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.

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”.

Cindy Sherman as Madame de Pompadour – A Poissonade in Porcelain

One of a pair of tapestries woven at the Gobelins by Pierre-François Cozette after François-Hubert Drouais. They were apparently given by Madame de Pompadour to her faithful steward Jacques-Charles Collin. As she lay dying she called him to make adjustments to her will and his tears, shed as he copied her final wishes, still stain her will to this day.
Wallace Collection, London

Pastel of Madame de Pompadour by Maurice Quentin de La Tour, c.1755.
Musée du Louvre.

Francois Boucher, The Marquise de Pompadour, 1758.
The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.

Thomas Carlyle called Madame de Pompadour a “high-rouged unfortunate female of whom it is not proper to speak without necessity.” This gentlemanly reticence contains a broadside of slurs: misfortune, rouge, improper and unmentionable are all high Victorian code for a tart. Carlyle depicted her as so obsessed with rouge that she applied it one last time after the last rites had been pronounced over her dying body. That is merely caricature. La Pompadour was indeed the mistress of Louis XV. In Boucher’s portrait (now in the Fogg Art Museum in Harvard), the rouge is the tool of her trade, as generals carried telescopes.

But Boucher and many others also painted her as surrounded by the works of culture which she loved to patronise. A beneficiary of that, and to a spectacular degree, was Boucher himself. It was not merely that Boucher was commissioned to paint by the Pompadour, nor even by others influenced by her. She was (quite literally) a patron on the industrial scale. The Gobelins tapestry firm made with her encouragement such things as upholstery covers for furniture based on Boucher, and the Sèvres porcelain factory used his designs, too. Both of those took the title of royal manufactory under the patronage of the Marquise de Pompadour, in exactly the same way as the Royal Warrant is still accorded to British royal suppliers today. She was a knowledgeable and (to say the least) enthusiastic patron of cabinet-makers: the great museums of the world are filled with furniture commissioned directly by her from the likes of Jean-Francois Oeben (grandfather of Delacroix). She bought and decorated houses with tremendous gusto. In literature, sculpture, architecture, the theatre, she knew everyone and cultivated the best. She received Mozart at home a few weeks before she died in 1764. If she had done nothing else she would be prodigious in art history for her role as a patron. But she somehow retained a role as the king’s adviser and confidante long after she had relinquished the practical chores of a mistress and her influence in the later years of her life was by no means only confined to design and decoration.

La Pompadour continues to fascinate today: fashion in its witless way pays her homage every so often. I seem to recall a Versace collection a dozen years ago or so made in her honour, and there may well have been others since. A hairstyle is named after her. Legend has it (it must be legend, but it’s a very pretty compliment, too) that the champagne coupe was modelled on the shape of her breast. It is even said that keeping goldfish first became fashionable when she was sent some from China.

Only a Victorian Englishman could dismiss a person of such manifold talents as improper to be spoken of. Nancy Mitford – a woman, of course, and one conspicuously enthusiastic in her appreciation both of aristocratic goings-on and of the French way of doing things – wrote an entertaining biography of her which makes Carlyle seem no more than curmudgeonly.

There has been for a long time now a tribute to this remarkable person and one which I have never seen alluded to anywhere. When Cindy Sherman made her History Portraits at the end of the 1980s, she followed her usual custom and made no specific reference to their sources. Each is called Untitled #n. It would be a pleasant parlour game to seek to identify the models of each; perhaps a scholarly crib already exists. For Sherman to base herself on a particular painting is a compliment. It is also an invitation to think of that painting again, perhaps to dive into the sociology or the economics which brought it into being. Sherman’s prices are high, though: very high. Rightly so, in my opinion. Few artists have so resisted the license we (collectively) offer artists to do any old thing. There are individual pictures of Cindy Sherman’s which leave me cold. There are whole series that I like much less than others. But I come back again and again to her greater series with a feeling of relief that here at least is an artist who passionately believes that finding something big to say and the means to say it matters.

I’ve often wondered about mattering. It’s an odd verb. It doesn’t conjugate at all regularly. It translates awkwardly. Yet that fugitive meaning it conveys is absolutely key to a certain conception of art. Fiddle about, play at your art, and you miss the point. But make art in the conviction that it matters, and everything else follows. Haydn matters: the sublime Haydn of the fourteen great masses or of the Seven Last Words. Haydn was profoundly anchored in traditional religious belief in spite of his status as a glorified jingle-writer to the Eszterházy. Music for Haydn was capable of carrying truth itself, to the greater glory of his God. It is because Haydn knew very well how his art could matter that he could get away with jokey or programme music, too. I don’t think it too strong to say the same of Cindy Sherman, or even, come to that, of the Marquise de Pompadour. Lightness, even rococo lightness, need not be trivial.

Some years ago, about the same time as she was making the History Portraits, Cindy Sherman paid her tribute to the Marquise de Pompadour. It is light; but it’s not trivial. She made one of her self-portraits, as she does, but she gave it a name. She openly put herself into the persona of the Pompadour as seen by Boucher. She then caused it to be repeated on actual Sèvres dinner services.

Cindy Sherman as Madame de Pompadour on a Sèvres service.
Artes Magnus.

The lovely layers of tribute and irony in this are to be savoured. Madame de Pompadour used disguise herself. It’s not just that brush of rouge that she has in common with Cindy Sherman: the layers of dressing and hair-dressing and make-up that it took to be a woman of the court (courtier as well as courtesan; the Marquise was both) in eighteenth century France are closely parallel to the layers of wigs and prostheses and dressing-up costumes that Cindy Sherman uses as her regular working tools. Beyond that, it is possible to discern that even in her role as a tart, Madame de Pompadour was in disguise. She was no more of a tart than Victoria Beckham was a singer. You just do what it takes to get to where you want to be.

What an extraordinary object, as rococo in its conception as it is in substance – a Sèvres dinner service with a portrait of Cindy Sherman as Madame de Pompadour ! It sounds beyond whimsy . It’s a poissonade in porcelain ! (Poissonades were the witty fishy gossip – often slanderous – about Madame de Pompadour, from her original name of Poisson). But you know what? It’s available, still, for sale, and it’s incredibly cheap. For $7000, you can get a twenty-one piece tea service or for $8,500 you can get a thirty piece dinner service. Thirty Cindy Shermans for less than $10,000 ! I know, I know… but all the same. They were made in an edition limited to 75 sets in each of four absolutely classic Sèvres colours, the colours so loved and promoted by Madame de Pompadour. The pink was really her one. There’s a fancy tureen, as well, for those who want to splurge.

Have a look HERE. That should lead you to the website of Artes Magnus. It’s a poorly designed website: you have to look for Cindy Sherman’s name under Artists, and then scroll sideways along. But you’ll get there all right. Given current prices for Sherman, and given the delightful complex levity of the piece, it’s an absolute steal.

In the light of all that (for me) unusual enthusiasm, I ought to add, as I sometimes do in these pages, that I have no connection of any kind with Artes Magnus. I have not bought one of these services myself, and I have not seen one in fact other than online. So Caveat Emptor. But still…if you do decide to buy one of the services, please let the company know you heard of them here. If enough of my readers suddenly turn up waving credit cards, and asking for dinner services by Cindy Sherman, they might give me one as a tip. I’d like that. Oddly, I think this jokey little piece of decorative art… matters.