Making It Up Is So Very Hard To Do

 All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it.

Woody Allen, Deconstructing Harry

It may be eccentric to draw attention to a show that has been open some time; all I can say is that the show Making It Up: Photographic Fictions has got remarkably little coverage and deserves plenty.

Making It Up is apparently no more than a pleasant little show in the old photography display space at the Victoria & Albert Museum. It brings together images from the museum’s own holdings of every period of photography which – as its title indicates – either aim at something other than the ‘truth’ or use non-‘true’ methods to make their points.  So we have a number of beautiful mainstream pictures:  a classic Gregory Crewdson, for example, called Temple Street (2006) in which a woman pauses chopping wood in the snowy dusk of a suburban clapboard community.  The lighting (electric light just beginning to hold its own against the darkening night), the snow, the slightly menacing stare of the woman who looks at the camera as at an intruder; all these add up to a suggestion of a story.  More than that: the very fact of the photograph suggests there was a story worth telling.  Crewdson’s trick is to invite us to dive headlong into a picture on the assumption that there must be a story where there may be no more than our own desire to see one.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

Gregory Crewdson, (Temple Street); Beneath the Roses, 2006.

In Victorian times, both the methods and the purposes could be very different.  Artful posing, liberal use of the dressing-up box, and leadingly significant captions were the standard tools of such ‘allegorical’ photographers as Clementina Hawarden or Julia Margaret Cameron.  Collage in its various forms is largely present in this exhibition, as one might expect.  Beyond the simple fiction of an untrue caption, it makes the plainest kind of non-true photograph. The sumptuous moralizing multiple-negative confection of Oscar Rejlander’s Two Ways of Life is here, in a later (1876) copy by Robert Crawshay, complete with its ponderously virtuous caption.  When (in 1986) Andy Weiner collaged his own face onto a number of mildly comedic scenes, he made his own Rake’s Progress from pub to bed.  Weiner made no pretence at seamlessness:  we are asked to share the joke, not to be taken in by it.  To that extent, Weiner had then much in common with such non-photographic artists as Graham Rawle or Glen Baxter.  They, too, put themselves alongside their viewers, to laugh at the absurdity of the world together.  In photography, it is the very habit of realism which makes anything unrealistic so seductive.

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

Graham Rawle, Lost Consonants #876, 2004

So the great photographic storyteller Duane Michals is represented here by a little 1972 narrative in six parts.  Two men cross in an alley.  Each looks back at the other as they pass, but they do so at different times and no meeting takes place.  We think we are seeing a report; it even looks (in modern terms) as though it could have been made by the regular rhythmic discharge of a security camera.  But it’s a fiction, as neatly made as a Borges short story, and just as tantalizing at the end.

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

Duane Michals, Chance Meeting 1972

So the exhibition goes on, piling non-truth upon untruth in profusion.  There is a moderate suburban corner which looks just not quite right.  It’s a (2000) paper model by Oliver Boberg of a very non-space kind of space, Notown, Nowhere, photographed to look like a real place.  The connections with that other great model-maker, Thomas Demand, are obvious; but the connections with a whole register of pop music or film may be more important.    Contrast it to a photograph of a developer’s model of some new flats by Xing Danwen (2005).

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

Xing Danwen, Urban Fiction #23, 2005

The artist has digitally inserted herself on the balcony nearest us, hurrying her nude male visitor away over a wall as a gentleman who might be the husband appears in the dark street below.  Here’s a changing room by Bridget Smith (1999) with a couple of squash rackets on the wall, a different kind of neutral space.  You have to read the museum caption to discover that it is in fact a set from a pornographic film.

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

Bridget Smith, Glamour Studio (Locker Room), 1999

False readings, false suppositions, false extrapolations; sometimes people simply make false photographs, too. A few of those are here, including a famous set of salt prints made by advertising photographer Howard Grey in response to a commission from The Connoisseur magazine in 1981, purportedly to ‘test’ the connoisseurship in early photography.  The V&A’s own Mark Haworth-Booth was taken in by those, at least at first.  Howard Grey worked closely with the painter Graham Ovenden, and the Hetling fakes which they concocted together are closely allied to the group of Howard Grey images here.   Roger Fenton’s Valley of the Shadow of Death certainly wasn’t a fake; a famous picture from the Crimean war (1854-5) showing just how absurd it would have been to try to ride horses through a rain of cannonballs; but like the American Civil War photographers of the same period, Fenton was not above moving the elements of the picture to make his point the stronger.  In this case, there are known variants of the picture with the cannonballs and without.

There is wonderful variety in this exhibition, of intention as well as of technique.  There’s a photographic Chinese scroll by Wang Qingsong, complete with red signature-stamp in the corner.  Jan Wenzel makes lightning rearrangements in a photo-booth and then builds the strips up to a coherent whole.

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) - Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz, Action Photo I (After Hans Namuth) – Pictures of Chocolate, 1997

Vik Muniz’ 1997 action shot of Jackson Pollock (after Hans Namuth) is made in chocolate sauce, and his sheer virtuoso confidence in that most unusual of media is itself staggering.  Tom Hunter’s use of heavily romantic imagery taken from art history to portray a marginalized group of Londoners is a complex play of allusion and reference far, far from simple reportorial fact.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and  Death in Hackney.

Tom Hunter, The Vale of Rest (2000), from Life and Death in Hackney.

Jeff Wall is more like a theatre director, Hannah Starkey perhaps closer to a balladeer.  Cindy Sherman’s strange mixture of self-portraiture, social anthropology and sheer good humour is as compelling as ever.

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

H Starkey, Untitled, May 1997

These artists and photographers don’t necessarily have all that much in common. And that’s the point.  There has for nearly a hundred years been an insistence that a certain kind of objectivity is the proper stance for the camera.  A modernistic look, stripped back, emphasizing by isolation and by composition, and adhering purportedly to a version of the truth.  It was a political stance at first, a reaction against the failed mannerisms and mawkish sentimentalism of Pictorialism, and it was intimately tied to a view of the world in which the documentary was properly a tool of the Left.  But here’s a splendidly vigorous exhibition which reminds us that it was never the whole picture.

Photography can be and has often been as mannered and as Rococo as any other art form, and that on its own is no reason to reject it.  I saw in a recent paper that the great and sometimes austerely modernist composer George Benjamin had just got another rave review for his opera Written on Skin; nothing inherently modernist about opera, you would have thought.   There are good, even great Rococo photographs just as there are wholly meretricious modernist ones.  Photography certainly can deal in fact and science and truth.  But it can also deal admirably in opinion and allegory and metaphor.  It’s that side of photography that we saw so much of at the latest edition of Frieze, for it’s back in the ascendant again.  Was it this year or last year that I became so enthused by Marcus Coates’ wonderful British Moths?  They’re factual, sure enough.  But also so much more than that. Come to think of it, there seems to be something in the wind. Just now, we have Hannah Höch showing at the Whitechapel, Mari Mahr and William Burroughs at the Photographers’ Gallery.  Bits of their pictures come from bits of the real, no doubt.  But not one of them would deign to limit themselves to that.  Great photographers don’t, and why should they?

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

Mari Mahr, From Presents for Susana, 1985

We’ve had the rise and rise of John Stezaker, Maurizio Anzeri, Julie Cockburn… Capital fiddlers, all of them. The most successful photographers in Britain at the moment are probably Gilbert and George, for whom the plain photographic fact has never been more than a jumping off point for the stories they want to tell.

It has always been possible to fiddle about with photographs; more than that, NOT fiddling about has in the past always been a self-conscious and political gesture.  Hence the (often spurious) claims to objectivity of such as the f64 tendency.  But something has changed.  Because millions or billions of unvarnished pictures are made and uploaded every day, their selective and expressive content very much limited to when to fire the camera and in what basic direction, it has become imperative for photographers to reclaim the act of photographing.  It comes down again to a distinction I have mentioned here before.  Simply to go to a party with an iPhone and take pictures and post them on the internet does not make you a photographer.  Nor does using a camera every day to record people parked on yellow lines. We need another word for that, and I’ve been using the expression ‘camera operator’.  Photographers are different.  They want to use photography to say whatever it is they have to say. It’s not always the truth that photographers tell; it’s their truth.  Increasingly, the camera operators are the ones who are content for the picture to say “it was so”.

The photographers have reclaimed the territory that was always more fertile, of reference and argument and persuasion and imagination and narrative, not to mention poetry and allusion.  “Maybe it wasn’t so, but this is what I want to say about it.”  That’s a wholly proper photographic sentiment, just as it has always been perfectly proper in every other medium. It is because it tracks that sentiment so well and so far back that this unassuming little show in a back gallery at the V&A is so important.  Marta Weiss, the curator, may just have pointed out that a tide has changed without our noticing.  It may just be that merely to tell the truth in a photograph has finally become as worthy and as ultimately dull as merely to tell it in any other way.  Every truth has been told.  The truth is no longer enough.

A lot of art students over the years have unearthed Diderot’s message to the artist (not least because it was quoted to telling effect by Walter Friedlander, in a book so famous that even some art students still read it, David to Delacroix): “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep stare, be enraged – only then regale my eyes”.  You could reshape it now for the generation who want to be photographers beyond merely posting stuff online as it comes out of some image capturing system: “First move me, astonish me, break my heart, let me tremble, weep, stare, be enraged – only then tell me the truth”.

W.G.Sebald – Not so Great with Pictures

On 14 November 1997, W.G.Sebald, in a beautiful but curiously frustrating interview with Christian Scholz, answered a question put to him as follows:

WGS:  Strange things happen when you aimlessly wander through the world, when you go somewhere and then just want to see what happens next.  Then things happen that no-one is going to believe later. And what comes next is very important: it is necessary to somehow capture and document these things.  Of course, you can do this through writing, but the written word is not a true document, after all.  The photograph is the true document par excellence. People let themselves be convinced by a photograph.

He went on to describe a particular night at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam:

WGS: I have actually found myself in this situation on several occasions. Again and again there are situations where you think that this is impossible, that it cannot be, [situations] where you would really have to take this snapshot. For example, it happened to me recently at the Amsterdam airport; when I had to sleep there overnight because the entire airport was fogged in and none of the planes could take off, after midnight everyone was stretched out horizontally on these sofas on the upper floor of the departure lounge. They were covered with the kind of thin blue blankets provided to the campers by KLM. An extremely ghostly scenario – human beings that, laid out like the dead, were lying curled up on their side or very rigidly on their back. And outside, through the windowpane, was the mirror-image of the interior.

From such constellations arise possibilities about which you can then reflect. And they can be verified only through an image that was taken. Otherwise, you think , oh well, that’s yet another extravagance of this writer, who came up with it,  who extends the line of what  happens in reality in order to get something out of a work with a certain meaningfulness or symbolic value. But these images are actually there.

Elsewhere in the same interview, Christian Scholz asked him:

CS: Does that mean that you see the image only as a fragment of narrative?

WGS:  Yes. It can be a landscape, a person, an interior. But that’s something that drives me to look more carefully into these things. For me it has an effect that is familiar from my childhood: there were these ‘Viewmasters’ into which you could look. You had the feeling that with the body you are still in your normal bourgeois reality. With the eyes, however, you are already in an entirely different place: in Rio de Janeiro or at the passion plays in Oberammergau or whatever else could be seen at that moment. I always have the feeling with photographs that they exert a pull on the viewer and in this entirely amazing (ungeheure) manner draw him out, so to speak, from the real world into an unreal world, that is the world of which one doesn’t exactly know how it is constituted but of which one senses that it is there.

CS: Or at least that it was there.

 WGS: Correct.  But the fact remains: each image interrogates us, speaks to us, calls to us.

 So he went on, meandering around and saying these oddly banal things. Yes, sometimes you see things that one wouldn’t quite believe without a photograph to confirm them.  It’s a cliché that witnesses to exceptional happenings frequently fall back on “It was like a picture” or it was “like a film” to underline the exceptionality of what they saw. Yes, a picture can set off a train of thought.  Yes, of course, a picture can transport one in imagination….Sebald said some mildly interesting things about Kafka and pictures, and he said one really very odd thing about how the grey areas in pictures, neither black nor white, represented purgatory, this vast no-man’s-land where people “were permanently wandering around and where one did not know how long one had to stay there,  whether this was a purgatory in the Christian sense or just a kind of desert that one had to traverse before one reached the other side.”

Apart from that outburst, it was banal.  And yet.  In that interview (which I have only just read) Sebald confirmed something that I had long noticed in his books, but never quite put my finger on.  Sebald’s use of photographs in his texts seems so exciting, when you discover that the poorly reproduced, apparently captionless picture you’ve been wondering about has in fact been captioned by several pages of text. But Sebald had consistently removed authorship from photographs.  Pictures were either his own (as several are acknowledged to be in his books) or they were just grist.  No matter what the provenance, no matter that the author (or a probable author, a near-identified author) was actually known, Sebald preferred his pictures anonymous and would strip an author away from them if they weren’t.

Look again at the various passages I’ve quoted above (I’m sorry they’re so long).  They’re amazingly, stultifyingly, conventional.  It’s a revelation.  Sebald, who in his writing with radical grace blurred the distinctions between novel and memoir, history, travel writing and journalism, that Sebald, the insouciant funambulist between fact and fiction, could be, when it came to photographs, a plodding bore.

The interview is in a dense and intermittently interesting book[i] whose subtitle is Photography after W.G.Sebald.  It’s a given. Sebald was a wizard with words so it stands to reason:  he must have changed the way we deal with photographs, too.  Only it’s false.  He did nothing of the sort.  He’d read his Barthes and that’s about it.  He used pictures as unattributable gobbets of fact upon which to hang the whirling tangos of his written allusions.  The very idea that a photographer might himself have been able to make metaphors escaped him completely.  Because in the end, even for a writer as free as W. G. Sebald, the superiority of the writer over other artists is inalienable and needs no proof.

I have a paperback of John Berger’s The Shape of a Pocket.  It’s a collection of essays, not quite Berger’s finest, but containing – as you’d expect – a lot of very good stuff.  The cover (it was published by Bloomsbury in 2002) shows a picture by Peter Marlow.  I did a little double-take when I saw it: it’s cropped, and clumsily.  You expect that from publishers.  They treat pictures, as Sebald does, as grist.  But to crop this one, here, that takes some doing.

I’m not a blind fan of Magnum, an institution whose glorious left-wing shirt is getting threadbare.  Magnum now is not so exceptional, a commercial picture agency with a rich archive, but all the same… Whatever the corporate failings, it still does have more than a few photographers who know their arse from their elbow, and Marlow is one of them.  Marlow has been President of Magnum more than once.  He’s a craftsman and an artist and a man who has found ways of saying important things in photographs. For a commercial designer at Bloomsbury simply to crop one of his pictures badly is one thing:  it must have happened to Marlow before, and it will happen to him again.  But on the cover of a book by Berger?  That same John Berger who in dozens of essays has honoured photographs as so much more worthy of reflection than his generation had realised?

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, Primrose Hill, London 1999.

The picture is called The Eclipse, and it was made on Primrose Hill, in London, in 1999 when there was a full eclipse of the sun. The same Primrose Hill that nearly saw an eclipse in 1963 when Bill Brandt had Francis Bacon walking down it, when the three little park lights could only just hold their own against one of Brandt’s darkest skies

The Berger book contains eight details culled from Marlow’s photograph, scattered as ‘frontispieces’ to various essays in the text.  Again, the cuts are made with a kind of numbness that slightly beggars belief.  I hope – I really hope – that neither Marlow nor Berger made them.  But I can’t believe that either could have done.  Not all essays get one. There seems very little direct reference when they do. None carries a caption;  you have to search in the boring ‘legal details’ at the front of the book for a tiny credit that covers them all.  None necessarily refers to – let alone illustrates – the text it accompanies.  This is “photography after Sebald” with a vengeance.  The pictures, made not by a photographer but by a designer using him only as a supply of raw material, are allusive, but only ponderously so.  A very largely white crowd, obviously waiting, with odd episodes of blurred movement or interesting collisions if you look closely. Opposite a page entitled Michelangelo is a blurred figure more obviously connected to Francis Bacon than anything Michelangelo ever did.  A dullard in a black tee-shirt videos him. The faces, and sometimes the bodies, are turned in various directions.  This is the kind of incidental interest you get if you look with attention at any busy photograph, perhaps a little more closely than usual, or perhaps with a lens.

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 1

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 2

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 3

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 4

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 5

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 6

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 7

Peter Marlow, Eclipse, London, 1999, Detail – 8

They are nice enough, these slices taken from the larger picture. It’s a good crowd scene, no doubt about it, well made and well seen at a time of cross-tensions and cross-purposes. It’s never a bad thing to look more carefully at a good photograph. This one reminds me a bit of that other crowd-scene, also on a hill, that Robert Doisneau made in 1947, Cyclo-Cross at Gentilly. The skyline is made of the same human palisade.

Robert Doisneau. Cyclo-Cross at Gentilly, 1947.

But you know what?  They wouldn’t have used Marlow’s (again and again in the same book) if it had been called ‘Crowd waiting for the off at the Derby’ or ‘Crowd waiting for the anti-Blair, anti-Iraq war demonstration’.  They wouldn’t have used the Doisneau, come to that. It is pathetic, but there is something about the cheap ‘cosmic’ meaning of an eclipse which is supposed to add a little pepper to the Berger book. As a matter of fact, you can’t tell by looking at it that it was made before an eclipse. Marlow’s title, The Eclipse, is never given in Berger’s paperback.  But the smell of the eclipse is purported to linger on it. The whole crew of designer, editor, publisher, and perhaps author, who all knew the title, felt its magic still. That’s the legacy of Sebald, if you like. It is so reactionary it’s appalling:  it’s a photograph being chopped up and used not for its (very interesting and skilfully achieved) visual content but for the cheap scent of its title lingering on. Blimey, Mr. Berger.  How ever did that little demonstration of contempt for photography go out over your name?

This is visual Muzak.  It’s using the barest bones of Marlow’s work – an expectant crowd – to offer a gentle pause between the supposedly arduous heights of Berger’s sensitivity.  At the very most, it makes some oblique claim that all of us, every member of every crowd, are implied or addressed in Berger’s critique of the visual. Dozens of people have reworked photographs with more zest and sparkle than this.  At the high end, look only to Gerhard Richter or Thomas Demand or John Stezaker or Maurizio Anzeri or Julie Cockburn.  Or look on any teenager’s bedroom door.  Pictures do get another life when found, graffitied, snipped, decorated, jammed up against unlikely neighbours.  Even W. G. Sebald admitted as much.  But they don’t get that life simply because the title alludes to something which might have rich metaphorical content.  Pictures are pictures, not shorthand for words.

 

 

[i] ‘But the Written Word is not a True Document’. A conversation with W.G. Sebald on Literature and Photography, by Christian Scholtz, translated by Markus Zisselsberger.

Published in Searching for Sebald : photography after W.G. Sebald. Edited by Lise Patt, with Christel Dillbohner, Institute of Cultural Inquiry, Los Angeles , 2007.