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”.

Paola De Pietri and the Effort of Memory

Fay Godwin, Markerstone on the old road from London to Harlech, 1976

Fay Godwin, Markerstone on the old road from London to Harlech, 1976

Years ago I formulated a serviceable description of the great British landscape photographer Fay Godwin as being largely interested in places that had once been more important to people than they now were.  It didn’t apply to everything she did, but it was a start.  Fay was never interested solely in what the land looked like.  She was interested, if one can put it this way, in what the land meant.  She read landscapes for their old palimpsests: the layers and layers of stories each of which had left a trace to be unearthed by an eye as sensitive as hers undoubtedly was.  It was archaeology without spades.  She photographed drovers’ roads knowing that half the population today aren’t quite sure what droving is, let alone where its roads had to go.  She photographed the great stone circles at places like Callanish, knowing that there is nobody alive who knows quite how they worked, whether as giant calendars, or as cathedrals or what.  See those things well enough, Fay felt, through her photographs, and you had a chance of reading stories there you never knew before.

There are several British photographers who have inherited some of Fay Godwin’s passion for the traces of the past on the land.  Photography always has a smell of history about it: you photograph that which you know will change faster than the picture.  That’s why, in a world where absolutely everything seems to be photographable and photographed, the odd things that escape are those which are just so familiar that it seems inconceivable that they might change.  We photograph our holidays, and have done for many generations.  But how many of us find once we move house that we have never photographed our neighbours, the nice guy who runs the corner store, the commute to work, even our own front door?  The corollary is true, too: that pictures which are stumbled upon which have a particular redolence of a past we thought had gone have a hard emotional effect like a blow.

As a small child, I used to share with my brother something we called the Whirlybird.  No idea if that was what it was really called, but it was a kind of pushme-pullyou, self-propelled roundabout or carousel.  Pull the handle, push with your feet, and it span.  We lived in Washington DC then; I assume the thing was American. I live in England now.  I’ve described this thing to many English people and they shrug. The other day, I found a picture.

Two Small Boys on Their Whirlybird, Washington DC, 1963

Two Small Boys on Their Whirlybird, Washington DC, 1963

There is the machine itself, a fact proven to be rightly remembered. But it’s a photograph, not just a datum.  I can’t resist that date-stamp on the picture margin, as much a part of my childhood as the Whirlybird itself.  And of course, any self-respecting childhood memory should have that dappled sunlight, the suggestion of great heat in the minimal clothing and soaking children.  Photographs are intimate historical things.  It’s not just that they preserve; they suggest or assert, they correct where memory was fogged or wrong. We react to them each according to the complex of our own cultural baggage.  That was not a Whirlybird; it was my Whirlybird.  You need the understanding of the past and the picture to work in tandem: the picture does not simply supply that understanding ready-made.

Fay Godwin understood that with deep conviction.  A moor, a bridge, even a peat bog were things that meant something hugely different to a person who had walked them than to one who had not. You read the landscape, at least in crowded little Britain, where every mile bears traces of man’s activity, with your feet as much as with your eye.  Fay was President of the Ramblers’ Association for a period – she started walking because a doctor had told her that her health might benefit from it, and she became a monster pedestrian, always laden with cameras, frail but indomitable.

I see the same combination of drives in the fantastic pictures from Paola de Pietri’s To Face.  These are not new: The project won the Renger Patzsch award of the Folkwang Museum in Essen in 2009. Some of them were in the (brilliant) multi-artist show Topographies de la Guerre, at Le Bal in Paris in late 2011. Steidl published them last year and the book has, I believe, already sold out. But they are being shown at Milan’s Museo di Fotografia Contemporanea from 1st March 2013, as part of the Milan Triennial, and anyway, there’s no season for good photographs.

Paola de Pietri - Piccolo Colbricon, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Piccolo Colbricon, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Cason D'Ardosa Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Cason D’Ardosa Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Forcella Fontanegra, 2009 -2012

Paola de Pietri – Forcella Fontanegra, 2009 – 2012

I called these pictures fantastic not in the teenage sense of unmitigated approval, although I like them very much, but in the older sense of having to do with phantasms.  There is a haunted quality about these pictures which is what strikes me first about them.  Some of them have fog, sure enough, or at least strange effects of dense air which blot out the farther slopes to leave the nearer isolated and as if suspended.  De Pietri has rightly judged that wreaths of semi-substantial fog are the right material to describe a haunting: a thousand movies have seen to that, and plenty of books before them.

Haunting is the point.  For these are pictures of the terrain of one of the maddest wars ever fought, the trench warfare between Austria and Italy that took place in the First World War at 2000 metres in the Alps and the Prealpi and in the Carso. These are places where it is hard enough to walk a few miles, leave alone kill people in large numbers.  Even when de Pietri’s light is deep and crisp and even, like the snow in the carol, there is a haunting in the visible traces of the structures of warfare.  Here a trench, there a cavernous opening to a bunker.  The core reaction to these pictures is the same for everybody: what were they thinking of?  What madness was this? The effort of shifting rock at that altitude, to make warfare more like what people expected in the plain, may be incomprehensible to anyone who is not a ranking officer graduated from strategic school.  These pastures and escarpments, beautiful by all the standards of aesthetics since the eighteenth century, were killing fields.  Thousands and thousands of young men perished here.

No doubt a different kind of photographer would have found a different kind of evidence.  I can imagine – indeed a very moving text (published in the Steidl volume) from 1967 about these places, by the fine Italian writer Mario Rigoni Stern confirms – that one could find smaller bits of evidence by lowering one’s eye to the ground.  Bullets, preserved bits of metal from uniforms or equipment, even bits of bone.  All the routine jigsaw pieces that archaeology uncovers when it is done with a spade.  I have in mind for example, the Forbidden Forest, the terrifying series made by Jonathan Olley on the theme of unexploded ordnance still cluttering the area around Verdun, another horrific First World War battlefield in another country.  Olley wandered around with his head down, finding amid foliage the bright orange painted warnings on rusty bombs that are still so numerous that they will take dozens of years to find and make safe.  The Great War is nearly a hundred years ago.  But its ghosts are still pretty active.

The only really close parallel that I know is the series of pictures of the Angolan border by Jo Ractliffe, about the territory of a much more recent war, and much more obviously personal.  If I remember, friends and acquaintances of Ractliffe’s had gone to that war as conscripts in the South African army, and part of her motivation was to understand what had damaged them so badly but that they spoke about so little. It isn’t a neutral kind of imagery, even though the gore and the horror have been removed.

Roger Fenton - The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

Roger Fenton – The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855

Think back many years to the birth of war photography and to Roger Fenton’s (still) incredible Valley of the Shadow of Death, from Crimea.  I have seen it suggested somewhere that he may have had assistants move the cannonballs to be closer to the camera.  He may:  there are certainly suspiciously few of them at the farther reaches of focus.  But still, nobody can contemplate the density of those things on the ground without seeing that it must have been impossible to live while they were falling. It’s a picture of a hail storm of red-hot, very heavy cannonballs, each not only deadly, but deadly in peculiarly cruel and dreadful ways.  It’s as horrific as anything James Nachtwey or Susan Meiselas or Dmitri Baltermants or George Rodger or Don McCullin would produce. Yet in the whole of Fenton’s valley, there is not a corpse or a bloodstain, no writhing figures (à la Beato in the Indian Mutiny or the Opium War). It’s one of the great metaphorical photographs.  We can’t help but think of the horror, without having it thrust in our eyes.

And that is another point.  Paola de Pietri’s series is not merely a neutral chronicle of a historically disturbed patch of ground.  It is a series that will have deep personal echoes to all sorts of people, starting with herself.  For whatever reason, she must have walked those steep slopes with heavy equipment.  I don’t believe that you can do it any other way.  And in doing that, the photographer was echoing the weary trudging of the soldiers who built these crazy fortifications.  The soldiers may have had mules: de Pietri maybe had colleagues, for all I know.  Still…

Paola de Pietri - Cason D'Ardosa, Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Cason D’Ardosa, Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

It reminds me of those pictures one sees of Machu Picchu, always from slightly above to get a bit of valley in as well as the ruins.  As though the very act of constructing in the mountains were mad.  Do Italians feel about De Pietri’s pictures as Scotsmen feel about the valley of Glencoe?  Do these still, high places carry a burden of loathing and of guilt which we outsiders cannot grasp, looking maybe at a computer screen or a nicely produced art publication?  They do.  I’m sure they do.  But like Fay Godwin’s pictures, they are good enough that by seeing, we have a chance to understand at least some of it.

Paola de Pietri - Forcella del Col Del Bos, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Forcella del Col Del Bos, 2009 – 2012

‘Traditional’ mountaineering photographs go long on two things.  They emphasize the sublime grandeur and wilderness of the mountains.  And they concentrate on the athleticism and daring of the climbers.  Other things – including the increasing negative effect that climbing has on the environment, not least in the appalling litter climbers think nothing of leaving behind on the very mountains they wax so eloquent about – are not part of the canon.  Here, Paola de Pietri has made a vocabulary peculiarly well suited to her very different tale of the mountains.  It’s in part of vocabulary based on looking for clarity and finding it not so easy to grasp. No long views anywhere, even though we are 2000 metres up.  Absolutely no wilderness, if wilderness means untouched by man. Odd patches of snow sit in dips like the temporary cloths men put on new graves or even like the marble of grave stones.  Physically quite small alterations to the landscape carry large suggestions: an embrasure big enough to poke a machine gun through is not a very big hole. I find myself asking: does every soldier digging a foxhole know that he is digging his grave? Always she shows that haunting, by shrouding vegetation or by the closing in of the clouds.

Paola de Pietri - Col Formiga, Monte Grappa, 2009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Col Formiga, Monte Grappa, 2009 – 2012

In some of them, I admit that I don’t know exactly what I’m looking at.  Some of the little constructions could be the work of shepherds, sheep cotes or shelter.  Some could be natural, the result of frost and water, normal erosion. Are those rocks shattered by shellfire?  Is that more level platform a former camp? I don’t need to know every detail to get the message.  You could imagine a film maker putting a classical Agnus Dei – maybe the great distressing one from Haydn’s Mass in Time of War – over these pictures.  They reek of the cruel idiocy of man to man, and nearly a hundred years later, they speak gently of the long, slow recovery as memory fades imperceptibly into history.

Paola de Pietri - Monte Ermada, @009 - 2012

Paola de Pietri – Monte Ermada, 2009 – 2012

Paola de Pietri - Forte Verle, 2009 -2012

Paola de Pietri – Forte Verle, 2009 -2012

An English king’s body was identified the other day, Richard III’s, lying under a car park in Leicester.  There was a certain amount of civic pride, a little talk of how wonderful archaeology was, with its high-tech comparisons of mitochondrial DNA and its super accurate carbon dating.  A few, a very few voices were raised in the media shouting “Hold on, stop !  This man very probably murdered two young potential threats to his power, and he died a hideous death in battle. ”  He died in 1485, shortly before Columbus sailed to America.  Many of Fay Godwin’s scratches and markings on the land are as old as we can reasonably go back, Neolithic things, among the earliest traces on our country of all. Those traces, high in Paola de Pietri’s mountains will slowly become even fainter.  But we have the pictures, and they are great monuments.  We have the invitation to understand.  We don’t necessarily have understanding itself.

Save