta Grzeszykowska. Courtesy of Raster Gallery, Warsaw

It was only by reading the wall label that I learned that Grzeszykowska achieves the affect by painting herself black and white – so there’s a direct link with the film Black – but painting the white bits of herself black and the black bits of herself white.

Just in case we don’t grasp the verbal explanation there is a handy film showing her doing just that, once again, starting from complete nudity. ‘But…’ I turned to my friend. ‘God, men,’ she rolled her eyes and walked away.

Thus she paints her white body black, her black pubes and nipples and eyebrows white, wears a white wig as a negative of her own black hair, and so on. If there’s anything to notice about it stylistically it’s that the painting is done deliberately roughly, slapdash – not to create a scientifically precise effect.

Image result for Aneta Grzeszykowska negative process

And the final effect? For me, with an imagination saturated in the conflicts of 20th century history, I saw her negative photos as weirdly glowing, as if from the after effects of some great radioactive disaster. The first of the two from Negative Book, with the man holding a child, seemed to me like shots from a weird alien landscape, the first humans on an alien planet.

There’s a slideshow of images from Negative Book on YouTube.

Adam Palenta (b.1976)

Cinematographer and director Adam Palenta is a graduate of the Faculty of Radio and Television at the University of Silesia, the Academy of Fine Arts, now the University of Arts in Poznań and the Dok Pro documentary film programme run by the Wajda School.

He was awarded a Ministry of Culture and National Heritage Młoda Polska (Young Poland) scholarship in 2010 and has received numerous commendations and awards for his work, including the cinematography for the short feature, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark Room (2009).

He’s represented here by House on its Head. The film shows the family life of Wojciech Zamecznik (1923–1967), an architect, set designer and eminent poster artist, who made an immense archive of black and white home movies of his family life, meetings and trips with friends.

Palenta was given access to this huge archive and edited it together, incorporating graphic works and experimental materials, to complement the documentary material. The film provides not only an interesting perspective on the artist’s everyday life, but also a rare opportunity to watch simple family life in the communist Poland of the 1950s.

You can watch the entire film on YouTube.

Weronika Gęsicka (b.1984)

Gęsicka is a well-established contemporary Polish photographer. She is represented here by a series titled Traces. In her own words:

The project is based on vintage photographs purchased from an image bank. Most of these photos came from American archives from the 1950s and 1960s.

The photos include family scenes, vacation souvenirs, everyday life, all lit, styled and with a slightly washed-out colour palette reminiscent of those ‘Hey honey, I’m home’ 1950s postcards and adverts. Epitomes, in other words, of an idyllic, utopian vision of American suburban life.

Gęsicka has set out to undermine each of them using Photoshop-style technical manipulation, in highly imaginative and often humorous ways. Here is the archetypal American family at prayer before a Thanksgiving (?) Dinner except that… they are fading away.

Untitled #18 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Untitled #18 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

In other photos the people, but only the people, have turned into jigsaws, or have wooden structures instead of heads. My friend liked this one best, but all of them are very good, very imaginative, done with perfect style and taste.

Untitled #1 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Untitled #1 from the Traces series by Weronika Gęsicka. Courtesy the artist and Jednostka Gallery

Gęsicka says:

We know nothing of the actual ties between the individuals in the photographs; we can only guess at the truthfulness of their gestures and gazes. Are they actors playing happy families, or real persons whose photos were put up for sale by the image bank?

This question of identity and purpose may well trouble Gęsicka. ‘Identity’ is one of the buzzwords and buzz ideas of contemporary art.

And if you think for a minute, there is also an obvious influence from Surrealist art – the idea of jarring collages reminding me of no end of works by Max Ernst. Or, at least, Gęsicka’s works are highly reminiscent of Surrealist strategies.

But for the casual visitor and viewer, these ideas and connotations can be set aside. Her images work in themselves, refreshingly quirky, odd, and entertaining. It’s tempting to try and make up captions for some of them.

Gęsicka’s website has a gallery of images from the Traces series, and there’s also a YouTube slideshow.

Which one is your favourite?

Aneta Bartos

Nudes

If you do a Google Images search for Aneta Bartos you immediately discover that she’s taken a lot of soft porn or erotic photos. There’s her standing naked over another naked woman, there’s a suite of shots of a naked man holding his (impressively large) erect penis, two naked women on a bed, two naked women in the corner of a dilapidated room, one lying back against the other while the one behind has one arm across the other’s boobs, the other reaching down to cover her crotch, and so on.

Aneta Bartos online is a festival of nudity.

Self portrait by Aneta Bartos

Self-portrait by Aneta Bartos

As with so many women artists who decide to depict themselves naked, as with Aneta Grzeszykowska above, the woman in question is a) young b) thin c) unblemished, unmarked, perfect. Maybe she is asking questions about the border between art and porn but I’d have thought the answer is pretty simple: these photos are horny.

If we try to put sex out of our minds, the most obvious formal aspect of all these photos is their colour palette and setting. They are very brown and yellow, or sepia. There is little or no white light or black shadow. All the light is yellow, all the shadows are brown. And the locations have a consistent style and feel – dingy. Her nude figures are shot on bare beds, in rooms where the plaster or wallpaper is peeling, the opposite of pristine studio sets.

Naked young men and women, shot in pornographic attitudes, in a soft focus, heavily sepia filter.

Bartos’s dad

So much for Bartos’s internet presence. In this exhibition she is represented by half a dozen or so large prints from her project Family Portrait.

I happened to visit at the same time as a gallery official (a press officer?) was showing a journalist round and explaining each of the photographers’ works. She explained that Bartos’s father was a famous body-builder in Poland, who took part in competitions and publicity and tours.

As Bartos pursued her photographic studies, it dawned on both of them that he himself would make a good subject for study. Hence a series apparently titled Dad on her website which depict Papa Bartos in his jock strap, flexing his muscles in locations around the – presumably – family home, which appears to be in the countryside – here he is posing in fields, opening windows, by a railway track, kissing a sheep.

They have distinctive Bartos characteristics i.e. the isolated human subject is not wearing much, the whole palette is a washed out yellowy colour, and – as far as I can tell from the internet – almost all the photos are out of focus, presumably deliberately. The effect is to make the photos seem old and weathered, antiques, as if hazy memories of distant childhood.

Family Portrait

So, finally, to the dozen or so photos on display here: Family Portrait shows another selection of photos of her father (the solo subject of Dad), but this time with Bartos herself in the shots. It is a series of father and daughter photos. Double portraits.

As usual they are done with that very yellow tone, and all just out of focus. But what gives nearly all of them a rather unsettling tone is the way that Bartos is often as scantily clad as her father.

Mr Bartos the body-builder is just continuing to walk around in his jockstrap, as per normal, this we are used to – and in some shots Aneta is only wearing a bikini because, after all, it looks like summer wherever the photos were shot. Is the problem in your head if you find this a slightly salacious photo?

Lody, from the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

Lody, from the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

But it wasn’t me, it was the gallery official who pointed out to the journalist that many of the photos do seem to carry an unmistakable sexual or sensual overtone. In this one, a self-portrait with muscley Dad, Bartos doesn’t need to be wearing a bra and panties. The choice of clothes is sending a strong visual message.

From the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series (2017) by Aneta Bartos

Admittedly, in seven of the 23 photos from the series on her website, Bartos is wearing a traditional Victorian-style dress which completely covers most of her body, and even what is presumably a traditional head scarf, a restrained and ‘folk’ look which creates a completely different vibe. Is she playing the dutiful daughter of traditional Catholic Polish culture?

Scythe, from the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

Scythe, from the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

In which case, are all the other poses similarly play acting, role playing – in this one a sort of gangster’s moll or drunk hooker to Dad’s looming strong man?

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

The more you look, the more disconcerted you become. For me, once I’d become completely inured to the sexual element in the photos, I found myself thinking of them as explorations into the power of the photographic image itself.

Bartos is working with constrained subject matter – self-portrait with father – but creates an astonishing range of images with it. All the commentary I’ve read about them focuses – with lumpen inevitability – on the role of the female, on the way she’s playing with ‘gender roles’ within the ‘traditional family’, with ‘society’s tendency to infantilise women’ and so on.

On this reading the overt sexuality of the photographs is a deliberate challenge to patriarchal ideas of fixed roles, of what a father and daughter should be, of traditional boundaries of behaviour or perception. Fine. I get it.

But I thought there was also something deeper going on. It is not just the question, ‘What does this nearly naked man looming out of the shadow towards the bikini babe swigging from a bottle mean?’, or the way that the image undermines ‘traditional’ ideas of decorum between a father and grown-up daughter.

It is the corrosive way that the series of photos cumulatively undermines your faith in your ability to read any photograph – to ever really know what is going on in a photographic image. It was this increasing sense of uncertainty-of-interpretation, this undermining our confidence that we can interpret anything, which I found the really disturbing thing about Aneta Bartos’s work.

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

From the Family Portrait series, 2016 by Aneta Bartos

Curator

Family Values is curated by Kate Bush.


Related links

The photographers’ websites

Related blog posts (about Polish history)

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

(more…)

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 – triptychs 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 triptych 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 the imagination, what do they say? And how much more are your reactions 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 triptych 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 unnerving 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.


Related links

Other blog posts about photography

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.


Related links

Other blog posts about photography

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 more or less ceased for the six years of the duration, and some 475,000 houses were destroyed or made uninhabitable by German bombing.

But many of the homes which remained – unhygienic and rundown slums – 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, along with 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 a kind of duty to be there with her camera, to represent peoples’ experiences in a time of great change and disturbance for whole communities.

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, 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 the unexpected spontaneity of the people who populate and animate each shot.

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 and 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.

Baker’s photos aren’t as proselytising as my text. She lets her photos do the talking.

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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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.


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Reviews of other Whitechapel Gallery exhibitions

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

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see 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 which he has 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 detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting 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 because 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 the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I 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 transsexuals) 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’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is 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 reviews 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 behaviour 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. It is 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 coined to describe a new vogue for 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.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – 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. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

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, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly 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

Were these 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 and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive 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 living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, 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 the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. 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 that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to 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 the writings of Thomas Malthus who 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 channelled 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 lapse 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.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (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.

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 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 from the East India Company 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, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became 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 precisely 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 enjoyed 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 earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – 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, Marie-Pierre became a 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

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which 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 of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that 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 exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were 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 the 1960s.

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 made from photographic film in 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 properly.

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 the images 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 shop full of photography books and equipment.

Since all the exhibitions are FREE, if you arrive 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 holds 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, when 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 the first prize of £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.

The book and display have the overarching title Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation and have 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 I’m familiar with the issues; none of this was really new to me.

The ‘Asselin room’ 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 how new and modern Georgia would become 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 it 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. A nearby monitor is showing a ‘rap’ video in which a Belarussian woman, Xenia Degelko, is singing to an enraptured crowd. The point is that this is a government-sponsored video created by the Belarus authorities and using ‘youth culture’ tropes to promote a patriotic, pro-government message. It is, thus, an example of Milach’s overarching theme of government manipulation, and what he sees as the need for refusal of this manipulation.

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 bust or portrait framing 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. Reynolds’ video circulated widely online and clocked up 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. As the gallery guide puts it:

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.

In other words it makes you compare and contrast her image in the self-filmed distraught moments after the shooting – and how that image was swept up in social media and then into a firestorm of angry comment about police racism in America – with this silent, calm and meditative image? Which is the real Diamond? Who owns her image, and her behaviour? How is anyone’s ‘personality’ caught and distorted by film?

I’d like to link off to the video on YouTube but it doesn’t seem to be on there. Here’s a promotional still. Diamond is recorded, successively wearing a couple of different outfits, in all of them looking screen left, downwards, silent and expressionless. Quite obviously portrayed in a soulful, introspective mode. Which is the real Diamond? Can we ever know? Are we, the viewers, participants in yet another distortion or only partial presentation of her personality? Discuss.

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. They play consecutively, one after the other.


Related links

The photographers’ websites

Other photography reviews

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