The Sort of Thing They Like



Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

“For those who like that sort of thing,” said Miss Brodie in her best Edinburgh voice, “That is the sort of thing they like.”
― Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie


I have recently been writing quite a lot about how we could possibly set standards by which to judge photographs. It is not just a recent preoccupation; it’s one I’ve been gnawing away at for a long time. Put very simply, I recognize the absurdity of applying any one family of criteria to all photographs (and the arrogance of any one person setting themselves up to do that). But do we really have so little common ground in judging them, torn between all the hundreds of different criteria that could apply, that we have to make a profound revelation of ourselves as users of pictures before we can make even a moderate assessment of the pictures themselves ?

I strongly feel that photography should be capable of analysis and should not simply be offered and received as a mere system of visual construction, incapable of bearing profound meanings beyond its surface connection to ‘reality’. Or worse : incapable of bearing profound meanings except as the visualization of something which takes its proper, finished form elsewhere, usually in a text. If it is to be capable of analysis, then some more meaningful scale of value must apply than the old one of mere badging. “Great” and “crap” can only get us so far in sharing ideas about photographs.

Photography loses much of its point if it is treated as free-for-all, unmoored in the broader culture. A picture out of context is often not much of a picture at all – until a curator or editor or somebody acting as one of those things comes along to give a new context. Although context is not everything, I do note how difficult it is ever to treat a photograph as ‘nothing’ or ‘nothing much’ after reading detailed analysis of what it is and where it comes from. On the other hand, I am more and more dismayed by that form of photography (being practised specially by that odd subsection of photographers who are academic researchers) in which the utter neutrality of the pictures, in a style derived from late post-modern post-documentary, amounts to an admission of defeat. Those pictures convey nothing at all without the words.   Much academic photography is in fact merely the prop or scaffold for academic writing. It gives up on all the rich forms of expression in photography and falls back to its humble function of … illustration.

I suppose in my role as a critic of photographs, I spend my time trudging between the more nearly closed image (made by the photographer, distributed by publishers of various kinds, sold, copied and Instagrammed … ) and the more nearly open one seen by viewers. By the first, I mean those pictures which are doing the work expected of them, functionally. By the second, I mean that viewers come always (in theory) to every single new picture in a state of hot tension in case that picture might be the one which might bring wonderment or some kind of truth or any one of the dozens of strong emotions photographs can carry. I have argued for years that there is an imbalance between the lazy garbage that many photographers and their distributors are happy to release over their names, and the heightened alertness viewers bring to photographs for the fraction of a second it takes to see if they deserve that concentration. We receive photographs like cricketers in the slips, muscles tensed in advance, ready to move high or low. More often than not, we might as well have relaxed.

Photography is almost always an applied art first. Pictures have traditionally moved from the world of work to the gallery, where they have rested. If a small (recently, an increasing) minority has been destined direct to the esoteric (and in many regards incredibly old-fashioned) world of the collector and the dealer, that minority is still just that. The analysis of art provides many clues as to ways of making sense of photographs; but photography is bigger than art as it is bigger than journalism or advertising or police evidence files.

Pictures commonly do have jobs to do. The connotations are mildly snobbish, still today. Think of the words traditionally tied to photography: socially disparaging like craft or trade, technically disparaging, like smudger or snapper, or simply mildly contemptuous, like hobby or pastime. Don McCullin rebuked one of the journalistic colleagues he once travelled with (I think it was James Cameron) who introduced him as my photographer. It is not remarkable that McCullin had to correct him. But that Cameron could say such a thing would be incredible if it didn’t happen every day.   The disparagement exists because users of photography still, after it being so vital and so dominant for so long, have not settled on meaningful standards by which it can be judged. Or they have — but only within the tiny subsets in which they each operate. Good gardening picture. Bad wedding picture. Good picture to show how rich I am. Bad picture to illustrate the massacre that took place last night. Good picture of our logo. Bad picture for.…

We need to learn to be sensitive to disparagement of photography, maybe in the same process as we need to learn to be sensitive to photographs themselves. Because photography, whether you like it or not, is not confined to those subsets. Photography is the literacy of all those of us who are no longer ‘well-read’.

My friend and erstwhile colleague Stephen Mayes talks with fervour about how stock photography – disparaged, despised stock – can drive societal change in ways that we haven’t yet begun to codify. If the stock industry begins to show same sex couples raising children – and it does because customers are there to pay for those pictures – then that becomes the social norm whether there is a hinterland of disapprovers or not. Stock is an incredibly powerful influencing system; yet we think of it as a lowly trade practice, far beneath analysis. Popular music and film act as the literacy of those who are no longer well read, too. There are occasional outbursts of contempt for those things, yet it is rare for the industrial consumption of tunes or movies to be treated with the disdain so customarily reserved for our industrial consumption of imagery. Pictures do good or bad work, all over the place, all the time. And as a society we have simply not equipped ourselves to work out how they do what they do.

So I keep worrying away at this question of standards. One argument goes like this: If it’s an applied art, maybe the standards of the application override or overrule the standards of the art. How would that work? Is a crap photograph capable of being a good fashion photograph? Maybe it is. Indeed, I do believe that is a very fair assessment of how it can work. If – as I, following many others – have written in the past, photography changes status very fluidly as the individual image moves from context to context, then maybe the standards by which to assess it have to be fluid, too. And maybe they do. I am gravitating to (and have published in various forms) a notion that a good user of pictures, acting as an editor or curator or collector or just a kid pinning an eclectic group of pictures to a bedroom wall, can give sense and context to pictures which had none at all before her intervention.   The logical consequence of that is inescapable: that it is the user and the use to whom and to which standards of quality apply, and not the photographic raw material. The very same picture would then have different standards applied to it in the varying contexts in which it falls. That is our experience of pictures; it feels right.


I want to keep gnawing.

It is a truth (if not universally, then widely) acknowledged that whatever Nigel Shafran does is very good. As a matter of fact, I’m among those who acknowledge it, or very largely so. He makes sequences of compelling emotional order. A very great majority of what he chooses to release really is very well seen, very well expressed, of interest and so on. A smaller proportion is even better than that: choose your word. Shafran is certainly capable of making great images – leave aside for a moment whether that actually means anything at all in the context of the paragraph above – and has proved so many times in my view. I have long been a fan. I also know him a bit and like him very well as a person. In fact we shared a pint of beer and half a dozen oysters only the other day. I need to state all of that unequivocally here, at the outset. Because I want to take Shafran to some extent as my guinea pig. I want to enquire here into how we get our certainties about what makes or unmakes a good photograph; I want to pick away at easy words like good and great as they are applied to pictures.


Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


Shafran last summer (2015) had a few pictures included in an exhibition at Somerset House which had been curated by Martin Barnes, of the V&A. Called Beneath the Surface, and drawn from the V&A’s own holdings, the exhibition (among other things) mounted a clever and convincing argument that to read pictures only for what they show is often to miss the point; that every picture in the V&A is there for reasons, and those reasons add up to a rich extra narrative intimately connected to the pictures but also stretching far beyond them. You could, if you liked jargon, refer to the metadata behind the pictures, or more plainly to the backstory of how they came to be where they are and what they are. You could talk in terms of material culture in this context, too.

A few years earlier, Barnes had commissioned Shafran to make some pictures for the V&A’s annual review, and his group of pictures in Beneath the Surface came from that commission. Shafran published those as Visitor Figures: Out-takes from the V&A Museum Annual Review 2012-13. (It’s an odd subtitle. They are not, properly speaking, out-takes. Of the nine pictures chosen to illustrate the V&A Annual Review, six reappear in the book. )

Notice that the inclusion of Shafran’s group in the Somerset House show is not neutral. It is (or it could be taken as) a vindication by the curator of his earlier decision as commissioner.

There is at first glance nothing particularly odd in the V&A commissioning Shafran – commissioning any photographer – to illustrate its own internal documents. The V&A is the national treasury of the art of photography; its collections are second-to-none and its curatorial concern has been high-level and constant for many years. Of course it should commission photographers to do stuff, every year.

Lots of organizations think they are vaguely daring in asking a photographer to work on their annual review who might not be quite limited to the awful standard annual-report vocabulary of process-and-people; suits-and-high vis; discipline-and-creative freedom — all presented in totally spurious cahoots. Not everybody who reads this will have seen an annual report. Take it from me, the majority of them are as miserably unimaginative and cheap in their photography as they are in their prose, leaden porridge of commercial cliché and caution and convention. Collectively, they add to the wholly justifiable despair one can have about the management function and the functionaries who perform it.

But consider. Shafran is not apparently a corporate photographer. It is obvious that it took some courage for Martin Barnes to commission him. Shafran is a notably independent minded photographer; one of the tribe who think of themselves as artists and not as craftsmen. He might have been disinclined to toe whatever management line was laid out for him to toe. Even worse, in corporate terms, he might have been … unmanageable. Also – much more surprisingly – the other way. It took a great deal of courage for Shafran to accept the commission. Imagine if by the mere mischance of having been mistaken for the kind of artist who could put artistry aside for the length of a corporate brochure, he had happened to sour relations with the major museum in his discipline for ever. That can happen. It has happened.

But this was not, as it happens, Shafran’s first commission from the V&A. A number of other pictures were commissioned from him in 1999 to celebrate Lord Armstrong’s completion of his tenure as Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

Nigel Shafran, After Gillian Varley's leaving party, 1999

Nigel Shafran, After Gillian Varley’s leaving party, Victoria & Albert Museum, 1999

So maybe there was considerably less risk involved than appears. Maybe Shafran — who was a high-flying commercial photographer in the youthful fashion-lifestyle end of the business before he was ever an independent artist, and who now judiciously manages the commercially-driven aspects of his work to take advantage of the energy and reputation that flows from those of his personal projects which have no very heavy commercial outcome — is a “safe pair of hands” (how uniquely British that phrase is, deriving as it does from cricket, the mysterious game which now makes its second appearance in these lines). If that’s so, we may need to rethink the pictures. Maybe getting Shafran to do your annual review pictures is precisely the corporate norm as geared to the V&A rather than a widget maker, profit taker or corporate shaker. And if that is so, in turn, then maybe we need to look again.

What does the V&A need to show? A number of its values are set. Since the Blairite formulation of culture – that it had to pay its way in societal terms – which has been wholly accepted by the Conservatives-with-Blairite-DNA who run Britain now, the agenda for national museums has been completely clear. Budgets are going to be cut every year (because the people who rule don’t really believe in culture in spite of ample demonstrations that it actually brings real benefits), but they will be cut harder if the mission statement cannot be shown to be met. Culture needs to be accessible and inclusive, to be devoted to (and a successful partner in) education. It needs to show value for the national pound spent on it, and to demonstrate herculean efforts at raising money commercially so as not to look like it might be scrounging. It needs to show high-level scholarship on the international level and leadership in as many as possible of the fields in which it operates. It needs to host blockbuster manifestations, if only to keep a profile next to others in creative industries for whom blockbusting is the only aim they own. It needs to be a considerate employer, devoted to the principles of equal opportunities, health and safety, and so on. Everybody who has ever tried to earn a living in the cultural fields will recognize that these employment ends stop short of actually paying decent wages, of course. Culture is supposed to be a great gift for the people who consume it, and the people who work at it are supposed to enjoy it so much that they can routinely be exploited for unfair or uncompetitive rates of pay.   But that is a separate question. Its political masters judge the V&A by the way in which it meets this agenda. Culture needs for ever to prove that it is paying its way, and a great museum never loses sight of that.

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

So Nigel Shafran’s pictures for the annual review had a lot riding on them. That his style is notably informal (I mean that he does not tend to use any set-up by which he has total control over his subject matter, in the matters of lighting or excluding accidental elements) should not obscure that. Informal pictures can still perform a very formal role, as advertisers, for example, know very well.   Take the Shafran pictures included in the final edit of the V&A report: we have specific views of the conservation process, of scholarship in action, of education, of the wide visitor profile, of the appeal of the blockbuster exhibitions… We even have, in the last picture used, a view of the Madejski garden crowded with visitors on a winter’s evening for some performance or event, a picture of the impact (it’s a jargon term for the number of people you reach and how you affect them) you can achieve through private funding.   This is a remarkably on-message selection of pictures for a radical photographer. They’re good or bad in other terms, and that can be discussed. But in corporate terms, which after all, are the terms under which they were commissioned, made and selected, they are very good. Or — to put in the terms I suggested above — these pictures were applied to the V&A’s purposes, and in the terms of that application, they were good.

V& A annual_review_201213 p54

Pages 54 & 55 of the Annual Review of the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2012/13. The little tiny not-very-inspiring corporate portrait in the upper left (of some executives executing something or other) is, rather surprisingly, by Nigel Shafran. Are there any standards other than those of the job in hand by which this is a ‘good’ picture ?

Shafran has had, as any successful photographer must have had, a succession of relations with picture editors and editors, with gallerists and curators, with publishers and critics and commercial clients. Maybe the manner in which he has run those relations is more important than the actual content of the pictures. That is a quite shocking thing to say to people who believe that the pictures are very fine and do their work irrespective of other considerations. But it is true in every business that what one might call the ancillary skills are vitally important. You need to be on time, to be personable, to be on budget and on message, to be civil, to be flexible to the needs of the customer, to be discreet, to be prepared to put up with a certain amount of executive bullshit and so on. These are skills which we try and persuade our sons and daughters to develop and maintain, whatever business they intend to pursue.

In something like photography, where very, very few people trust their own taste in the primary activity itself — where few can really confidently tell a good picture from a bad — it may well be that the ancillary skills hold more weight in the judgment of quality than in a business where more widely shared standards apply. The crudest standard is simply money. I forget which titan of the Thatcher era said “money is the way we keep the score”, and the barbarism is quite plain. Yet there is an element of truth there, too. A photographer who earns good money must be a good photographer, no? It rather depends what you mean by good.

If coming to a judgment on the primary activity is difficult, then the same few half-judgments will be carried much further. That is certainly true in photography, where the absurd replacement of individual judgment by the crudest reliance on name checking is very common. White Cube represents him: must be good. Michael Mack publishes her: must be good. He is in the collection at MOMA: must be good.   She went to the Royal College of Art; must be good… These (although they exist everywhere) are not the kinds of judgments you hear so much in creative businesses which have a functioning shared vocabulary of standards. A properly weighty CV for a film-maker might impress you; but if the last documentary she made is crap, you have every confidence in identifying that, and if you are in a position to hire such people, you might well hire another.

In photography, where there is so much choice of practitioners, and where an acute compiler could use such a vast range of forms of expression, timidity and conservatism are the rule rather than the exception. There are adventurous and confident editors and curators and publishers and art directors; but they are outnumbered in the thousands to one by those with little knowledge of the antecedents, narrow ambition for any set of photographs, and zero confidence in their own eye. They are the ones who will keep coming back to the ancillary skills since they admit they can make nothing of the primary ones. Being able to do business with a photographer comes to be not a complement to finding the pictures strong or moving or original or well expressed, but something that stands in place of those things.

I said loud and clear: I admire Nigel Shafran and think him a fine photographer. He has (deftly understated) technical mastery, great reflexes, a powerfully original sense of what is worth noticing in photographs. He has an old-fashioned sense of beauty coupled with a post-modern feel that beauty will be found in whatever you look at beautifully. He has acute moral antennae, becoming modesty, humanity, wide-ranging curiosity and culture. But I don’t think that the judgments which brought a group of his prints to the lower floor of Somerset House in London in the summer of 2015 are really derived from any of that.

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review

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Nigel Shafran, from Visitor Figures. Not selected for the V&A’s Annual Review


It doesn’t in the end matter to the V&A whether the pictures they publish in their annual report are in any profound sense good pictures. Those pictures had work to do in their original guise. Then they reappear ten or a hundred times bigger, as fine prints in a major exhibition, and it begins to look as though somebody is asking us to take them seriously in contexts beyond their original one. But that somebody is the same as the person who commissioned them in the first place, who inevitably has something invested in how we regard them. Shafran then republishes them in a self-published book, and it looks as though he is making the same transition: the pictures are moving from ‘job’ to ‘work’.   Some time in the future, somebody will start to hold those pictures up to others, to compare what they are and what they do, and will come to conclusions about their cultural weight and worth. But long before that has happened, they will have been described as good or even great pictures, and I don’t think we know that they are yet.

We don’t have the habit of assessing photographs in the round. We don’t tend to share a vocabulary by which we can agree in describing their route from ‘a good job well done’ to anything more general than that. It may be impossible to arrive at such a vocabulary. But it surely is worth trying to keep an eye for one. And maybe it starts by asking what the job they were doing was and what it is.  It’s no good being snobbish about ‘applied art’.  It’s no good being snobbish, like Miss Jean Brodie, about the sort of things people like. It’s photography : it’s working at something or it isn’t worth a damn.



Post Scriptum:

I reviewed Beneath the Surface at the time for Photomonitor:

You will see that the thoughts I develop here were not quite developed there: but it does no harm to admit to thinking about the same pictures for more than the immediate purpose at hand. One of the things we don’t do, I think, is give pictures the chance for the second and third and nth reading.

Harlequin Without His Mask

Rankin, Life Mask of Ian Rankin, 2013

Rankin, Life Mask of Ian Rankin, 2013

I have been indifferent to Rankin. I’m not a follower of fashion, and have never had much interest in which brand he has favoured with his efficient but derivative image making. I’ve been to a number of his exhibitions, but can’t remember ever reviewing one. Rankin is one of those photographers whose style is the absence of style. When you see a single picture of his, you can’t tell it’s by him, and when you see a number of them together, you can’t tell whether he was deeply involved in the subject or merely contracted to it.

Rankin has often, for example, exhibited his pictures of his partner, the model Tuuli, and I have consistently been unable to see any special affection in the pictures that might distinguish his treatment of her to that of his other models. To be precise, I don’t mean merely pictures in which the model happened to be his wife: it might be quite wrong for those to have any legible trace of their private relationship. But Rankin has exhibited pictures specifically as a love story, and those come out looking just like any other nice clean cheerful safe pictures of a woman. Rankin can certainly supply you with a pout, a smile, sultry come-hither eyes or what have you. Bags of what looks like energy or charm. But there is something mechanical in his photography beyond which I have found it difficult to get to anything more interesting.

No doubt precisely that contributes to his very considerable commercial success.

If you want conventional unchallenging studio photography which presses simple emotional buttons with no great demand upon the viewer (and that is exactly what a large majority of commercial clients think they want), Rankin may well be your man. He is not, I find, particularly interested in trusting the pictures to do his communicating. He is happy for his pictures to take their overtones and undertones from the words which accompany them. The pictures are just-so; they do an excellent job. But they never challenge you to rethink your world, never ask to draw upon deep reserves of memory or understanding. Rankin does not weave complex patterns of ideas, of the kind which photography weaves so successfully out of allusion and quotation and reference. He does not dance that constant lovely edge between what we are made to see and what we know already.

In the terms I have used earlier in these pages, he may not even be a photographer at all, although there is no doubt of his mastery as a camera operator.

Or so I thought.

I went a few days ago to Liverpool, to see the various manifestations of the Look/13 Festival. Rankin is showing at the Walker Art Gallery, a very ho-hum sort of exhibition entitled ALIVE: in the Face of Death. It tells heartening stories about the drive and vigour that some people can show under tough medical circumstances, and most of the pictures are relentlessly jolly. The majority are portraits of the patients or former patients themselves, with a few footnotes (such as a group of professional Ghanaian mourners) thrown in. It’s not at all a bad idea to speak in public of death more than is the norm in Britain, and the Walker is to be applauded for that. A few visitors will indeed be heartened by the show, and will take away from it a mental picture of resolve or gaiety or some similar linear characteristic. Most of the pictures are nothing more than illustrations of the thesis and they are completely missable. Yet in among all that, I confess to my considerable surprise, Rankin has put a group of astounding portrait studies which not only make the show worth seeing but also made me wonder if I should begin to rethink the photographer.

Rankin, Life Mask of Sam Clafin, 2013

Rankin, Life Mask of Sam Clafin, 2013

Rankin calls these portraits life masks, and I had thought that they were no more than a rendering of a still face by one photographic technique or another. But it seems they are not: in April of 2013, The Scotsman published Ian Rankin’s (the novelist’s) own pictures of his face being moulded in plaster, presumably for the sitting with his namesake photographer. They really are pictures of life masks.

The first thing I liked was how universal the people become under these circumstances. A degree of difference is maintained by the sheer age or youth of skin: the model Abbey Clancy plainly has a smoother mien than Ian Rankin. But all these heads photographed exactly the same way become studies of mankind as well as just studies of people.

They are, of course, a typology. You can photograph any number of variants of an object the same way, and hope to find some revelatory common ground between them. That is an idea so tired it has not much left to yield. But life masks go right back to the very beginning of photography on at least two counts.

To have such a cast made – even with quick-drying plaster – demands the kind of stillness that has not really existed since the long exposures of the very early days of photography. Daguerreotypists frequently used a head clamp, to enforce stillness. Real stillness is not merely a technical matter: it changes the psychology of being portrayed.

That stillness does things to the face being photographed, and to our reading of it. W.M. Hunt has amassed an entire collection (published in The Unseen Eye) of photographs in which the eyes of the sitter are closed, or masked in some way. He has a particular affection for pictures in which the eyes are masked by a chance effect which then gives an extra something to the photograph. He explains that this gives some reading of the unconscious, and he may be right: certainly it is by the eyes that we most usually engage with each other. Masked eyes automatically mean that some engagement less than usually direct is going to be involved.

Weegee, Arrested for Bribing a Basketball Player, 1945.   This is one of the accidental masks reprinted in WM Hunt's brilliant Unseen Eye, Thames & Hudson 2011

Weegee, Arrested for Bribing a Basketball Player, 1945.
This is one of the accidental masks reprinted in WM Hunt’s brilliant Unseen Eye, Thames & Hudson 2011

One of Brassai's graffiti series. Undated between 1935-50.   Also from WM Hunt's Unseen Eye.

One of Brassai’s graffiti series. Undated between 1935-50.
Also from WM Hunt’s Unseen Eye.

The second reason I say life masks go right back to the earliest days of photography is that photography absorbed some of the main ideas of physiognomy, ideas very current in the decades before photography which survive within photography even though substantially discredited elsewhere.

Masking is intrinsically challenging. One part of photography’s appeal to most viewers is a strange element of voyeurism. Not that all subject matter is looked at with sexual eyes, but that there is a recurring pleasure in being able to take more time to view with intensity and concentration than is afforded when looking at things in vivo. Look carefully in the real world, and you are always out of time before you can have fully grasped what you see. Look carefully in a photograph and things (physical and associational) appear which seemed to have been hidden. That produces a pleasure in seeing: it provides its own rewards by revealing more or revealing otherwise. Masks both repel that kind of scrutiny and invite it. I defy anybody not to look harder at a mask than they do at a face. It’s almost as if the mask carries within itself the invitation to unmask if you dare, to unmask if you can. Look hard enough at a mask and it might just dissolve.

One of the grid of 24 self-portraits masked in shaving foam that make up Marcus Coates' British Moths, 2011

One of the grid of 24 self-portraits masked in shaving foam that make up Marcus Coates’ British Moths, 2011

I wrote on these pages not long ago of the shaving-foam masks of Marcus Coates, in a piece called British Moths 2011, which continues to intrigue me. On that same occasion I mentioned Erwin Blumenfeld, who used masking as an absolutely central weapon in his armoury. Blumenfeld would mask the model in an amazing variety of ways, including using strobes with a telescope attached that allowed him to use light itself as a mask. But he also used bobbly glass, venetian blinds, heavy shadow… The new (May 2013) exhibition of Blumenfeld’s fashion work at Somerset House in London contains a number of masks or images dependent on masking, and some of them are very close in conception to Rankin’s series at the Walker.

Erwin Blumenfeld, Mask, Paris, 1936. Blumenfeld was obsessive at masking and felt that hiding was an invitation to reveal.

Erwin Blumenfeld, Mask, Paris, 1936.
Blumenfeld was obsessive at masking and felt that hiding was an invitation to reveal.

A catalogue of masks in photography would certainly be enormous, ranging over factual anthropological studies, a host of make-up effects in fashion, various kinds of sport, and the unwitting masking of the kind that W.M. Hunt assembled in his book. S&M masking is a subject in its own right. The humble pair of dark glasses may be no more than a sketch of a mask, a request to be viewed as though masked, and therefore a plea to be unmasked.

I’m interested by the idea that the face is only one small remove away from a mask all the time. By a minimum of manipulation, a photographer can turn a face into a mask, and by doing so redouble its compelling force to be viewed. That manipulation can be through a physical process of mask making, as by Rankin. It can be by a manner of photographing, as for example by the German modernist photographer Helmar Lerski.

A page of Helmar Lerski facial studies, from Florian Ebner's Metamorphosen des Gesichts (with thanks to Bernhard Schulz).  Lerski achieves a close approach to Gothic statuary.

A page of Helmar Lerski facial studies, from Florian Ebner’s Metamorphosen des Gesichts (with thanks to Bernhard Schulz).
Lerski achieves a close approach to Gothic statuary.

One of the great successes of the Tate’s 2007 exhibition How We Are, curated by Val Willams and Susan Bright, was the fresh impetus given to the beautiful portraits of destroyed faces by Percy Hennell. Hennell was a technically inventive specialist in colour photography who worked in the Second war in a number of Royal Air Force hospitals. Many of his pictures of the reconstructive surgery undergone by patients (often after severe burning) are in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons. We stare at a Hennell sitter with a terrible mixture of pity and fear and relief that such a thing has not happened to us. We also stare hoping against hope to find legible marks of character behind the disfigurement. In Hennell’s pictures, the mask is often of a peculiarly extreme kind. It is a still a mask, but made of flesh itself. And that, oddly, seems to be not so extreme after all. It seems that all faces are masks when seen in a certain light.

Percy Hennell, Wartimne injury of the left eye which has been removed and replaced with a flap of skin taken from the scalp or forehead which is bandaged, n.d.

Percy Hennell,
Wartime injury of the left eye which has been removed and replaced with a flap of skin taken from the scalp or forehead which is bandaged, n.d.

The phrase at the top of this page is from Thackeray’s English Humorists, where he writes in the chapter on Swift: “Harlequin without his mask is known to present a very sober countenance, and was himself, the story goes, the melancholy patient whom the Doctor advised to go and see Harlequin”.

Like Hearing Music – Only Faster

Helen Levitt, [Spider Girl] New York, 1980

Boris Savelev, Café Ion, Moscow, 1987

Saul Leiter, Snow, 1960

A very fine new exhibition at Somerset House in London (Cartier-Bresson : A Question of Colour, until 27th January 2013) throws a searching light on a number of interrelated things. Curator William A. Ewing has managed something of a tour de force in assembling a dozen or so practitioners who use colour in different ways. In the exhibition rooms, Ewing has hung the pictures in small groups by author, revelling in the way the variations of approach evoke variations in our response.

In my own review for the Financial Times, I wrote of a sense of synaesthesia, that peculiar deflection of the mind whereby for some people colours are read as smells or as sounds. And indeed, although not markedly synaesthetic myself, I find the experience of Ewing’s rather brilliant hang at Somerset House to be a musical one: each group of pictures sets up a tonality which rings in deliberate harmony or dissonance with its neighbours across the wall or over the angle of a room.

There are chamber players, users generally of more delicate colours: Harry Gruyaert, Boris Savelev, Saul Leiter, Fred Herzog… There are pianists and singers, the users of naturalistic colours: Jeff Mermelstein, Melanie Einzig… There are jazzmen, those who take delight in the brighter, shriller colours of the modern urban environment: Robert Walker, Karl Baden… Ewing never actually says so, but he tends very close to the idea that colour sets a mood in the viewer, which is then either developed and resolved by the other details in the picture, or deliberately contrasted to something, leaving the viewer aware of precisely the point of non-intersection which the photographer wanted to bring to his attention.

This procedure is also a musical one, albeit one mightily compressed. In music, notably in classical music, we are well used to the elaboration, counterposition and resolution of themes. Even those of us who are not trained in music hear the echoes of what we heard towards the beginning of the piece in what is offered to us later. Emotion hangs on to snippets of melody or of harmony in such a way that when we hear the latter stages, we are in effect hearing chords of the actual music playing over the remembered. No difficulty there: it is our shared experience of how music actually works. But still photography appears to lack the element of time, and therefore to be incapable of such a reading.

William Ewing’s show at Somerset House goes some way to showing how it can be so all the same.

Viewing a photograph is always a rapid process. I have argued for a number of years that the prime challenge for every photographer in every picture is to keep the viewer’s eye upon it long enough to get his messages across. The ‘usual’ surface of a photograph is rather repellent to the eye. It is slippery, skiddy. The eye bounces off it. This contrasts with bronze, paint, pastel, charcoal… All of those have microscopic traps and pools of darkness built into their very texture to offer stepping-stones to the eye as it moves over them according to the lines of composition. In music and film, of course, the hearer/viewer is kept there for a longish period automatically, in the very nature of the process.

Further, a photograph at ‘usual’ sizes (shall we say magazine sizes, smaller than an A4 sheet?) is always potentially viewed as one single gobbet of information. The viewer instinctively boils it down to a caption in his mind, which having filed, he feels under no obligation to glance at the picture again.

There is ample physiological evidence that the eye moves over the surface of a picture in jerky tics of focus, and the brain processes a bit from each. But if a photograph is consumed at a bite, it has no chance to yield up anything more than its most superficial flavours. The daily experience of all of us – dozens and dozens of images viewed per day, rapidly and without deliberate thought – confirms how high a proportion of our photographic diet is junk.

Photography, it goes without saying, is capable of great complexity and subtlety – as great, indeed, as any other medium at all. But it’s no good offering subtlety if the viewer isn’t there any more. So the photographer who has anything at all complex or subtle to say has as his very first hurdle to overcome a tricky puzzle of how to keep the viewer’s eye on his work long enough. He has to build resting places for the brain if there are none for the eye.

Some of the methods used are passably crude. Over a number of years, art photographs as exhibited on gallery walls and as offered for sale to collectors have been swelling. This is mainly coarse real estate: ask a hell of a lot of money for a picture, and at least cover a lot of the customer’s wall. Pictures aren’t sold by the square centimeter, but in a lot of contemporary galleries, they might as well be. The gigantism in contemporary photography is often absurd, yet it does chime with good sense at least to this degree: if a picture is huge, it is impossible to pretend to grasp it at one glance. Supposing that it has enough content to reward a viewer, it does make some sense to make it large as a way of keeping him there.

Other methods are not crude at all. Intriguing or puzzling composition will hold a viewer a while. So might a contrast between what viewers already know and the new or unexpected that a photographer can bring them. So might a very delicate printing process, removing and replacing that skiddy surface by something more velvety to the eye.

And so (with my apology for taking so very long to get there) might careful and intellectually coherent use of colour. William Ewing knows about this very well. I’m not much of book collector, but I wish I had bought his wonderful edit of pictures by Ernst Haas (Prodger, Philip, & Ewing, William A., Ernst Haas: Color Correction, Steidl, Gottingen, 2011), already quite absurdly and unaccountably out of print. Haas had the reputation of being a bit crude with his colour, a bit Getty Images. But Ewing went through the archive and proved that it was not so: that Haas used colour as an intellectual tool, and that long before the feted Stephen Shore generation of colorists after Eggleston’s breakthrough show.

As so often happens in photography, though, Haas was a commercial animal and most of his work was in the context of the then-thriving illustrated magazine business, so his inventiveness and skill was not much seen and even less appreciated by those who thought only in terms of photographic art. Not everybody in Ewing’s Somerset House show was or is mainly a commercial photographer, but a strikingly large number are. Cartier-Bresson, after all, in whose shadow the whole exhibition is set, always had some difficulty in thinking of himself as a journalist.

Having said all of that, it begins to make sense to find in Ewing’s show a vision of the way we view pictures as closely parallel to the way we hear music.

Harry Gruyaert, Near Five Point Crossing, Calcutta, 2001

Harry Gruyaert shows us a man with his head in his hands, sitting among the discarded leaves and lengthening shadows of what looks like a vegetable market at closing time. It’s a photograph so, as usual, we have no way of knowing what is in the sitter’s mind. Gruyaert tells us what he thinks it might be, though. That yellow cab is not going fast: the people in its way are not disturbed by it. But its very energy sets a colour for our reading of the photograph. Impossible to see the man as anything other than distressed, once the yellow has been absorbed. Add two other colours in a view which elsewhere is drab: a blue shirt in the foreground, behind railings, and a red cloth on a cart. Those three primary colours triangulate the man: he’s caught in the middle of them. Could there ever be a clearer graphic depiction of a dilemma? Scylla and Charybdis, with the yellow increasing the intensity a lot. It’s not a scream, though. The colours are strong but not bright. Our eye moves back to the man. He might be merely holding a mobile phone to his head and shielding his ears from other noise. Plausible as a reading of the man alone, impossible as a reading of the picture. Those colours have told us not what is real, but what Gruyaert wanted us to know. Suddenly, this perfectly factual street photograph, unmanipulated, has become partially a fiction of the author’s. That’s clever, and it takes a few moments to get it. Only by holding on to one element of the picture as the next takes its effect have we any chance of reading it so. Like music, then, but almost instantaneous at actual speed.

Robert Walker, Times Square, New York, 2011

Robert Walker found a burly man apparently shifting glass. The structure of the picture is much more complex than Gruyaert’s simply by dint of the many layers of reflection. It’s quite hard to see whether we are inside looking out or outside looking in. Hard to see, but a pleasing enough puzzle to keep us there. The eye sets about unravelling the puzzle, and suddenly we’re held. Reading the mysterious reflections leads us to look for certainties. The man’s shoulders are good and butch, clearly legible. Tattoo, vest, all clearly masculine enough. His upper arm, likewise. But suddenly, he’s a centaur, with womanly hips and legs, and a pair of dainty woman’s arms. We could have trouble misreading this, except for three things: Lace Gentlemen’s Club, it clearly says (not clearly in my poor reproduction, I’m afraid). Very quickly, the brain is processing: lace and gentlemen? It’s a perfectly boring strip club, probably, but lace is feminine and gentlemen are not: we have a confirmation in words of what we’d already half seen in graphic form. Another thing: the brightest element in the centre of the picture says ACME. We can’t miss it, even though we don’t quite know what to make of it; except that ACME is easily misread as CAME. It’s not close, but it’s close enough. Brains do misread like lightning. What could it be? Half a sentence, some kind of sexual allusion: we’re in the same territory. The elements of the picture are beginning to pull together. And then finally, to confirm the whole, that wash of pink light overall. Pink, of all colours the one most intimately connected with gender. Pink, which used in the eighteenth century to be a masculine colour (and still is in such things as matador’s socks), but which has now shifted to the feminine. This is not just a picture of a man surrounded by fragile glass, trapped within it and trying to shift it. It’s a picture of a man of uncertain sexuality, trapped in shimmying harmonies of sexual pros and cons. But you’d only get that if you stayed at it for long enough.

I am aware that reading pictures like this in words is tremendously awkward; slow and clunky, almost moronic. It has taken me for each picture a long paragraph to mimic what the eye can do in a flash, half a second at the outside. But I am certain that this is what eye and brain do together when reading pictures. We look for clues. If they pull in different directions, or can’t be resolved, we pass on. Either the picture contains nothing, or we haven’t ‘got’ it. Away, no regrets.

But if we begin to see that strong tides are all flowing together from among composition, fact, light, colour, and tone, then we will go with then as far as they can carry us. It is exactly the way we understand music, only we do it at lightning speed.

There are plenty of other equally interesting elements of William Ewing’s exhibition, but for now, enough. The catalogue is excellent and contains not one but two very fine essays on Cartier-Bresson and his legacy.