Bill Henson


Special book review by Daniel C Blight

Bill Henson stands in twilight. Or so it has been suggested. In his 2006 exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, the photographer was described as having created many grand things, among them: a ‘modern mythology’, ‘quiet melodrama’, ‘a contemporary reworking of the sublime’ and even ‘seemingly supernatural events’. It is not within these crepuscular tautologies that Bill Henson really stands, though. After all, they were written eight years ago. Now and before then the photographer was more likely outside, on his own taking pictures, away from all the verbose discussion.

Twilight is a very short period of time occurring twice daily. However, Henson’s work is not set in two determinable moments, nor a form of stasis, or even a particular stage of the day. Instead, these photographs might be asking us to look for something moving between what we have all managed to hide from at night, and therefore what we all fear from the day. Namely, exposure.

Henson’s camera has the ability, through movement and then poise, to render the best kind of sombre confusion. Henson’s images are subdued not in time, but over skies and through buildings, clouds, naked people, telephone pylons, pyramids and other familiar or extraneous abstractions. They are seemingly underexposed, but we can’t call them badly lit. Somewhere between the ambiguity of eventide and its gloaming opposite, Henson is a wonderer; one whose images intentionally do whatever they can to avoid stasis and perhaps clarity, within the confines of their static medium.

1985, his latest book, is designed by The Entente and published by Stanley/Barker, two individuals based in London, who have taken their time, in the most thoughtful way, to release two books simultaneously this year. This one is divided into two sections, comprising a short narrative prose text by Robert Walser – the Swiss modernist writer who died in 1956 – and in the other a series of intriguingly sequenced photographs taken by Henson. Walser’s text was originally published in 1982 in a collection of posthumously translated short stories, with an introduction by none other than Susan Sontag. Henson’s images were taken in 1985, both in Melbourne, Australia and Egypt.

Contrary to the dizzying curatorial language used to describe Henson’s work in 2006, the first pages of this book offer an altogether less disdainful proposition, in their turn to fiction. Such is the promise of a story.

A captain, a gentleman and a young girl begin their upward rise in a hot air balloon. Various night effects are described by Walser in clear, physical description and the best kind of pleonastic turns of phrase. He also offers us the important contrast of plain language – in a ‘handful’, or something ‘splendid’, ‘subtle’ and ‘beautiful’. A nocturnal river below causes the girl to cry a little. She mourns its passing and throws a flower down to offer the water something symbolic as it passes by. Perhaps she celebrates its flowing power, but also her own tears, which are one in the same, in this gesture.

When the scene viewed from the balloon above moves into suburbia, or the city, the girl observes a burglary as people sleep. She smiles. Everyone is asleep apart from the robbers and those three characters in the balloon.

The story ends with daybreak. The reader, then, has been taken on a journey through night with three strangers. Before one views Henson’s photographs that follow the writing, an entire series of mental images are created through the text. We are therefore asked to consider one set of images, conjured through Walser’s writing, along with another in the form of Henson’s photographs that follow, something from the perspective of the sky and something from down below on the ground. This rich experience of many images at once, articulated from two perspectives, is what Henson excels at. Within his own images, and indeed the book as a whole, we are offered a stream of things paired together. Night and day, the sky and the ground, up and down. These movements are the pattern in which Henson works. Some things are paired logically, and others appear unrelated but nonetheless intuitive and compelling.

Three pages after Walser’s writing, a spread which depicts the vague shape of a pyramid on the left hand page, is pitted, on the opposite page, against two cars stacked on top of one another and a man in a short-sleeve shirt, glancing off to the right. Here we are looking at two pyramids: one shot in Egypt – in all its symbolic meaning reaching from the ground to the heavens – and one shot in the city of Melbourne, an metallic view of two cars either being transported for purchase, or to be salvaged or crushed, that much is unclear.

These relatable images speak of weight, but also of two types of historical symbolism that are vastly distinct. The pyramids in Egypt, in their geometric form, mimic the shape of the sun’s rays. We might understand Henson’s image of a pyramid, then, as a means to offer light where there is none. But a pyramid, photographed in darkness as Henson does, paradoxically withholds any reflection of the light that might emanate from this so-called primordial mound. At its most metaphorical level, Henson’s pyramid reduces the grand stature of the Egyptian sun god Ra to a bleak triangle cowering in shadow. And in a more everyday contrast, the opposite almost-pyramidal roof of a car is reduced to a simple, inert object of industrialisation.

Whatever one reads into Henson’s pairing of disparate scenes, there is certainly some process at work which seeks to compare Ancient Egyptian architecture and its referents, to that of 1980s Melbourne. Like the girl who mourns the passing of a river and then strangely smiles at the burgling of a house, Henson too responds in an unexpected manner by way of his photographic observations of two distant and antithetic cultures. Perhaps 1985 should be read as a work in writing. Not one that gestures towards twilight as a metaphor for photography’s own philosophical relationship to light, nor some grand description of the supernatural or the contemporary sublime, but instead simply of the sort of effect that occurs when the things we normally see lit, are reduced into a sort of tenebrous poetry of cultural contradictions and symbolic juxtapositions. 

All images courtesy of Stanley/Barker. © Bill Henson

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is co-editor of Loose Associations, a periodical on image culture published by The Photographers’ Gallery; visiting tutor in the department of Critical & Historical Studies, Royal College of Art and lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton. 

The Archive of Modern Conflict

Photo Jeunesse

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

Accident, as artist Moyra Davey has observed, is the lifeblood of photography. When a photograph speaks to us, it does so through the spark of accident that ignites the image and holds us interested. But accident’s cousin, excess – that surplus of information, and fullness of detail that seeps into the image – is just as important. As technology progresses, as colour, detail and speed transform our experience of photography, the more excess it seems to allow. Lee Friedlander reflected upon that which went beyond his initial gaze and intent as an image-maker: “I only wanted Uncle Vern standing by his new car (a Hudson) on a clear day. I got him and the car. I also got a bit of Aunt Mary’s laundry and Beau Jack, the dog, peeing on a fence, and a row of potted tuberous begonias on the porch and seventy-eight trees and a million pebbles in the driveway and more. It’s a generous medium, photography.”

Cameroon’s earliest colour photo studio, Photo Jeunesse, served several functions when it opened in the capital Yaoundé in the 1970s. Like many studios, it brought affordable photographic images to a local audience, offering formalised, staged and painterly portraits, identity photographs tightly cropped from a larger image, and stamped out from the photograph, and leisurely masquerading depictions in the studio. Although colour photography emerged in Cameroon in the 1970s, black and white remained familiar through to the 1990s, and studios often juggled between the two analogue modes. Many, Jacques Touselle, resisted digitisation as if to hold on to an opportunity to retain a sense of that which comes about through the chance and accident. The Photo Jeunesse archive, which is now part of The Archive of Modern Conflict’s collection, represents a record not only of Cameroonian society, tracing tradition and globalisation. But in its loose ends – the details of its painted sets, and the playful activities of its sometimes quirky sitters – it tells an alternative story of the photo studio, and its ability to represent not only the formal and dignified version of the sitter, but the very excess that surrounds them, which paradoxically leads us to something that feels like what Jacques Lacan would call the real.

When a photo studio is archived and its story told, its narrative is often cautious and selectively preserved – from a vast quantity of imagery it is a restrained formality which usually sees the light of day, as if historians and archivists sought to ensure a desaturated dignity for their subjects. The studio of Photo Jeunesse is different. From the beginning, its variety resists sociological or anthropological categorisation. Hipsters in suits and sunglasses mingle with brothers and sisters in choreographed clothing. Boxers spar dramatically, while sitters hide behind foliage or interact with the studio backdrops. There is a feeling that the wealthy or well-to-do mix with some of the more eccentric characters of Yaoundé. The fashionable meets the kitsch meets the everyday. Furthermore, there is no edit by the studio of its mistakes or aberrations either. Figures exit scenes at the moment of exposure and groups are caught off-guard. There are no fixed rules or dogmatic go-to devices. There is well-behaved portraiture, of course – and it functions as a useful social record – but Photo Jeunesse provides something more at the same time: sociability and escape, not simply in costume or cinematic fantasy, but in an informality that the studio seems to look for, to seek out.

The photographs do not isolate and extract so much as make possible any number of different takes, alternative versions. They welcome the studio into the image as its own protagonist, rooting the subjects of the photographs in that place, rather than elevating them to transcend a world around them. Each image seems to ask for more people, more space, more information.

Of the African portraiture that has emerged so far into a western-centric historical narrative of photography, from Malick Sidibe to Seydou Keita, a tighter, formal, dignified, even somewhat classical edit is usual, and a well-behaved edit of Photo Jeunesse would of course be possible. But the studio presents a different, positively excessive photography. Shot with the widest of framings (each exposure would be made with a wide angle, cropped if the subject required), the images capture the full happenings of the studio and its operations. Because colour is added, this effect is heightened ever further. What we see is not some idealised representation of the clientele, but details, spaces and gestures, which makes each individual human, possible, plausible.

It is as if that which would be incidental in black and white is suddenly visible in colour. The synthetic meets the concrete. What we see is both artificial and actual, something that can only be considered an excess, producing a rupturing sense of the real beyond the staging of the portrait. It reveals the individuality of each sitter against the standardisation of the studio and photography itself.

Crimson curtains and the green of apple tres, pale painted backdrops, carpet and floor tilings; household plants in colourful pots and ironmongery. We can only guess at which props belong to the studio, and which are brought in by the sitter, just as we might attempt to read each object for its symbolic value. But we cannot ignore their colour, their sense of both the actual and imaginary. While their details may be significant, something else is at stake in these images. For in colour, they provide that flash of generosity which photography usually resists. It is excess, and accident, which give us a way in to the clients of the Photo Jeunesse

All images courtesy of AMC. © Photo Jeunesse/The Archive of Modern Conflict

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also course director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Daniel Shea

Blisner, IL

Special book review by Jeffrey Ladd

I have never heard of a town called Blisner, Illinois. Not that it matters much. I don’t make a personal study of being able to recall every town name spread large and small across the United States but I could easily imagine a few thousand people with birth certificates issued from Blisner’s hospital as I could also imagine most of them as bored, angst-ridden teenagers breaking bottles along the railroad tracks dreaming of the day when their turn comes to flee Blisner too. The town may not be found in any atlas or cited on road maps even though the name sounds genuine enough but there is one source, a book by the American photographer Daniel Shea, which proclaims its existence – so I am game. Gullibility balanced with a blissful state of ignorance can be a favourable trait to possess while looking at photobooks.

Supposedly seated within the rust belt, much of what shaped Blisner’simaginary economy, its industrial foundations, were apparently consumed as capitalism expanded to turn its hungry eye on its young. Shea’s book Blisner, IL opens with a preface of sorts, a book within a book featuring several pages of spreads of what seems to be a previously published volume on Blisner and what remains of its once cherished industry – a monument to coal miners; train-less rail lines and iron bridgework; an archive photograph of a coal-smudged miner; and cinematic double portrait of a man in a rust (or blood) spotted t-shirt on whose forehead appears the shadow of a cross; another man feeds a vegetation fire with cut logs.

Beginning the first chapter, a double image of windows reflecting nothing but shades of coal-like darkness open to a small waterway skinned with green algae; a crane sitting mid-water in idyllic sunlight; and a diptych of a young black man whose gestural grace and seeming sightlessness transcends the act of fishing in which he is the central player. Once Shea allows us bits and pieces of Blisner’s ‘main street’ the painted surfaces of walls and brickwork ring of a false tone that at once refer to and defer the town’s history while the windows seem to glow with the long gone flames of forging fire. Shea balances a confusion of fact (that of, objects found in the ‘real’ world) and fiction to paint, less a specific story, rather a series of cryptic messages that metaphorically define place, history, and mythology in the wake of deindustrialisation: a fading mural of buildings; fragments of monuments; weeds frozen into the surface of water; a ‘city’ sign; a duct-taped broken window; movie theatre marquees blank and unused.

Perceived in a different context, these bits and pieces of a town offered by Shea are camouflaged to most by everyday life. But isolated within his new photographic frame of reference they take on new meanings that further solidify Blisner’s presence, or rather, state of mind. Furthermore, as Blisner seems to be a reality woven from an assembly of disconnected locations – all with their own lineage and history – then it lends itself as a surrogate to comment on that larger state of a country where globalisation and demands of economy have shifted from production.

Some way into Blisner, IL a section of printed on different paper stock opens a dark suite of photographs that seem to swallow light from its pages: a railway spike; pairs of metal posts that from the first angle slant away from one another and in the second image from a different perspective form a crossing; an owl peering from a rupture in a wall; a stunning piece of industrial architecture now abandoned; a grainy old photo of men working a pit. These images, although using the same photographic language as the preceding photographs, seem more evidentiary as if to suggest a counter image to myth and monument.

The final act of Blisner, IL visualises what was being alluded to throughout, a finality of closure that lingers everywhere. Windows are bricked, gates are closed, a bouquet of wilting roses is offered, grasses take hold, a painted sign declares ‘Why not now?’, and in the final images a pair of hanging traffic lights turn from green to red.

If I have qualms with Shea’s structure of Blisner, IL it is mostly with the myopia of his vision. Much of the work focuses our attention upon small details which, although are important and in many cases certainly beautiful, he offers little by way of variation of vantage point. It is like a film shot ninety per cent in close-ups where the one’s ability to see into the far distance is always curbed. Leafing page to page this can induce a sense of tunnel vision with the reader wanting a wider field of view – something a little less focused to establish our bearings again. Perhaps one can argue that is a perfect sensation to induce for a book about a make-believe town whose industry was mainly working underground and in confined spaces. This relentlessness of Shea’s to keep us with our noses pressed tightly against his frames will work for some, but even considering the aforementioned possibility, in this reader’s case, it stagnates the flow of the book a little leaving the physicality of the elegant bookmaking to provide the desired variance.

As an object, Blisner, IL is smart, hip and pleasing in almost every aspect of design from the debossed image on the front cover of a silhouetted train-rail anchor to the colophon information printed into the back cloth. The spine reads an alternate title for the book, An Index of Work As Labor As Work. Within this nonsensical phrase sounds a homage – one to the cost from entire sectors of industry which have fallen by the wayside and have failed to be replaced. It is that that makes this apparition of Blisner, IL, a frightening image and one that will be all too familiar with time. 

All images courtesy of Webber Represents © Daniel Shea

Jeffrey Ladd is an American photographer born in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania in 1968. From 2007 to 2012, he wrote over 450 articles for his website 5B4 – Photography and Books, a blog dedicated to discussing and reviewing photography and art-related publications. Ladd is one of the founders of Errata Editions, an independent publishing company whose Books on Books series has won many awards for their scholarship into rare and out of print photobooks. He is currently based in Koeln, Germany.

Lucy Levene

The Spaghetti Tree

Essay by Federica Chiocchetti

It is not only in Britain that spring, this year, has taken everyone by surprise. Here in the Ticino, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy, the slopes overlooking Lake Lugano have already burst into flower at least a fortnight earlier than usual. But what, you may ask, has the early and welcome arrival of bees and blossom to do with food? Well, it is simply that the past winter, one of the mildest in living memory, has had its effect in other ways as well. Most important of all, it’s resulted in an exceptionally heavy spaghetti crop. […] Spaghetti cultivation here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything like the tremendous scale of the Italian industry. Many of you, I am sure, will have seen pictures of the vast spaghetti plantations in the Po valley. For the Swiss, however, it tends to be more of a family affair. […] For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti.”

So said the voiceover of distinguished broadcaster Richard Dimbleby on a BBC hoax documentary which aired on April Fool’s Day in 1957 as part of the news show Panorama. The reaction from the public was as extraordinary as the documentary. At a time when Britain was deeply unaware of Italian culture many people believed that spaghetti did indeed grow on trees and contacted the BBC to find out where they could buy their very own spaghetti plant.

Lucy Levene could not have chosen a better title for her series The Spaghetti Tree, which presents her intimate, and at times performative, journey within the Italian communities of Bedford and Peterborough, England. Flirting with the tensions between reality and perception, stereotype and construction, all the while adroitly manipulating the photographic medium in all its nuanced and multifarious nature, she examines issues of identity and belonging, both of the subject and her own.

In the 1950s southern Italians were recruited to work for the brick and steel industries in Bedford and Peterborough, which were short on labour during the post WWII reconstruction boom. As reported by Terri Colpi in her seminal book The Italian Factor, by 1960 approximately 7,500 Italian men were hired by the London Brick Company in Bedford and around 3,000 in Peterborough. These men settled in the area, ‘rebecoming’ men with moulded identities from their homeland and their adopted country. We are reminded that they were to be workers first and foremost, in light of the fact that in 1962 the Scalabrini Fathers converted an old school into a church named after San Giuseppe, the patron saint of workers.

But life cannot be just about work, even if the latter imposes you to change country and endure all manner of difficulties, something we Italians know very well. In this sense, Lucy Levene’s depiction of people’s leisure time blissfully reminds us that, as human beings, we can adapt to change and move on. Between February 2013 and 2014 she gained access to Italian community events in both Bedford and Peterborough. Initially she started out as an outsider, a traditional events photographer providing portraits as mementos. Over the course of time she became more and more embedded in these communities to the point where a woman was adamant that she knew Levene as a child.

Like all diaspora phenomena, it is complex, fluid and the many personal narratives can often contradict overarching patterns. Levene, by her own admission, had no real knowledge of British Italians prior to this project. Her idea of Italian culture was full of assumptions largely based on film stereotypes. However, rather than focusing on exported stereotypical Italian behaviours, such as gesticulating, obsessing over food, family, and religion, she was more intrigued by the ways in which notions of ‘community’ and ‘family’ are enacted for the camera and the extent to which the community consciously ‘performs’ these stereotypes. As she professes: “Frustrated by the perfect image and its hermetic surface, I have taken these images at just the wrong moment. I am looking for a disruption; ‘a crack that lets the light in’.”

Her staged scenes revel in dismantling of the idea of ‘bella figura’, Italians’ preoccupation with making a good impression on other people. From moments portraying dancers from an odd perspective, to fragments of scenes both before and after the act of posing for the camera, Levene playfully investigates the boundaries between public and private, formal and informal. Concepts that are usually held in oxymoronic relationship, such as staging and spontaneity, become part of and are indeed subverted in the photographic agenda of her interrupted realities. In essence, hers is a construction of the candid nature of an encounter.

In some instances her images bear similarity to the staged elements of British photographer Brian Griffin’s work. Her use of flash, repetition of specific people and motifs as well as theatrical composition – at times showing the edges of the backdrop – all reveal a subtle and sophisticated meta-photographic approach that serves to at once illuminate a deeper understanding of the medium whilst also providing some measure of amusement for her viewers.

Allowing her presence to be very visible in some of the images, Levene also projects her personal narrative into the lives and relationships of these British Italians, with whom she shares feelings of nostalgia for her own Jewish community of North West London. Being an Italian myself, who has settled in London a while ago, Levene’s photographs give me goose bumps. At first the idea that so many fellow Italians were forced to leave our beloved land to serve capitalism’s whimsical swings is heart-breaking for me. However, a more lingering look reveals the tireless strength of these people to redesign their lives in the UK. Spaghetti may not grow on trees, but Levene’s The Spaghetti Tree is the ‘imperfect’ antidote against homesickness and idealised narratives of the motherland. 

All images courtesy of the artist. © Lucy Levene

Federica Chiocchetti is an independent curator and PhD researcher in photography and fictions at the University of Westminster, the founder and director of the photo-literary platform The Photocaptionist and a writer.

Duane Michals

Storyteller: The Photographs of Duane Michals

Essay by Aaron Schuman

The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, United States
01.11.14 – 2.03.15

In the summer of 2013, I visited the National Art Library – housed in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – specifically to delve into all of the Duane Michals-related material in their possession. Part of my assignment was to explore Michals’ influence on contemporary artistic and photographic practice over the course of his long career, and although the library was a treasure trove of monographs, histories, archival exhibition catalogues, leaflets, and so on, for some reason I was still coming up short in this regard. Frustrated, and needing a break, I abandoned the stack of books teetering over my assigned seat and wandered down to the museum’s photography galleries, situated directly underneath the library itself.

There I was surprised to discover a small exhibition entitled Making It Up: Photographic Fictions, which proposed to show works “by some of the earliest and the most recent photographers to use the camera to tell a story.” As the introductory wall text went on to explain; “For its earliest proponents, the staged photograph promoted the artistic value of the new medium.… For more recent practitioners, staging a photograph can refer to the artifice of contemporary culture.” With Michals’ series Who Is Sidney Sherman? (2000) fresh in my mind, I was both amused and chagrined that the show opened rather predictably with Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #74 (1980) – an image of Sherman standing before a screen projection of a New York City street, wearing an ill-fitting wig, a bright yellow coat, blood-red lipstick, and displaying a familiarly nervous look as she catches sight of something in the middle distance, just outside the right side of the frame. The caption beside it stated that Sherman’s work “critiques the stereotypical imagery and deconstructs feminine roles.” Despite the fact that the display had not explicitly invoked Derrida or the “phallic ploy of alpha males,” I couldn’t help cringing a little bit, feeling the sting of Michals’ sharp-witted art-world satire once again.

Further on into the exhibition, I was quietly puzzled, though not entirely surprised, by the inclusion of Michals’ sequence Chance Meeting (1970), sandwiched between the religious, literary, and art-historical tableaux of the Victorian era – by the likes of Oscar Rejlander, Julia Margaret Cameron, Lewis Carroll, and William Henry Lake Price – and the more contemporary, cinematic, and suburban constructions of Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, and a number of their recent British successors such as Tom Hunter, Francis Kearney, and Hannah Starkey. Here the caption explained, “Michals uses sequences of photographs to suggest a narrative … two men pass in an alleyway without incident, but the encounter seems loaded with significance … the figures move in and out of the shot, as in a film.” Of course, due to its film-still-like quality, Chance Meeting may on its surface appear to sit within this lineage of fictive, narrative photography. Yet, standing there in the gallery, and having considered Michals’ own misgivings about many of the artists and strategies represented, I couldn’t help feeling that it was an awkward fit. As Mike Regan had recognised in his email to me a few days earlier, the secret to Michals’ work is that, despite its narrative nature, its significance lies not in its promotion of photography’s “artistic value” or in its referencing of the “artifice of contemporary culture”, but instead, in its engagement with something totally experiential and very real: “to see what the eye can’t see”. As Michals explained in 2007, “I’m not interested in what something looks like, I want to know what it feels like.… My reality has entered a realm beyond observation…. Most photographers are always looking at life, they’re looking at surfaces … but unless a photographer transcends appearances … then it’s always going to just be mere description.”

Returning to my desk in the library upstairs, and to the question of how Michals has influenced contemporary practice, I found it tempting to obediently follow the line touted by the exhibition below; to position Michals’ influence within the filmic, the fictive, and the constructed movements that have followed in his wake and make clever comparisons between his work and quintessential examples from this genre. To, for example, juxtapose Chance Meeting with Wall’s famous Mimic (1982), which, on the surface at least, stages a similar sidewalk encounter between two passing men; or to compare Michals’ The Return of the Prodigal Son (1982) with one of any number of Crewdson’s spectacles featuring naked figures standing hunched and ashamed within an otherwise “normal” domestic interior; or even to cite some of Michals’ experiments with collage – such as Olympia (1980) or Collage (The Great Photographers of My Time #1) (1991) – in reference to the current fashion for art- and photo-historical referencing, appropriation, and photomontage, as represented by emerging art photographers such as Matt Lipps, Brendan Fowler, and Anna Ostoya, among many others. Aesthetically, such correlations are hard to resist, and would certainly make the job of illustrating Michals’ longstanding influence very visual, and very obvious. But conceptually, I fear that such comparisons simplify matters and miss the mark, and I suspect that Michals’ impact is a much more subtle affair, embedded within the important lessons he teaches through both his work and his example.

Furthermore, I sense that the lessons to be found in Michals’ work – such as the distinct power of photographic sequencing, soul-searching, sincerity, and storytelling – are today less apparent in the realm of contemporary art, where photography is occasionally invited in order to serve fluctuating trends and ultimately a voracious marketplace, than in the burgeoning photo-book culture and the rapidly evolving context of documentary photography. In these contexts, leading practitioners such as Alec Soth, Paul Graham, and others are twisting, turning, and transforming the relationship between experience and expression in fascinating, and often Michalsian, ways.

For example, in his highly acclaimed monograph Broken Manual (2010), Soth fuses carefully arranged and sequenced photographs with texts and handwritten notes by Lester B. Morrison (in fact, Soth’s alter ego – again, a strategy torn from the pages Michals) to explore the particular desire to retreat, escape, and ultimately disappear from oneself in a distinctly personal and poetic manner. And in Looking for Love, 1996 (2012), Soth retrospectively delves into his own photographic archive, reexamining photographs that he made in his hometown as an unknown and lovelorn twenty-something photographer more than a decade and a half after they were made; here he consolidates past and present to speak of a lifetime, echoing many of the elements and strategies found Michals’ A Letter from My Father and The House I Once Called Home.

Graham has likewise released two monographs in recent years – a shimmer of possibility (2009) and The Present (2012) – which both embrace the photographic sequence as a means to extend the medium beyond the moment, and use it to explore notions of narrative. They engage with the realm of reality, as Michals described it, “beyond observation.” a shimmer of possibility was originally published as a boxed set of twelve individual books, each containing a short sequence of images and representing small meditations on everyday American life: a man mowing a lawn (Graham’s first foray into the sequential, coincidentally photographed on the outskirts of Pittsburgh in 2004, just a few miles from Michals’ birthplace); a woman crossing the street; some kids playing basketball; an elderly lady collecting her mail from her mailbox, and the like.

In The Present, Graham creates sequences on the streets of New York, but rather than explicitly staging “chance meetings,” he gathers and concocts them from the passing crowds using basic photographic elements such as composition, repetition, depth of field, and the passing of time. With the simple turn of a page, a proud African American businessman morphs into a hunched and bedraggled homeless man; a woman in a dark suit, her hair dyed black, becomes a woman in a cream-coloured suit, her hair dyed white; a man wearing an eye patch transforms into another, similarly blinded, who is forced to wink by the direct sunlight in his eye.

More than in the elaborately staged tableaux and the “open-ended” narratives that reigned supreme within art photography at the turn of the twenty-first century, it is in works, sequences, and gestures such as these – that genuinely explore and encourage the true narrative and storytelling possibilities of photography, that risk accusations of sentimentality in order to establish intimacy and intensity, and that aspire to both discover and express a deeper, more “total experience” – where Michals’ real legacy lies.

After all Michals has argued, “One must redefine photography, as it is necessary to redefine one’s life in terms of one’s own needs.… The key word is expression – not photography, not painting, not writing.… Only you can teach yourself.” For more than half a century, he has helped us discover a myriad of ways to blur boundaries -between photography and art, between fiction and reality, between the personal and the universal, and between the artwork and the artist. But perhaps even more important, he has consistently redefined such boundaries in terms of his own life and his own needs, and has even pushed past such boundaries, repeatedly and resolutely exploring territories well beyond the established frontiers of photography itself. In doing so, he has taught us many lessons; but ultimately he has taught us that we can, and must, teach ourselves.

All images courtesy of The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh. © Duane Michals

Aaron Schuman is an American photographer, writer, editor and curator based in the United Kingdom. He is a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton and the Arts University Bournemouth, and is the founder and editor of the online photography journal, SeeSaw Magazine.

Peter Watkins

The Unforgetting

Essay by Edwin Coomasaru

The Regency Town House, Brighton
04.10.14 – 2.11.14

There’s this memory I have where we’re driving down a long straight road. The windscreen wipers are going at continuous, and vision is dull and mostly grey. My mother is seated front left, in the passenger side, and my father is driving, wearing a merino jumper with interconnecting diamond shapes; the kind golfers wear. I recall leaning forward and asking a question with an equal measure of naivety and boldness – the kind of question that seems to arise from some existential place that children of a certain age develop. I am curious which of my parents will die first, and I go about asking them their ages. My father, at the wheel, turns his head slightly, and explains that he’s eighteen years older than my mother. I pause briefly, before declaring that in this case my father will die first, followed by my mother, who will die many years later. I forget what my mother was wearing.”

On the 15 February 1993, Peter Watkins’ mother walked off Zandvoort Beach into the North Sea. Her final act haunts Watkins’ series The Unforgetting (2013-14), recently on display at the Regency Town House as part of the 2014 Brighton Photo Fringe. Watkins’ autobiographical photographs incorporate a plethora of sculptural elements, such as casting, stacking and obscuring, and are hung on skeletal timber frames and to draw attention to the listed building’s furnishings. Encouraging connections whilst complicating the relationship between the two, the exhibition contemplates both the role of museums and family histories as sites and discourses of collective memory.

The Unforgetting pieces together fragments from Watkins’ mother’s life. Take Taufe (2014), which depicts the dress she was baptised in. Closely cropped and with a shallow depth of field, there are few indicators of scale: giving the impression that this garment could belong to a grown woman. The deliberate evocation of Ute Watkins’ drowning is imbued with a deeply haunting quality: the floating garment is weightlessly suspended and the net curtain hangs thick like rain. As a result, the spectral character is infused with an impression of liquidity: a molecular materiality, porous and fluid.

Historically water has been associated with femininity, in contrast to the normative male body: robust, firm, muscular and taut – an ideal soldier. Liquidity, associated with blood and wounding, has conventionally been perceived a threat to the hardened surface of a male body. Cuts and tears to the skin are a reminder that the notion of masculine flesh as impenetrable and sealed is a fantasy. Fluids, by their potential capacity to render solids porous, threaten the collapse of borders. This sense of abjection threatens to brim, spill and soak in Taufe. It is almost as though a spectral sea has floated the dress aloft, the muffled silence of the black and white image echoing with underwater acoustics.

The Unforgetting is notable, however, for its lack of tears. While black and white photography is traditionally associated with nostalgia, the work is spared of sentimentality: objects are catalogued and composed in a manner that evokes early scientific photography or evidence gathered at a crime scene. Ancestry (2012) appears rational, ordered, controlled. There is even a sense of stoicism, a hallmark of macho behaviour. Yet, The Unforgetting is also about a man mourning. Consider: Self Portrait (2011), an image that pictures the artist stripped from the waist up and seated on a hard wooden chair. His face is cast down, fist clenched, shoulders hunched. Numerous large circles scar his smooth skin: the legacy of cupping, a well-known Chinese treatment for depression.

Self Portrait is an image of masculinity subject to extreme vulnerability. Reflecting on the US government’s military response to 9/11, gender theorist Judith Butler has considered the pacifist potential of vulnerability: ‘the wound itself testifies to the fact that I am impressionable, given over to the Other’. In this regard, the relationship between the liquidity in Taufe and the subject‘s portrayal in Self Portrait is key. Together the two works picture a notion of masculinity outside the conventional stereotype. Rather than clad in armour, such a body is traumatised and fragile; given over to its wounding.

Watkins’ potent portrait of the consequences of violence is important to consider at a time when the UK is considering resuming military involvement in Iraq. The Unforgetting testifies to the terrible toll of violence. Taufe’s spectral liquidity provokes reflection on how the notion of the impenetrable, sturdy soldierly-male body is threatened by fluids. Across Watkins’ series an image of masculinity outside the norm emerges – vulnerable and marked by trauma and loss. Self Portrait contests the stoicism and aggressive posturing of macho stereotypes, examining how wounding implicates an individual in their Other – be that an opponent or the external world. 

All images courtesy of the artist. © Peter Watkins

Edwin Coomasuru is the founder and director of the International New Media Gallery. He is also an AHRC-funded student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, writing on Northern Irish masculinities and the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ in contemporary art.