Jessa Fairbrother: Constellations and Coordinates @ the Photographers’ Gallery

If you visit the Photographer’s Gallery (just off Oxford Street, in central London) the main exhibitions on the upper floors are well signposted, but it’s easy to overlook the existence of the print room exhibition space down in the basement.

Here they display works by up-and-coming photographers which you can not only admire but buy. (They also have a back catalogue of works by other photographers associated with the gallery, which you can order as prints, framed or unframed.)

The print room is currently hosting a small but beautifully formed exhibition, the first major solo show of British artist Jessa Fairbrother, titled Constellations & Coordinates.

Constellation 6 by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of the Photographers' Gallery

Constellation 6 by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery. £1,750 + VAT, including frame

Jessa takes stylish black and white photos of herself posing naked, in a range of positions suggestive of ballet or yoga, poses which are always dynamic, in which her body, bent forward or backward with outstretched arms expresses a powerful sense of yearning, stretching, reaching, straining. The sense that it is just a body is emphasised by the fact that in every single photo her head is turned away, her face almost always hidden, we certainly never see her eyes and so, in that basic sense, never engage with her self or soul. Instead we are confronted with the (female) body as living sculpture, arranged and posed so as to emphasise patterns and arrangements.

(Quite apart from all other considerations I wonder where she got the ideas for all these positions, they’re surprisingly varied and yet at the same time have a kind of formal unity. They don’t seem haphazard and are the opposite of casual. They’re not exactly religious but they radiate a sense of discipline, the sense of a range of hieratic poses being worked through methodically. From a book of yoga postures, or stretching exercises?)

Anyway, what lifts the photos from being just very attractive nude studies is the fact that Jessa then embroiders the prints to create the sense of swirling, whirling patterns of minuscule dots or holes. Imagine a lace doily. Then imagine a lace doily superimposed over a photo of a naked woman. That’s the effect.

Constellation 9 by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of the Photographers' Gallery

Constellation 9 by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery. £1,750 + VAT, including frame

One series of ten or so photos is titled Constellations, the other series is titled Coordinates. What’s the difference? The Constellations are in black and white, the Coordinates are in colour. To quote the gallery guide:

In Constellations (2018), Fairbrother punctures the surface of the print creating intricate lace like patterns around the photographed figure, inspired by religious icons and ancient sculptures of female deities. The raised pattern also echoes braille embossing, suggesting a more tactile consideration of the work and alternative readings.

Coordinates (2019) emerged from a fascination with the systems we employ to make sense of the world. Fairbrother uses a needle and thread to trace her own emotional topography by sewing directly on to the photography of her own body, revealing hidden contour lines.

So in the black and white ones a needle or some kind of implement is used to perforate the print and create the intricate curving abstract patterns of tiny holes across the surface of the print – while in the colour ones, coloured thread is sewn into the print in order to create ovals, bands, halos and triangles made up of hundreds of tiny flowerhead shapes. In both types the flat surface of the original print is damaged, manipulated, altered, to create a new work.

Coordinate VII 2019 by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of the Photographers' Gallery

Coordinate VII 2019 by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery. £2,150 + VAT, including frame

The use of colour does at least two things.

One, quite obviously, is that it makes the basic component, the image of the naked female body, a lot more candid, brutal, realistic. The black and white photos distance the image, giving her body the abstract beauty of Greek sculpture, plain, white, marmoreal, detached and also somehow dated – any black and white image carrying the suggestion that it is historic, distant, from the past, any stylish black and white nude evoking, for me at any rate, memories of Man Ray’s wondrous nudes from the 1930s.

This sense of distance, of detachment, is echoed or emphasised by the nature of Fairbrother’s decoration of the black and white shots. The stippled effect of the doily patterns is muted and subdued, understated, with two results: the patterns blend in with the white surface of the body – from even a little distance away they begin to disappear; you have to lean right in to enjoy the amazing detail of the patterns. Connected to this is the way the patterns are more extensive; because they are more subtle they can afford to cover almost her entire body ( see Constellation 9, above).

The colour works in the Coordinates series make a sharp contrast in every way to these elements. Colour photography is a lot less forgiving, a lot more explicit of detail. Thus – to highlight an apparently trivial detail – in the colour photos you can see Fairbrother’s moles. You can see the rosy colour of her nipples, the brown shade of her pubic hair, the way her white belly and chest give way to the pink or rose colouring of her neck and throat.

In other words, her body has lost the abstract, statue-like quality it had in the black and white shots. It is very much the body of a young white woman, alive, now.

The second impact of colour is the way the use of coloured thread as the medium of patterning makes a startling difference from the mute, understated quality of the stippling in the black and white photos.

The patterns made up (mostly) of coloured flower or star shapes really dominate the images. They risk making the images seem too hectic or busy. Looking at them again and again I can see that Fairbrother has had to be much more sparing of the coloured patterning. Less is more.

Whereas in a piece like Constellation 9 (above) almost every inch of her body is covered in patterning, you can see how in a piece like Coordinate VII (above) very little of her body is covered with the flower shapes. Because the colour patterning is so much more dominant, a new equilibrium, a new dynamic has to be established between the power of the body and the power of the design.

This maybe explains why, in the colour works, the main focus of the pattern is not on her body. Instead, the colour ones tend to feature abstract patterns emerging from, or surrounding her body.

These are of three types: first of all the circular halo of flower shapes surrounding her head (as in Coordinate VII , above). Then there are the ones where an isosceles triangle of flower patterns is bursting from or superimposed from her shoulders or chest or stomach.

Coordinate VIII 2019 by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of the Photographers' Gallery

Coordinate VIII 2019 by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery. £2,150 + VAT, including frame

And the final type is where her body is placed within a large oval of flowers which fills the picture and reminds me of an old-fashioned Victorian or Edwardian picture frame.

In all of these oval frame pictures Fairbrother is upright and facing away from us, stretching out her arms and leaning forward. Maybe she discovered that the oval frame required symmetry, and so didn’t go with the other, mostly asymmetrical, poses which she uses in almost all the other works.

Coordinate XII 2019 by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of the Photographers' Gallery

Coordinate XII 2019 by Jessa Fairbrother © Jessa Fairbrother. Courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery. £2,650 + VAT, including frame

In all the colour shots it is also noticeable that although her body has some decoration on it, it’s nowhere near as much as the all-over stippling of the black and white works. It’s almost as if the use of colour decoration calls into being a different way of seeing, or of thinking about shapes and patterns. It’s almost as if the harshness of colour, as a photographic medium, requires or invokes or inspires or suits a correspondingly harsher geometry.

Thoughts

I think these are marvellous. I was entranced. They attract on multiple levels. At a most obvious level Fairbrother has a very attractive, sexy body. As a heterosexual man I acknowledge that I enjoyed the sight of it very much. At a slightly higher level, I was fascinated by the variety of poses. I do stretching exercises at the gym, and could imaginatively feel my way into many of the positions and poses she adopts and was intrigued by their source: did she just make them up?

Beyond that, as I noticed that you never see her face I realised that she was deliberately refusing what you might call a human, emotional, candid encounter, the kind we all have when we see someone’s eyes and assess their thoughts and feelings in a million ways. The consistent choice not to show her face amounts to an aesthetic decision to distance her self from her body, to make her body into an expressive medium, a tool for her art, an object to be arranged for aesthetic effect.

And then I was fascinated by the way that the choice between black and white or colour created a whole cascade of stylistic and aesthetic consequences – which can be summarised as ‘black and white subtle, zoomorphic and sensuous’, ‘colour more brutal, geometric, shiny, brash’.

As has probably become clear by now, I preferred the black and white works titled Constellation, finding them subtler, more understated and, once you leaned in to really look, full of far more rich and complex patterns than the colour ones. But I can also appreciate how the colour ones would suit a different mood, more energetic and brassy. They are more dynamic in the aesthetic sense, meaning there is a greater range of colour, tone and image (colour itself being a form of energy, and the nearly regular geometric shapes of circle, oval and triangle possessing a dynamically mathematical energy). But – now I look yet again – I think in many of the colour ones she is actually moving, tossing her head back so her hair swings backwards.

Different styles for different moods.

Like all great ideas this perforation and embroidering of photographs is stunningly simple, once someone has done it and shown it to you. What a great idea, and how brilliantly she has executed it. Deeply enjoyable.


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Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize acknowledges an international photographer for an outstanding body of work that has been exhibited or published in Europe in the previous twelve months. Projects are recognised for their major achievements and innovations in the field of photography and contemporary culture.

The DBPFP19 exhibition aims both to highlight and give platform to four very diverse artistic practices, which simultaneously display innovative, committed and engaged approaches to photography

Each year a long list is drawn up and then the panel of judges whittles it down to a list of four finalists. The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced at a special award ceremony held at The Photographers’ Gallery on 16 May 2019.

N.B.

Note two things:

  1. books Several of the projects originated as books and the book versions are on display in display cases and can be bought separately at the Photographers Gallery shop. For exhibition purposes the books are dismantled and various elements of them blown-up, printed and variously displayed on the gallery walls, but it’s worth bearing in mind the bookish origins of most of the projects.
  2. projects The prize is not narrowly about photography, it is much more broadly about ‘achievements in the field of contemporary culture’, a very wide and loose definition.

This year’s four short-listed artists are:

1. Laia Abril for the publication On Abortion (Dewi Lewis Publishing, November 2017)

2. Susan Meiselas for the exhibition Mediations (exhibited at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, 6 February–30 May 2018)

3. Arwed Messmer for the exhibition RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis (exhibited at ZEPHYR|Raum für Fotografie, Mannheim, 9 September – 5 November 2017)

4. Mark Ruwedel for the exhibition Artist and Society: Mark Ruwedel (16 February–16 December 2018 at Tate Modern, London)

1. On Abortion by Laia Abril

Laia Abril was born in Spain in 1986 (aet. 33).

Over five years Abril has compiled a multi-layered, visual history of abortion. Her display starts with a row of photos of early contraceptive  devices and abortion equipment, so that you slowly move past a series of images of gruesome-looking implements which have been used to perform abortions through the ages.

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

The next wall features photographic portraits Abril has made of women who tell their traumatic stories of being denied abortions in their native countries, or the risks they undertook to travel to another country to have one.

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Each of these start b&w portraits is accompanied by the subject’s story. This is Marta’s:

“On January 2, 2015, I travelled to Slovakia to have an abortion. [In Poland, abortion is illegal except in cases of sexual assault, serious foetal deformation, or threat to the mother’s life] I was too scared to take DIY abortion pills alone. What if something went wrong? So I decided to get a surgical abortion in a clinic abroad. I felt upset about borrowing money for the procedure, and lonely and frustrated because I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. The hardest part was facing my boyfriend, who opposes abortion. All the same, I felt stronger and more mature afterwards.”

The damage done to individuals by lack of access to legal, safe and free abortion services is indicated by this grid of nine women who all died because of botched abortions or because abortions were denied them by the state, even in cases of extreme medical emergency.

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

At the end of the final wall is an information panel which lists some of the attacks, arson and murders carried out by anti-abortion activists in America over the past few decades.

The project, in the words of the curators:

addresses the marginalised position of women in past and contemporary societies, whilst exposing the many social triggers, stigmas and taboos that still persist around abortion and female health.

Towards the end is this strikingly clear, bright image.

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

The story behind it is:

“In February 2015, a 19-year-old woman took abortion pills in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, then went to hospital with abdominal pain. After treatment, her doctor called the police, who handcuffed her to the bed and forced her to confess. In Brazil, abortion is illegal under most circumstances and doctors are known to break their confidentiality code in order to denounce women who try it. Patients accused of attempting abortion have been detained in hospitals for weeks and even months.”

My opinion

A close reading of the criteria and aims of the exhibition suggest there is a tension – or a spectrum – running between pure photography-as-art at one end and photography subordinated to ‘committed and engaged’ achievements in contemporary culture at the other.

Of the four projects, Abril’s seems to me the most obviously political, certainly the most ‘committed and engaged’ and, what’s more, on a highly emotive and often harrowing subject.

On that basis – if the judges give weight to the ‘committed and engaged’ criterion – I’d be surprised if Abril doesn’t win.

2. aka Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas

Meisalas was born in the USA in 1948 (aet. 71).

She is an internationally acclaimed documentary photographer who’s been working for five decades, whose subjects have included war, human rights and cultural conflicts such as the sex industry and the visual representation of women.

She takes an immersive approach, spending long periods of time with her subjects. In addition to photographs, she produces essays and artworks, audio and film installations.

Meiselas has been working on a long-term project titled Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, offering a multi-layered history of the Kurds. It has not been a happy history. The Kurdish people are spread across an area which overlaps the four states of south-east Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and eastern Iran, what were once described to me as four of the most brutal regimes on earth.

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

It was seeing reports of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds in the late 1980s that inspired Meiselas to visit the area in the early 1990s. Here she began to document the atrocities committed by the Hussein regime, including mass executions, tortures and rape.

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Thus began a process which has continued for the past thirty years, with Meiselas continuing to work with Kurdish diasporic communities to document their experiences and gather visual evidence – documents, family photos, maps, mementos and personal stories – to give shape to a collective memory of Kurdistan.

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

The work itself consists of two walls of colour photographs showing destroyed villages, exhumed graves, and family members mourning the dead.

Another wall has been turned into an enormous map of the Middle East and Europe, into which pins have been driven at locations where Kurdish diasporas exist (London, Berlin) and from these pins hang photos, documents, brochures and pamphlets telling their stories, complete with photos of themselves, family members alive and dead and so on. A sort of archive of memories.

And, on the fourth wall there is a film installation which, on parallel screens, intersperses photos Meiselas has taken with historic photos and footage of people and places from the region, alongside personal testimony from Kurdish survivors as well as Meiselas herself.

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

My opinion

Between 1987 and 1991 I worked on Channel Four’s international affairs TV programme. I was the assistant producer in charge of stories from Asia, defined as all the countries from Japan to Israel and including the two most populous nations on earth, China and India.

But it was the Middle East which kept making the news and my stint coincided with the end of the Iran-Iraq War (20 August 1988) and the first Gulf War (2 Aug 1990 – 28 Feb 1991).

During this time I got to know quite a bit about the Kurds and their culture. In fact, on one occasion I was driven to a ‘safe house’ in West London to meet Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who was at that point on the run from Saddam Hussein’s assassins, for an interview and to persuade him to appear on British TV to put the case for Kurdish independence. He agreed so I was his minder and organiser for that appearance. Later, he went on to be elected the first post-Saddam President of Iraq, serving from 2006 to 2014.

I remember to this day producing the section of the show which covered Saddam’s gassing of the village of Halabja on March 16, 1988. At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack and an estimated further 7,000 people were injured or suffered long term illness. What a bastard he was. That weekend I produced the part of the show where we interviewed a poison gas expert describing the effects on the body of the nerve agents Tabun and Sarin – the burning lungs, the seared skin, the agonising pain as you go blind – and then a regional expert explaining why Saddam launched the attack and what he hoped to gain (to terrorise the local Kurdish population into stopping their support for the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas who had recently taken control of the region).

The full history of the Kurds is long and complicated. Just the story of the past thirty years, from the persecutions of Saddam, through the chaos of the Iraqi Civil War, and then the eruption of ISIS into Kurdish territory in 2014, right up to last week’s news that Kurdish forces played a key role in taking the final ISIS stronghold in Syria – is a tortuously complicated story which requires a lot of explaining.

So I know a bit about Kurdish political history, I’ve met Kurdish political leaders and regional analysts, I’ve been following developments there for 30 years or so – but I felt ambivalent about this display. Gathering the stories of Kurdish survivors is clearly an important contribution to their oral history. Bringing the story of this brutally repressed people to a wider audience is obviously a very worthwhile cause.

And yet I felt ambivalent about the actual products which you see on display, the layout and content of the exhibition. Take the photos of men showing off the scars from beatings and tortures they received from Saddam’s forces – or of Middle Eastern women standing next to a mass grave of their menfolk. These are stock images of stock subjects.

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Obviously a project like this is well-intentioned and has involved a lot of people in numerous forms of collaboration, in telling their often harrowing stories of persecution or uplifting stories of survival.

But, in my experience, accounts like this run the risk of making the horrors of war and genocide in this region seem like inexplicable nightmares, unless and until you make the hard effort to understand the Realpolitik which lies behind them.

The twin drawback of lots of ‘political’ art is that, whatever its good intentions, it tends to rely heavily on images, and on the testimony of the kinds of people who are available to give testimony, who are keen to have their stories heard. Thus it is easy to take photos of weeping mothers and bleak-eyed family members around a mass grave – and it is easy to take extensive accounts of how this or that family survived the attack on their village, the gassing, the roundups for interrogation, made a long trek into the mountains or managed to flee the region altogether.

But the risk is that these sad images and sad stories have the tendency to create an over-simplified dichotomy between the good and the bad, dividing people into sheep and goats. On the one hand are the inexplicable evil bastards who rape and torture and murder and gas and exterminate (represented here by stock photos of defaced images / posters/ paintings of Saddam) – on the other, the weeping mothers and crying children and shell-shocked men standing beside mass graves which are only now being opened up to reveal their grim contents.

But people aren’t black and white, people are a complex mix and if 20th century history teaches us anything, it is that ordinary boring people can be bullied and persuaded to do, and accept, almost anything.

To be more specific, the Kurds themselves are divided into many factions. They have created numerous militias and fighting forces which have proved themselves very effective and with whom the West, in particular America, has allied itself over the past 20 years – but which are themselves no angels.

The area is riven by religious, ethnic, nationalistic, political and militia-based divisions which look set to destabilise it for the foreseeable future.

And, once you’ve gotten familiar with the subject, the stories you really want to hear are not the stories of the men, women and children who escaped to make new lives in Berlin and London, it is the thinking of the leaders, the generals and the politicians who created this mess. It’s in the minefield jungle of conflicting nationalistic and security aims that some kind of compromise and peace has to be thrashed out.

If you want to understand why this kind of thing happens, and are genuine about trying to prevent it happening again, then listening to lots of weeping women isn’t enough. You need to undertake a thorough study of the landscape, the geography and climate and natural resources of the area (because half the time it comes down to fighting over natural resources – water, oil, farmable land), and then of the long, bitter histories of the warring peoples who have lived there.

Only then do atrocities like this become at least comprehensible, and only as they become comprehensible and analysable, can you gather the evidence and arguments to try and stop them happening again. There’s no way to avoid inexplicable atrocity. But if the atrocity turns out to be explicable – if it can be seen as part of a way of government based on terror, as a way of controlling fierce ethnic divisions – then at least that’s a start to thinking about how the international community should deal with governments based on terror, and begins to provide suggestions on how to police ethnic divisions.

I liked the idea of the enormous map with the pamphlets hanging from it as a thing, as an object – but then I love maps of any kind.

The film projections included lots of evocative old photos of Kurdish peasants taken in the late 19th or early 20th century.

All of the photos are taken with great clarity and all-too-vividly capture the horrible traumatic experiences of the victims.

And partly because the room is darkened to allow us to see the projections, the whole thing has a powerful sensaround feel to it.

And maybe all of this, maybe even the mere existence of a people called the Kurds, will come as news to a lot of the gallery goers.

But for me, personally, I didn’t think this display explains to any visitor why the history of the Kurds has been so troubled, exactly what challenges they face, and the best ways forward to some kind of peaceful solution.

3. RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer

If women protesting against illiberal abortion laws, and the sorry plight of the Kurds are both likely to prompt sympathy – or righteous anger – from the enlightened gallery-goer, then this project by Arwed Messmer is much more problematic.

To state the facts:

The Red Army Faction (German: Rote Armee Fraktion), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang was a West German far-left militant organization founded in 1970. Key early figures included Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. The West German government as well as most Western media and literature considered the Red Army Faction to be a terrorist organization.

The Red Army Faction carried out a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades. Their activity peaked in late 1977, which led to a national crisis that became known as the “German Autumn”. The RAF has been held responsible for thirty-four deaths, including many secondary targets, such as chauffeurs and bodyguards, as well as many injuries throughout its almost thirty years of activity.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

Messmer’s display derives from a massive book, a copy of which is available to leaf through on a table in his exhibition room. According to the Photographers’ Gallery:

Messmer’s project repurposes images, documents and other source materials commonly used in police investigations and crime-scene reconstructions that he researched in German state and police archives. Messmer’s new and surprising ‘narrative’ examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history. The installation highlights the early period between 1967 to 1977, showcasing images from the student protests in 1968, police re-enactments and an extensive collection of investigative, forensic and documentary photographs ranging from the mundane to the surreal.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

In the German Autumn of 1977, I was 16 and punk rock was exploding across England. (It wasn’t the only thing that was exploding: here is a list of all the IRA attacks carried out in 1977 – long, isn’t it? If you didn’t live through that era you can’t imagine what it was like to turn on the evening news and read about a new terrorist attack in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain or Europe every night.)

The Clash’s first single White Riot was released in March that year and it seemed a completely appropriate soundtrack to an era of street disorder, to the terrorist shootings, bombings and assassinations which were the routine background to our lives. Baader, Ensslin and other members of the group had been arrested and imprisoned as early as 1972 but this didn’t stop other members of the extended group carrying out terrorist acts throughout the 1970s.

On 17 October 1977, in what came to be called the ‘Death Night’, Ensslin, Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found hanged in their cells at Stammheim Prison. The press ran features about the gang and I pinned atmospheric black-and-white photos of these university-educated would-be revolutionaries up on my bedroom wall, along with all the other symbols of the political chaos of the time.

As to Messmer’s display, this is on four walls of one room. On wall is dominated by an enormous blow-up of a black and white photo of student protester Benno Ohnesorg lying dead having been shot by Germany police during a student demo in June 1967, one of the increasingly violent events which crystallised the belief among some students that they, too, needed to take up arms in order to overthrow the West German capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal state.

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Along the next wall are full-length mug shots of twenty or so student activists protesting at the state funeral of Reichstag President Paul Löbe in August 1967. They’re dressed in all kinds of comical outfits, some wearing make-up, so that it looks more like a parade of clowns and hippies than dangerous radicals. It was still the late ’60s. Hey, hey we’re the Monkees.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

Jump forward ten long years to the period just before the Death Night.

The most evocative or eerie or disturbing element in the display, while at the same time being strangely banal, is an entire wall of photos taken inside the cells of Meinhof and Baader at Stammheim Prison at the time of their deaths.

What struck me was how comfy the cells look, with toothbrushes and rolling tobacco lying about and the walls packed with shelves full of books. It looks a lot like my son’s room at university, only tidier.

I noticed books by the usual suspects lying around, works by Marx and Lenin, of course, and then by the supposedly ‘softer’ Western Marxists such as Gramsci, Lukacs and Walter Benjamin.

Freedom through armed, anti-imperialist struggle.

Compared to other prison cells I’ve read about, compared to the Nazi death camps or the barracks in Russian gulags, this looks like the lap of luxury: hot and cold running water, as many books as you want and even – to my amazement – record players (I noticed a copy of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in Meinhof’s cell).

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader - Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader – Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

My opinion

Does this installation offer a:

new and surprising ‘narrative’ [which] examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history?

As with the Meiselas, I felt the display gave you the opposite of history and the opposite of understanding. I appreciate the aesthetic unity of the project; I appreciate in particular the visual uniformity of style and subject matter of the prison cell photos. Having them cover two walls does create a real sense of claustrophobia (tempered, as I’ve mentioned, by envy at their cracking book collection).

But the installation as a whole doesn’t, I think, begin to convey the mad craziness of the times and the power and persuasiveness of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, student slogans which rang on in universities across the western world and continued to inspire the plane hijackings, the kidnapping and assassination of bankers and industrialists, or just the random acts of violence which dominated the decade.

The most illuminating thing I’ve read about the terrorist movements which raged through the 1970s are the relevant chapters of The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010). It’s a popular and non-scholarly book, but it’s impact lies in the interviews with ex-members of the terrorist groups in Italy, France and Germany who, to a man, feel nothing but shame and regret for the harm, damage and deaths they caused. The chapter in it about the Red Army Faction (pp.111-121) will tell you more about their motivation, their activities, and the regrets of the former members than anything in this display.

4. Artist and Society by Mark Ruwedel

Ruwedel was born in 1954 in America (thus two of the four entrants are Americans). His is the most straightforward display. After the bewilderingly complex moral, social and political issues raised by the multimedia installations, it’s quite a relief to come to a display in a photography exhibition which consists simply of… photographs.

Classic black and white photos of American landscapes and the American scene.

“Typical American House“, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

‘Typical American House’, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

The four walls of this room display beautifully composed, nicely framed, richly evocative black and white photos of a) abandoned houses in the desert b) the relics of military testing in the desert c) distinctively American houses lining Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and d) rivers running through ravines.

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Reading the wall labels you discover these images are indeed collected into sets which have names:

  • Dusk a series showing empty houses and shacks in the bleak empty desert under the twilight sky
  • Pictures from Hell awe-inspiring landscapes which generations of settlers evocatively named Helltown, Devils Gardens, Hells Hollow or Devils Land
  • We All Loved Ruscha his homage to the artist Ed Ruscha, which recreates shots included in Ruscha’s 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip
  • Crater which depicts nuclear test sites in Nevada

I like going on long walks in the country, and I’ve been a fan of land artists like Richard Long from the moment I learned about them in the 1980s, and I am a big fan of the J.G. Ballard aesthetic of how Western civilisation is already living amidst its own ruins – so I warmed most of all to Ruwedel’s shots of eerily deserted bomb test sites.

Ruined old shacks in the desert I’ve seen loads of times; picturesque photos of canyons you can see in tourist promos for America’s national parks etc… but the strange metal and concrete shapes built by military forces for reasons long forgotten and long since abandoned… they do it for me every time.

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Not to be outdone by the bookish competition, Ruwedel is also interested in the craft of photographic printing and the photograph-as-object, and this is demonstrated by a number of his hand-made artist’s books which are on show in a glass display case. Stylish.

My opinion

If the prize were awarded solely of the basis of photography – on a photographer’s skill in choosing great visual subjects, on the quality of composition, the framing, and the creation of atmosphere, I think Ruwedel would win the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize hands down.

But it isn’t. A ‘committed and engaged approach’ is a key criterion for winning the prize, and seen from a political-cultural perspective Ruwedel is the weakest entrant.

The Messmer project is, in my opinion, the next weakest in that the images he has dug up from the archives are certainly intriguing and often striking (the mugshots of 1967 protesters dressed as clowns and freaks) but you had to know a bit about the subject matter first for it to really make sense.

The Susan Meiselas I have already discussed at length, and I suppose is worthy, thorough, deeply engaged, but – in my opinion – flawed.

Which leaves Laia Abril as the likely winner, for several reasons. One is the universal applicability of her subject – the politics of sexual reproduction, the issue of control of women’s bodies, by definition affects at least half the world’s population.

But it’s not just about the emotive subject matter, and her evident commitment to it. It’s also about her skill as a photographer. The emotion Abril gets into the gaunt, haunted portraits of her abortion-traumatised women makes a lasting impact that grows in the memory. Just that one photo of handcuffs attached to a metal bedstead is hard to forget, both as a story, and because it is such a skillful visual composition.

Altogether, regarded as a socio-political art project, I think Abril’s one really does show the fullest, most rounded breadth and depth – ranging from photos of the horrible implements used in back street abortions, to the stark images of women affected by repressive legislation here and now.

If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that Abril will win the prize on 16 May.

Curator

Curated by Anna Dannemann from The Photographers’ Gallery.


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Shirley Baker: Personal Collection @ the Photographers’ Gallery

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

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

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

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

Slum clearance

Housing was a critical issue after the Second World War. House building had 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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Tish Murtha: Works 1976 – 1991 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newport

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elswick Kids

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

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

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

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

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

Juvenile jazz bands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Youth Unemployment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could photos like this be taken in 2018?

London by night

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

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

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

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

The unavoidable glamour of professional photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elswick Revisited

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

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

Admired by photography students, lionised by the Guardian

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

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

Is that what Dorothea Lange would have intended for her work, for her conscience-searing images of rural poverty? To be hung on the living room walls of Britain’s most flamboyant and fabulous, multi-millionaire gay couple?

And so with Tish Murtha’s photographs. The curators think that:

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

But do they? Will her photos change anything, will they help ameliorate ‘contemporary living conditions, austerity politics and growing social inequality’, will they do anything particularly urgent?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was a photographer of genius.


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Work in Process @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Downstairs in the basement of the Photographers’ Gallery there is an excellent shop selling not only all kinds of books about photography, but also cameras and film.

Next door to it is a room which serves a double function. Here a) you can buy top quality prints of works by photographers associated with the gallery – and b) three of the walls of this room are taken up by changing displays of new work by up-and-coming or established photographers.

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

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

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

Julie Cockburn (b.1966, UK)

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

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

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

Jessa Fairbrother

Fairbrother has been working on a series titled Armour Studies (Regarding Skin). The examples here show her taking what are in themselves beautifully composed black and white shots of naked female models, generally sitting or bent over and from the back so as to conceal breasts and belly. Using a sharp contrast between the extremely white bodies and the pitch-black background Fairbrother has already produced starkly beautiful images.

But she then proceeds to create a maze of intricate needle perforations across the surface of the silver gelatin prints. They include zoomorphic, sometimes floral patterns, sometimes looking like larger pebbles sitting on sand, the patterns spread all across the stretched white skin of the subject to create images of strange and haunting beauty.

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

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

Alma Haser (b.1989, Germany)

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

Her recent series, Within 15 Minutes (2017-2018), is based on taking high-quality colour portraits of people, then using a manufacturing process to convert the photos into 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzles.

So far so interesting but what gives the images their unique twist is that Haser assembles the jigsaws with some bits subtly out of place and some bits left blank. The resulting images are still recognisable, but dislocated and beguilingly unnerving.

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

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

Haser is also represented by some new works from a project titled Pseudo (2018).

These are three-dimensional collages in which she takes a botanical image as starting subject, taking numerous shots from related angles, and then lays several ‘takes’ above each other and cuts holes in the upper layers so you can see through into the same or similar image on the layer beneath and the layer beneath that.

Not only this, but the pieces of original image which have been cutaway are stuck elsewhere on the image as if they’re floating away. These have to be seen in the flesh to appreciate their full 3-D effect, but flat images of them (as below) still convey their beguiling beauty.

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

Rhodanthemum (2018) by Alma Haser © Alma Haser. Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery and the artist. £1,200+VAT including frame

Felicity Hammond (b. 1988, UK)

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

Another strange and unsettling way of bringing photos into the third dimension.

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

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

Liz Nielsen (b.1975, Wisconsin)

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

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

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

Thoughts

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

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

Buy one

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

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


Related links

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

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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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