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”.

Sanctuary – Gregory Crewdson

Every so often, a piece I write for the paper (the Financial Times) is not printed for one reason or another.  From time to time I will salvage one and print it here. This was a review of a January 2011 exhibition at White Cube of Gregory Crewdson’s Sanctuary.  I don’t think the show is currently visible, but the book was published by Abrams in 2010.



Des Lumières et des Ombres is the masterly 1984 treatise by Henri Alekan on the use of light in films and in paintings.  Alekan knew what he was talking about – he counts among the greatest cinematographers of them all.  Don’t take my word for it: look carefully at Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and you will see that Wenders named his circus the Cirque Alekan in public thanks and tribute.  On page 181 of my edition of Des Lumières et des Ombres is a grid of eight views of the Forum in Rome, shot at successive times of day between 9 in the morning and 5 in the afternoon. Eight little grey windows showing the sun moving round a load of broken columns.  But Alekan was the director of photography on Roman Holiday, (he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on it) and these studies are part of the detailed careful preparation he made to understand the light he was to work with.

Now that light has reappeared in a less sketchy form in Sanctuary, a series of pictures made by Gregory Crewdson among the deserted sets of Cinecittà, the famous Roman film studio complex.  Crewdson has departed fairly obviously from his previous practice in these pictures: Europe not America, black and white as against his famous use of colour, shot digitally, made relatively fast, printed (at about three feet by two and half) much smaller than his habit, and made, ironically for work on a film set, with a more usual photographic retinue than the massive crews he has needed in the past.  One might discern something approaching a mid-life crisis in so radical an upheaval, but I think not. I think this relatively compact series made in a month and all in the same location show a new level of mastery even from so lauded a photographer as Crewdson.  I think he has achieved a density of reference in these pictures which would be overwhelming and academic were it not for the sheer beauty of the prints.

Beauty is where it should start.  The views are all nominally of city scenes, although we see everywhere that the cities are the puny hardboard-on-scaffolding of the set-builders rather than stone and wood.  There is no pretence about the pretence. Crewdson has rendered these architectural views in a thin register of mid-greys with only a few passages of denser dark. Oddly, for Rome, they share an essentially flat light which must have been early in the morning or late in the year.  That in itself is a striking new vocabulary after the operatic quality of Crewdson’s lighting in the past, although Alekan knew all about it. From across the rooms at White Cube where they are magnificently displayed, they look very like engravings: more specifically, the glorious fantasia of Piranesi’s great Carceri.  Crewdson has favoured very zigzag skylines which have much of Piranesi’s baroque or, like Piranesi, arched and sheltered views in which outdoor becomes all-but indoor.  The pictures are measured and harmonious.  They are obviously a coherent series and obviously beautiful.

Many photographers have worked around the illusions of film and film sets.  Cindy Sherman made her reputation with her Untitled Film Stills.  Larry Sultan made one of the great series on the porn industry in the San Fernando Valley.  Crewdson himself has explored filmic habits in great detail.  But in Sanctuary, his thinking has changed.  It’s partly that he’s an American in Europe.  At the very most superficial level, these are tourist views of impermanence, like Joel Sternfeld’s views some years ago of the Campagna Romana. 

In Sanctuary, the evident impermanence of the sets gives way to the slower impermanence of the Eternal City.  Modern apartment blocks lurk over the shoulder of cardboard temples, and non-Romans may have moments of doubt as to whether some of the Roman buildings in Cinecittà are faked for film or are real remains seen beyond the borders of the studios.  I found myself reminded of the hymn where John Wesley paraphrases Psalm 90:  “A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone”.  Cinecittà was itself founded on imperial ambitions, those of Mussolini, only marginally different to those of the original imperial Rome. It is in the nature of cinema that the great monuments of Cinecittà – Roman Holiday among them – will remain long after the sets have rotted.  So Crewdson is not merely showing the veneer-thin nature of illusion in cinema; he’s making us see that a long enough time-scale will reduce any grandeur to veneer.

The photographs of the sets sometimes look like that view – also fairly standard among photographers  – of the reverse of advertising hoardings.  Is Crewdson merely saying again that films deal in illusion, or is he saying that we all deal in illusion all the time and films merely point that out? A gondola is parked high and dry in a ruinous set which might once have stood for Venice. Only sidle your eyes to the right and faded false nineteenth century lettering on a wall says PIER 12. ROBERTS FREIGHT. SWIFTSURE EXPRESSLINES.  It may have served for Venice once, but it also served for Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.

Crewdson points out set-built shop fronts in different languages on either side of the same street, but you can do that in any capital city in the world. It’s the twenty-first century, after all. We’re all anachronistic all the time.  Then he finds two trees built into a set, to support a large archway (apparently) in nineteenth century Paris.  Living trees, more reliable than scaffolding.  And to make what?  Atget’s Paris, or Marville’s, itself a faded memory wiped away by town planning. One splendidly cloacal street could easily be real; others could only be sets.  Four oil drums lurk in a nineteenth century American street.  Fantastic:  Theodore Dreiser powered by 4-wheel drive !

If you visit gothic cathedrals, or National Trust houses in the UK or their equivalents elsewhere, you often find builders’ materials and their paraphernalia heaped in just the way Crewdson has found in Cinecittà. The real past is constantly remade, constantly refitted to the present, and perhaps somehow made marginally less real in the process.  David Lowenthal wrote a magnificent book – The Past is a Foreign Country – to show just that process, and Robert Polidori has been photographing the remaking of Versailles for nearly thirty years to show much same thing.  These are studies of the real underpinnings of illusion which call into question even some of the illusory underpinnings of our reality.  It makes wonderfully rich and complex subject matter, and has been handled with a deftness that is agreeably undeclamatory, even modest.

In the middle of all this thinking about illusion and unmasking it, we should have no illusions ourselves. Crewdson found a spurious poster on the wall of one of the Roman sets: a gloriously absurd farrago of impossible Latin. I notice that in the catalogue it has been digitally scrubbed a little as compared to the exhibition print, to make the words are less legible. In the end, Crewdson is in that same business, too, of rewriting and remaking.

At the very end of the show we finally find a person.  Two people, actually. A security guard lady in a glazed box at the entrance to Cinecittà admits a car (a 2.0 litre Alfa Romeo Alfetta, the most unremarkable of ordinary Roman saloons). The driver is unidentifiable, although we have his licence number: 26993F.  A careful light that does not reach outside lights the security lady from within her box.  It’s Edward Hopper lighting, the scrupulously deliberate lighting of Henri Alekan.  We recognise her with relief, at last.  She’s a Crewdson.