Edgelands

This is a non-review of a show which may be good or bad, but which contains some things I like very much and which Londoners don’t get to see all that often.

It’s not a review partly because so very much photography, for a hundred years and more, has been about marginal spaces and marginal experiences.

Eugène Atget. People of La Zone, Near the Porte de Choisy, 1912

Eugène Atget.
People of La Zone, Near the Porte de Choisy, 1912

Atget was working in La Zone – the area cleared in front of the fortifications of Paris originally to give an open field of fire, in which a mixed and poor population lived at the end of nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth – at least a hundred years ago. Photography has loved the margins of society, and still does.

Still.  I don’t have to review something to enjoy it.

So:

Catherine Opie Untitled, from Freeways, 1994

Catherine Opie
Untitled, from Freeways, 1994

A couple of platinum prints from Catherine Opie’s Freeways (1994). Beautiful little exercises in a very traditional kind of modernism, surprising for the artist. The fact that they are small pictures is important. So, too, the way they look like pictures of monuments which have lost their function. Photographed like this, you can’t see how to get up to these things, nor any cars, nor any real purpose. They’re like Stonehenge, obviously for something, but it’s not clear what. If form needs perfectly to follow function, then motorway flyovers do that to a T.

I saw recently another collection of pictures of bunkers of the war of 1939 (by Marc Wilson, from his series The Last Stand); almost indestructible concrete structures, but built in a hurry on cheap foundations. By now, still intact, they’re toppling quietly over. There are lots of photographs on this general theme, of the relationship between the structures we make and the lives we lead. Catherine Opie’s flyovers are still in use, but it’s never too early to ask what on earth we were thinking of. Look at that little gable, in the middle at the bottom. That little bit is the only bit at human scale.

Keith Arnatt From the series AONB (Area of Outstanding Beauty), 1982-1985

Keith Arnatt
From the series AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), 1982-1985

Five pictures from Keith Arnatt’s Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. These were brilliant things, made in the early 1980s, much influenced by US photography, itself much influenced by a certain kind of environmental thinking. Arnatt was a conceptual artist at the time: but he wasn’t simply ironizing in the Wye Valley near where he lived. It’s not just that we dump garbage in beautiful places, or build wire mesh fences. It’s not even that we make a mockery of the whole history of the sublime, of the ‘green and pleasant land. Arnatt was making the point that sometimes it takes a photograph to see stuff. Just as photography showed years ago that it could expand vision by enlarging greatly or by slowing time, so more recently it has been shown to expand the consciousness that lies within vision. Arnatt saw a lost little tree – isolated from the bigger trees beyond like a sad animal in a zoo –  in the corner of a tarmac car-park, hemmed in by cheap kerbstones. He saw the doorway coarsely breeze-blocked closed, in overt insult to the subtler material of the old vernacular wall around. And he saw that black bird (I daren’t write blackbird, because I don’t think it is) high on the wall, as symbolic as Masahisa Fukase’s terrifying crows from another place and another time. We don’t see any of this stuff until a photographer freezes it for us, on the microscope slide of light sensitive paper.

Ralph Eugene Meatyard LucyBelle Crater and Photo Friend from the Rural Provinces, 1970-1972

Ralph Eugene Meatyard
LucyBelle Crater and Photo Friend from the Rural Provinces, 1970-1972

Five various pictures (of about 1970) by Ralph Eugene Meatyard, late-flowering American Surrealist, an optician from Lexington, Kentucky. What to make of Meatyard’s saga of LucyBelle Crater whose gaudy horror mask contrasts so strongly with the friendly all-American life she leads? It’s standard to talk of Meatyard almost as an outsider artist, self-taught, unconnected, uninfluenced by the currents of art history. I happen to think that doesn’t hold water, for a specific reason: Meatyard’s photo buddy at the Lexington camera club was Van Deren Coke, a hugely influential historian and teacher of photography, director of the San Francisco Museum’s department of photographs from 1979 to 1987, and before that head of the school of photography at the University of New Mexico, at Albuquerque. Whatever else Meatyard was, with a friend like that, he was not a naïve photographer. LucyBelle is a Diane Arbus heroine if you like. She’s connected to all sorts of work with dolls and masks, from Hans Bellmer to Cindy Sherman. There’s plenty of writing on Meatyard’s influences, to him and from him. But maybe LucyBelle is just like all of us: there’s stuff in her expression which she doesn’t control, and stuff behind it that we don’t see.

Helen Levitt New York, c.1940.

Helen Levitt
New York, c.1940.

Two prints by Helen Levitt, from New York in 1940. Three children dance in a circle in winter. The giant staircase they’re on was not built for human strides: they have to fly to get off it, and they can. There’s a human-scale staircase attached, though, and a little line of laundry high in the corner of the picture reminds us that people keep on getting by, even when they can’t fly. This gorgeous composition matches all the great instances of movement in photography. If Cartier Bresson’s Aquila Degli Abruzzi is a stately minuet, then Levitt made a Ring of Roses. I keep having to blink to stop seeing it as a time-lapse, in which it would be the same child seen three times whirling around. Every other picture here I’d seen before. But this one I think not. I find it hard to imagine I could forget it. Grubby urban dust and brick and rubble, obvious poverty and hardship, not merely cheered but enlivened to a perfect symbolic demonstration of hope and promise. There are other such pictures. I offer you Roger Mayne’s great series of goalkeepers leaping about in the streets of North Kensington. It’s not a contest. There are no points. But this little Helen Levitt is a miracle by any standards.

All of these things come from just one section of an exhibition, called Edgelands, curated by Ben Rivers at the Camden Arts Centre and on show until 29th November 2015. The show contains much else, notably Rivers’ own films. It is good or bad. But it contains some little photographs which you’d be mad not to take the chance to see.

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