Art of Photography

Rob Townsend


Leave a comment

Exhibition: Andy Warhol, William S. Burroughs and David Lynch

At the Photographers’ Gallery in London until 30th March is a linked set of three exhibitions, with the common thread of celebrating the photographic output of counter-cultural American icons famous for their work in other fields: pop artist Andy Warhol, author William S. Burroughs and film director David Lynch. It’s hard to go in without preconceptions of the artists based on their ‘day jobs’.

I held two questions at the back of my mind throughout each exhibition:

  1. What are the connections between their photography and the art that they’re already known for?
  2. Would this be an interesting collection of images if the photographer was an unknown?

Andy Warhol: Photographs 1976-1987

Photographers’ Gallery overview

Although Warhol was interested in photography all his life, for much of his career photographs were the raw materials for his more famous screen-print works, rather than being the art in themselves. In his last decade Warhol took to using a 35mm compact camera to record his daily life and reconnected with photography at a more direct, but not necessarily less artistic, level. This collection is divided into two quite distinct halves: the large artworks he created out of photographic prints, and the simpler snapshots of his daily life.

In the specific works of photo-art he riffed on his own iconic technique of repetition of image, in this variation stitching together (or rather, hiring someone else to stitch together, of course) large prints into grids, sometimes with almost imperceptible differences between the frames, sometimes with noticeably different exposures of the same image. As in his screen-print work, his most eye-catching works are multiple images of American icons, but this time contemporary celebrities (Jerry Hall, Liza Minnelli) and with photos he took himself, not the already-iconic images he modified for his 1960s work (Monroe, Presley, Taylor etc).

He mines the same seam of identity and iconography in a way that is so ‘Warholian’ that only he could have got away with it. Some may say that he was repeating himself with these works, but I’m glad he did it and I’m glad I saw them; it made me look at his work and ideas with fresh eyes; his famous 1960s work has become so ubiquitous that it’s lost something now. But they do reinforce my opinion of Warhol as a creator-of-art rather than an artist. Not necessarily an inferior designation, but I do see a difference.

By contrast the daily life shots were very uninspiring; I got the feeling that anyone with a camera in late 70s / early 80s New York could have got a collection of images much like this; his personal vision or ideas don’t come through. As an insight into the trivia of the life of Andy Warhol The Famous Artist they hold some curiosity value, but without that context they are little more than intermittently interesting snapshots.

So to my two questions:

  1. Half of it was unmistakably Warhol; the other half was unexceptional street photography
  2. Half yes (although I’d be accusing the mystery photographer of ripping off Andy Warhol!); half not a chance

Taking Shots: the Photography of William S. Burroughs

Photographers’ Gallery overview

I didn’t think I knew much about Burroughs til I remembered that I’d read The Naked Lunch at university and found it as bewildering and fragmented as most readers. The only other thing I knew about him was his predilection for drugs and guns, hence the triple-meaning title I presume.

This is a hugely eclectic collection: portraits, self-portraits, picture essays, domestic still lifes, collages. Some were reproduced so small as to be difficult to engage with. He seems to have enjoyed experimenting with photography in a similar way to he did with writing. The most interesting images by far were the ‘assemblages’, where he cut up photos to make collages, and in some cases photographed, printed and re-assembled those collages to make further collages, in an ad-infinitum, kaleidoscopic way. He was truly trying to do new things with photography as art, but using the principles that had served him as a writer: cutting up, fragmenting, re-arranging, jumping around, eschewing the expected linear narrative.

In a similar way to Warhol – but deeper, more complex and to me anyway, more satisfying – he used photographs as a raw material for constructing visual works of art. They’re almost closer to two-dimensional sculpture than photography. Burroughs spoke of photography as being able to “disrupt the space-time continuum and expand the viewers perception of the physical world” – and you can almost understand what he’s getting at when you see some of the assemblages. But to be fair, he was on very strong drugs a lot of the time…

In answer to my two nagging questions above:

  1. As with Warhol, the most successful works here contain strong echoes of what he’s most famous for; what’s admirable about Burroughs is that he’s crossed from literature to visual arts yet carried over techniques
  2. The collages, absolutely; the other works, less so – again the interest inherent in those is the man behind the camera, not the resultant images

David Lynch: the Factory Photographs

Photographers’ Gallery overview

Between 1980 and 2000 Lynch took photos of industrial structures in Germany, Poland, USA and England. Initially the purpose was scouting potential film locations but it seems to have developed into a general hobby for a while.

The collected images maintain a consistently dark mood: tense, full of foreboding. He is drawn not just to industry, but specifically to industrial decay; the factories here tend to be derelict structures, being reclaimed by nature. These underlying themes and the gloomy, monochromatic imagery do reflect his film work, especially earlier works such as Eraserhead and The Elephant Man.

He chooses a range of viewpoints, getting closer and closer to the subjects as you move around the gallery: there are long, wide shots of whole factory structures and cooling towers; there are crumbing interiors, often with a window onto the outside environment; there are close-ups of left-behind heavy machinery, pipes, ducting etc; there are very close, almost macro shots of walls, surfaces, broken windows, showing textures and veering towards abstract. I found these last images the most engaging: heavy industry reduced to shapes, lines, blocks of light and shade.

Of the three, his is by far the most coherent and accomplished body of work. Thematically it is extremely focused, and this really helps the viewer immerse themselves in the artist’s world (and this may have been helped by Lynch providing one of his own industrial sound installations to accompany the visuals).

To answer the two opening questions for Lynch:

  1. The trademark sinister edge of his film work is present here; most specifically it brought to mind Eraserhead more than any other of his films
  2. Yes, absolutely; I’d have paid money to see this whoever had been behind the lens – there is genuine talent on show here and he is not merely trading on his name

Summary

The David Lynch exhibition stood well apart from the other two to this viewer. It stands on its own as a cohesive, self-contained series, and this really helps to reinforce and intensify the message and mood. The Warhol and Burroughs shows both suffer by casting their net slightly too wide, trying to cover a disparate set of works per artist, and this diluted the effect for me. If the Warhol gallery just had the stitched multiple images, and the Burroughs gallery just had the assemblages, they would have been much more potent.

Is this because Lynch is still with us, and exerted some influence on the subject matter (although it is curated by a third party), and by comparison the temptation with deceased artists is to anthologise rather than specialise?

Anyway – Lynch impressed me most, Burroughs surprised me most, Warhol reinforced my existing opinion most!

Advertisements


2 Comments

Exhibition: Deeds Not Words

The second exhibition I saw at the Photographers’ Gallery in London last week was Mark Neville’s ‘Deeds Not Words’. It’s a study of a local community in the former steel town of Corby in Northamptonshire, shot over 2009–10. If like me you attend the exhibition with no prior knowledge of the subject matter, the unfolding of the different layers of the content is fascinating, slightly jolting even.

Three layers of interest

On the face of it, the 32 images on show here are a yet another celebration of working class rituals in a community that’s seen better days; with the bright, saturated colours, there’s a hint of Martin Parr in both the subject and the aesthetic.

Then on closer inspection another point of interest emerges: the prevalence of Scottish imagery. At this point I’m thinking, hang on, Corby’s in Northamptonshire, so why do they have Highland Games, drink so much Irn Bru and so on? It transpires that the town has a large and fiercely proud Scottish community, from when Glaswegian steelworkers brought their families down south three or four generations ago. This element in itself gives Corby a particular character and offers up imagery that justifies why a photographer would centre a project around the town. But the real purpose of the project crept up on me. I stared at a triptych of a young boy popping a balloon; the first point of interest to me was the moment the balloon splits apart, frozen by a fast shutter speed. A second point of interest was the expanse of red that formed the not-yet-deflated balloon. Then eventually my eyes fell onto the hand that held the balloon; it only had a thumb and two fingers. A second triptych at the other end of the room repeated this balloon-popping pose in mono, and with an older youth. Again, the same deformity of the hand, missing two fingers. In a side room a single image in close-up: blue balloon, same deformity.

Deeds Not Words, Mark Neville, Photographers' Gallery, August 2013

Deeds Not Words, Mark Neville, Photographers’ Gallery, August 2013

Photography as activism

So once the (uninformed) viewer finally peels back they layers of meaning, what emerges is a project about the Corby 16, a group of families who spent over a decade fighting legal battles with the local council about the misuse of contaminated former industrial land and the cluster of childhood deformities ultimately traced to the unsafe disposal of toxic waste. A short documentary film playing in a side room explains all. The court case was ultimately successful. What Mark Neville did with the accumulated material is interesting; he produced a hefty photobook, half images and half text, explaining the case and its effects on the community. However, the book was never for sale: he simply sent a copy to each of the 433 local authority environmental health officers in the United Kingdom, and selected international environmental agencies – an audience he believed might actually have an influence on policy and practice around reuse of contaminated land and disposal of toxic waste. He used his particular brand of documentary photography to raise awareness and instigate change. The velvet glove of the glossy photobook contained an iron fist of activism!

My reflections

I thought about this exhibition a lot over the couple of days following the visit. My views may be entirely coloured by the fact that I wasn’t aware of the subject matter (as I was drawn to the gallery by the simultaneous Mass Observation show, which didn’t stay with me anywhere near as long as this) and maybe the forearmed viewer would see things a little differently. The lasting impression is of an exhibition in two unequal parts. The ‘slice of life’ shots of carnival queens, working mens’ clubs, highland dancing and so on are interesting in themselves, a real portrait of a vibrant community doing its best to cope with long-term economic decline, and the Scottish undercurrent adds more colour (I particularly liked the child standing in front of a huge Irn Bru display in a supermarket). The images of the children affected by the deformities, however, are in a different style, posed not candid. And only seven of the 32 images in the exhibition covered the affected children. To me it felt like the message was somewhat diluted by the prevalence of the candid community images. I didn’t see any overlap, where the kids from the posed shots were also part of the more tableau-style group images. I see the connections: families sharing experiences, all ultimately the outcome of the same socio-economic factors – the community first built around the steelworks, then bonding around its decline, and the specific effects of the way the council handled its dismantling – but in terms of visual representation, it felt a little like two exhibitions pushed together. Copies of the book were on display, along with informative posters to take away. These, and the aforementioned short film, redress the balance in favour of covering the Corby 16 story in much more detail. I’m sure the photographer and the organisers chose the images and their sequencing very thoughtfully and deliberately, but my personal opinion was that the important message was left a little too subtle in the exhibition itself. An absolutely fascinating project nonetheless.

Photographic observations

As I learn more about photography, I’m starting to see aspects I might otherwise not have noticed, and/or can articulate more clearly why certain images appeal to me. One of the visual aspects of Neville’s style is the corner-to-corner sharpness that renders every part of his images in clear focus; this man does not do shallow depth of field. In an interview I found in Hotshoe [1] he explains his deliberate choice of small apertures:

“The large depth of field and detail I employ in my photographs is driven by the desire to record everything, to make a social document, to historicise. It is democratic, and it implies that no element of the picture is more important than any other […] Thus, the colour of someone’s nail varnish is as important as a car number plate, or the design of a cocktail glass.”

This approach works particularly well for the community shots, where there are usually multiple points of interest for the eyes to find. It also suits the large prints that an exhibition such as this will provide. My other observation was about the presentation of the images. The images on the walls looked so much better – more colourful, clearer, sharper, more vibrant – than the equivalent images in the photobook. I’m not sure I’d had noticed any issue with the quality of the book if I hadn’t seen the mounted, framed, appropriately lit large prints on the walls in the same room, but it did bring home to me for the first time how much the viewing experience can be affected by the presentation, and the limitations of book printing in this regard.

1. Hotshoe, issue 184, June–July 2013