Alba Zari

The Y

Essay by Ilaria Speri

The most disconcerting photographic moment in my life dates back to five years ago. My 87-year old grandmother was experiencing – we did not yet know – an early stage of senile dementia. One day I stepped in her apartment and I noticed that the armchair in her living room was surprisingly occupied, albeit with a black and white portrait of my grandfather, the one, which had been sitting on the television since his passing, was nicely accommodated onto it. A blanket covered him up to his nose, so that he could breathe, and a pillow softly held his head. She had literally put him to bed. From then on, any printed or moving image would become so ‘real’ to her, that in a few months she could no longer see the difference between a person and its reproduction – images had taken over.
Photographs are known to be an ideal means for building and preserving memories. Their power over our perception of the world is immeasurable. They provide strangers with an identity, and they help us remember those who have left. They comfort us in the blank spaces of someone’s absence – when we remember, or when we wait. They are proof of our existence. Among many other reasons, this is what makes humanity’s bond with photographs umbilical. We can’t do without them. And if this wasn’t enough, they are always available.

The Internet and new digital technologies have shifted immensely the ways in which we represent ourselves, multiplied by our existence on the web. Allowing us – by ‘simple’ means of images and coding – to bring back the dead with strikingly reliable results. A significant example, among others, is Cécile B. Evans’s video piece Hyperlinks Or It Didn’t Happen (2014), a poetic monologue on consciousness and personal data narrated by a digital copy of deceased actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, populated by spam bots, holograms, and rendered ghosts. Proof that the distance between the real and the virtual is wearing thinner and thinner.

Picture this. What if you were to track down the image of a person you know exists, but never met? This is what Alba Zari, born in Bangok in 1987, started thinking after January 4th, 2014, when she found out that the man appointed in her memories as her father was not, as a matter of fact, her biological parent. An unexpected revelation made by her brother, with whom she was sure to share Thai biological origins. A DNA test confirmed the fact with an unquestionable 0% match. Zari was confronted with the sudden disruption of her identity and sense of belonging. She decided to assume the role of a detective, and started the private investigation that she conveyed in her project The Y, a title referring to the male chromosome of human DNA. What emerges is a medical-cum-conceptual visual report, which brings to the surface some of the most interesting features that make photography such a uniquely fascinating language.

Despite the autobiographical premise, the project is marked by an infrequent – as much as remarkable – capability of the artist not to take control over her own story. She leaves room for the puzzle to come together through attempts, failures and discoveries, rather than imposing an unnecessary – as much as painful, as the artist specified in a previous conversation – dressing of emotional involvement and storytelling. As a result, the series pays homage to a long history of medical and forensic photography, and of its transformation into artistic processes – from Duchenne de Boulogne and Adrien Tournachon’s famous electrophysiology experiments, up to Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s pioneering photo-book Evidence (1977). Travelling the world both physically and virtually, from Thailand to the United States to YouTube, Alba Zari’s work merges scientific reports, archival images, film negatives, personal relics, mugshot portraiture and 3D facial construction.

Once Zari obtained her birth certificate, she reached out to the man who had signed it, who, following colossal searches on the Internet, turned out to be homeless person living in Santa Barbara, California. In the series, the man appears next to her putative father and brother in sequences of 360° portraits – the kind used to determine facial traits in digital imaging. At the end of the journey, all she knew – and currently knows – is that her father’s name was Massad, and that he used to work for the Emirates Airlines. She analysed her family album, painting over a no-longer reliable fatherly figure, before turning to the process of exclusion deployed in physiognomic studies, a test based on her mother and grandmother’s traits as well on her own. Highlighted in a large-format self-mugshot, it quite clearly revealed that her nose, mouth and eyes bear a striking resemblance to those belonging to Massad. However, she hadn’t yet been able to find anything close to an image of the man himself.

Zari’s ultimate attempt sees the use of Make A Human, a software usually employed to design avatars in digital animation. Here, she created a digital identikit by applying her facial traits – those belonging to her father’s side – to a neutral digital model. In visual terms, what is most interesting about the renderings that today’s software can provide – as pointed out by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin in their unsettling series Spirit is a Bone (2015) – is that despite their plausibility they are designed to look straightforward. From every angle we look at them, their gaze bypasses us, pointing towards another dimension – one we have no access to. The complete absence of interaction, of human interconnections, marks the occurrence of a major transition in the notion of portrait itself, one which will no doubt require further explorations in the future.

Eventually, the project reaches an end with the nearest visualisation of the man the artist could achieve – an avatar of his presumed face. Only the web may still represent a lifeline for soon the 3D portrait will be released online and spread worldwide in a global open call to help with the ongoing process of identification. The results are unpredictable. In the artist’s words, the rest is about life.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Alba Zari

The Y is curated by Francesca Seravalle as part of a fellowship at Fabrica – The Communication Research Centre of the Benetton Group.

Ilaria Speri carries out research, curation and production for exhibitions and publications. Since 2013 she has been part of Fantom, a curatorial group dedicated to photography, visual and sound arts. A correspondent at Il Giornale dell’Arte, she writes for magazines and artists books, and has collaborated with publishers such as MACKHumboldt BooksSkinnerboox and Skira. She taught History of Photography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna from 2014-17 before taking up the role of Curatorial Coordinator at Fotopub festival (Novo Mesto, Slovenia), for which she curated the first solo show of the collective Live Wild in 2016.

Jenny Rova

Älskling. A self-portrait through the eyes of my lovers

Book review by Greg Hobson

Later, Erica said she thought my response had something to do with a desire to leave a mark on another person’s body. “Skin is so soft” she said. “We’re easily cut and bruised. It’s not like she looks beaten or anything. It’s an ordinary little black and blue mark, but the way it’s painted makes it stick out. Its like he loved doing it, like he wanted to make a little wound that would last forever.”’

So reads an excerpt from What I Loved (2003) by Siri Hustvedt, which may serve as a useful coda for approaching Älskling. A self-portrait through the eyes of my lovers. Jenny Rova’s new book is her second with b.frank books, publishers of ‘carefully crafted and beautifully designed artist books’. Founded by Zurich-born photographer Roger Eberhard, and run together with Ester Vonplon, their titles are elegant and indeed smartly designed and their published artists always intriguing.

However, Älskling (which translates from Swedish as ‘sweetheart’) is perhaps best considered in the context of the now sold out first. Entitled I would also like to be. A work on jealousy, it documents Rova’s attempt to inhabit the life of her ex-lover by pasting her own photographs over those of her former boyfriend’s new partner, photographs she found of the couple on their respective Facebook sites. Unnerving and somewhat creepy, the work is nonetheless moving in its open and unabashed exploration of the very raw and overwhelming emotion of jealousy. Furthermore, it touches a contemporary nerve in its confrontation of Internet stalking, a curious and largely unacknowledged phenomena of navigating the complex codes of communication, in a disordered and melancholic 21st century society.

Älskling therefore sits as a companion piece to I would also like to be…, and in many respects, is part of a suite of works in which Rova frankly addresses her relationships, her body and the complex traffic between the two. In Älskling Rova has gathered together fifty-five photographs taken over a twenty-five year period by nine ex-boyfriends and lovers. Arranged chronologically, Rova presents the portraits as a biographical work and ‘an indirect portrait of the photographer, the partner behind the camera.’ She also describes them as capturing the way people look at one another when they are in love and ‘an attempt to capture closeness and attraction between two people within a photograph.’ This suggests that the photographs are romantic gestures and somewhat innocent in their execution, whereas they are in fact charged and complicated carriers of interwoven personal histories, emotions, desires, wishes and regrets.

The initial transactions – to take the photographs and to be photographed – are lost in a journey that fragments the photographs from their original purpose as carriers a private history. Now presented in the public arena, they become the subjects for new authors and viewers. Rova as the holder of the material and Roger Eberhard as the editor of the book, permeate the images with new imaginations, which for Rova, are created with the benefit of hindsight and for Eberhard, his own fictions and interests in the photographs as an artist. As viewers we only have the pictures themselves to make our own connections with Rova’s, or even our own experiences. Rova appears to age little in the photographs so it is difficult to read them chronologically or ascribe them with any narrative weight. They appear instead as disconnected moments that are more or less sexualised, firstly by an omnipresent and very obvious male gaze, and secondly by the many photographs that show Rova naked or in various states of undress. There is also a strong sense of melancholy, or at least a certain wistfulness that runs throughout, as if there is an anticipation of an inevitable ending.

Seen alongside I would also like to be, the photographs in Älskling take on an additional depth. One of the authors of the photographs is the subject of the former book. This turns notions of intimacy and affection on their heads and the photographs in Älskling become part of a wider nexus that is related to emotional pain, rather than happiness. It is also a comment on objectification, both of and by Rova. No matter how one views the photographs in Älskling, and, regardless of the extent of Rova’s complicity, she is nonetheless objectified and the photographers’ feelings about, or for her are manifested in the photographs. In I would also like to be… Rova takes this one step further by using her ex-lover’s photographs without his permission and obliterating his new partner’s presence and replacing it with her own. Seen as a whole, the works feel polemical rather than affectionate and in Älskling, in particular, there is a sense of Rova really exploring her own emotional conundrums, as opposed to the often-intrusive gaze of the photographer.

This extension and overlapping of histories in Rova’s photographs are part of what makes them so curious. They are not easily categorised, and, while they appear familiar in their composition, mostly echoing poses from modern independent film, they are uncomfortable to look at, largely because they draw on such unflinchingly personal and private moments. In a large majority of the photographs Rova appears vulnerable and, in other instances, awkward and disturbingly childlike. Despite her own description of the book it is hard to read these photographs of pleasant times. In some pictures she hides her face, in others she stiffly exposes her body. Yet Rova has taken control of her representation and, in doing so, has partially wrested control of the images from their authors.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Jenny Rova

Working as Curator of Photographs at the National Media Museum in Bradford and Media Space in London between 1983 and 2016, Greg Hobson’s recent exhibitions include Only in England – Tony Ray Jones and Martin Parr (2013), Stranger Than Fiction: Joan Fontcuberta (2014), Revelations: Experiments in Photography (2015), and William Henry Fox Talbot: Dawn of the Photograph (2016). Since August 2016 Greg has been working as a freelance photography curator. Current and recent projects include Photo Oxford 2017, which he guest curated together with Tim Clark, curating People, Places and Things: Photographs from the W. W. Winter Archive for FORMAT International Photography Festival 2017, working with artist Mat Collishaw on Thresholds, a VR reconstruction of William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1839 exhibition of photogenic drawings for the Birmingham meeting of the British Association (which premiered at Photo London in May 2017) and co-curating A Green and Pleasant Land for Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne.

Arpita Shah

Nalini (ongoing)

Essay by Emilia Terracciano

Arpita Shah’s Nalini is an ongoing photographic series about migration, memory and loss. From the ancient Sanskrit, Nalini, meaning ‘lotus plant’, conjures the gendered virtues of purity, fertility, and ‘spontaneous generation’. It is a popular Hindu name for girls.

Shah, who was born in Ahmedabad, Gujarat (India), raised in Saudi Arabia, and is now based in Scotland, has often used the rich and colourful pantheon of Hindu iconography to reflect on diaspora and issues of hybridity. Her playful series Nymphaeaceae, involving Asian, African and Arab women, explored issues of gender role play in Scottish studios. Shot across scattered times and geographies, Nalini moves away from the studio and the more reserved, conventional (perhaps stiffer) models of femininity we associate with this confined space, to focus on the lives of three women defined by migration: Shah’s grandmother, from which the series takes its name, her mother, and herself – although we never see her face.

An intimate representation of female dislocation, this evocative project is also fraught with anxiety as it seeks to piece together uprooted identities and social worlds variously inhabited by the three women. Photography occasions a series of spaces – carefully choreographed by Shah – in which lives and memories are recovered, celebrated, sometimes mourned. Loss, maternity and the longing for contact are constant tropes. We see flowers, textiles, skin, hair. Close-ups and tight framing heighten the tactile lure of Shah’s saturated surfaces. We are shown a flamboyant cascade of a magenta bougainvillea in full bloom, a mass of raven black hair, the moist wrinkles of Nalini who emerges from a bathtub. Rigorously uncaptioned, the fluid juxtaposition of these sensuous subjects suggests that to freeze, literally through the frame of the camera, a woman’s life in a single stage – as a grandmother, mother or daughter – is limiting – particularly taking into account the body’s centrality in feminist theory.

Shah has perhaps as much in mind when she selects a ruby pomegranate (a symbol also associated with fertility by the Persians) and the crumpled leaf of a lotus recoiled onto itself (a reference to Tantrism in which the lotus leaf is equated with the womb). Fertility and its decline are evoked in a ludic manner by Shah who anthropomorphises the vegetal realm to reflect on femininity. In another photograph, her camera focuses the folds of a sumptuous sari threaded with gold and silver brocade (it was ‘passed down through generations and made somewhere in East Africa’ Shah muses). When worn, the patli of a sari is hand-gathered into even pleats below the navel to create a graceful, decorative effect like the petals of a lotus flower – ‘almost like another skin’ – by great-grandmother, grandmother, mother and now by Shah herself. But Shah offsets the romanticising of sartorial customs with an horrific image displaying the effects that such feminine, domestic propriety can effect on a working woman: we see a pair of legs covered with severe scar burns. ‘My grandmother [Nalini] was making chapatis and her sari caught fire’, Shah writes.

For the young Nalini, leaving Nairobi, Kenya (the successful family ‘Krishna Dairy’ farm was sold after a series of riots in 1930) to relocate to Ahmedabad, Gujarat, meant renouncing a lavish lifestyle: not only her bougainvillea trees but perhaps also the aid of domestic workers, including a nanny, gardeners, maids and cooks. Such critical revisiting of femininity and the work of migration on the part of Shah tackles gardening as an art of memory – one that can imply subtle forms of feminine resistance.

To domesticate nature is also to become domesticated by it and we know that the transplant of native species to alien lands did aid newly-settled colonists, to create the ‘familiar’ and feel closer to home. One thinks of the grafting of the English landscape onto the Caribbean islands or the creation of Kew Gardens, London. But transplanting produces strange and hybrid landscapes, and Shah recalls how her father dug up concrete from the communal area to build an Indian rose garden in Saudi Arabia.

Processes of botanical appropriation also point to larger fights over bio-economies. Nalini, perhaps inadvertently, connects a faded photograph of the ‘Krishna Dairy’ with its proud, male staff and polished, motorised vehicles in full display, to an asphalt road cutting across what once was a luxuriant forest. Forms of extractive capitalism and the colonisation of natural resources go hand in hand.

Shah collates her own herbarium and performs offerings in the form of flowers to Nalini and her mother. Cuttings picked in Africa, India and Europe adorn images mined from old family albums. In one instance she pays homage to her great grandmother by placing bougainvillea flowers alongside her passport photograph. The theatrics of flower offerings (puja in Hindi, also meaning ‘flower sacrifices’) evoke common Hindu practices of collecting and displaying photos of ancestors. In Indian homes, photographs, footprints and names written in books abound and are treated as more durable and tactile means to re-connect with ancestors – especially the deceased.

Printed photographs, notwithstanding the advent of digital imagery, have become increasingly popular over the years so that family members obtain pictures of their elders before they pass away. Framed and placed on domestic, makeshift altars, such portraits are beautified with locally-sourced flower garlands such as marigold and jasmine. Something of the kind is at work in Shah’s images and her hybridised forms of botanical offerings. This impulse to recover and gather old photographs and flowers could be read as a collection of intimate, small and impromptu portable shrines made by Shah on her wanderings across continents. In one final image, she crowns Nalini’s cropped silver plait with wild Kenyan pink roses, which signals the loss of fertility in Hindu custom. Shah figures the desire for diaspora through her photography, linking disparate spatial domains to extend lineage beyond the transient memories of living family members. Photography offers a trans-generational space, at once playful and performative, to rework forms of image-worship, rearrange flowers and memorialise the scattered, hybrid forms of the feminine. Nalini…what’s in a name?

All images courtesy of the artist. © Arpita Shah

Nalini is supported by Creative Scotland and is being produced for an exhibition at Street Level Photoworks in February 2019.

Emilia Terracciano is an academic and writer based in London and Oxford. She is a postdoctoral Leverhulme Fellow at Ruskin School of Art, Oxford, where she teaches the course Globalisation, Photography and the Documentary Turn. Her research interests lie in modern visual art and photographic practices with a focus on the Global South. Her book Art and Emergency: Modernism in Twentieth-Century India was published by I.B. Tauris in November 2017. Emilia also writes for The Caravan, Modern Painters and Frieze. 

Bryan Schutmaat

Good Goddamn

Book review by Gerry Badger

I think I am beginning to see a trend amongst a certain group of American photographers, not exactly a runaway trend but at least a tendency. I thought this when I saw Tim Carpenter’s book, Local Objects, which was deservedly praised by John Gossage and also Ron Jude, who is himself part of this tendency, while Gossage is one of its big inspirations. Carpenter’s book was small, shot in black-and-white, restrained in design, and concentrated upon the photography. And crucially, it dealt with non-metropolitan America, the huge heartlands of the country that are so different, and almost diametrically opposed to the coastal conurbations.

Photographers like Ron Jude, Christian Patterson, Gregory Halpern, Raymond Meeks and others, most of them originally from the heartlands themselves, have been examining America’s interior myths and realities for a number of years, and can be said to constitute the latest generation of photographers, beginning with of course Walker Evans, who have gone in search of – as the French might put it – America profond.

Bryan Schutmaat first came to the photo-world’s attention with a classic of the genre. His Grays the Mountain Sends (2014) was a superb book, a series of portraits and landscapes of small, almost forgotten communities in the Rocky Mountains. It was a lavish, superbly produced book, shot in sumptuous colour, which demonstrated that Schutmaat was not simply a photographer of rare ability – especially in his haunting portraits – but someone who could use photography effectively to build a narrative.

That is the point about Schutmmat and what someone has called – whether kindly or unkindly I’m not sure – the ‘lumberjack’ school of photography. John Gossage recently said that he took up photography because it “allowed me to understand things that were not spoken.” Looking around a lot of today’s photography, it would seem that its makers are suspicious of this dictum, and are distrustful of photography without the crutch of words – or overelaborate design, which can amount to the same thing.

Not so Ron Jude, or Tim Carpenter, or Bryan Schutmaat. Grays the Mountain Sends did not suffer from a surfeit of words, and neither does Good Goddamn, which is modest in size but displays both an assuredness and a quiet ambition. Interestingly, Schutmaat has switched to black and white for this project, which seems to be making a claim for the work’s seriousness. Similarly, the restrained, classical design, like that of many American photobooks, states a certain respect for the integrity of the photographs themselves.

Good Goddamn, published by Trespassertells a nominally simple story. Shot over a period of a few days in February 2017, in Leon County, Texas, Good Goddamn documents, in only twenty-seven photographs, the last few days of freedom of Schutmaat’s friend Kris before he went into prison. As this is a book of hints and half-lights, the spaces between the pictures being as important, so to speak, as the pictures themselves, we are not informed of the crime that led to Kris’s incarceration, nor the duration of the sentence. But the fact he was not in custody possibly suggests that the misdemeanour was not serious, although the psychological weight of the book perhaps points to the opposite.

The cast of characters, besides Kris himself and the bleak mid-winter Texan landscape, are an old pickup truck and a hunting rifle with a very business-like telescopic sight. And there is an enigmatic blurred figure in two images at the end who might be Bryan Schutmaat, or a deputy sheriff come to escort Kris to his fate. Kris’ final days of freedom seem to be spent drinking Coors Lite or shooting his gun. So far this is a typically male Texan as we imagine them, tough guys who never cry, but the macho surface image is thoroughly undercut by the book’s elegiac tone and complex emotional mood. There is a general aura of wistfulness, not to say sadness, but also encompassing moments of reflection, uncertainty, loneliness, and bitter reflection, making for a concerto of shifting emotions in which the bare, gloomy landscape pulls the strings. The constant background is the expectation that what will follow will be a life changing experience for Kris, and not, at least in the short term, a good one.

All this is suggested by Schutmaat’s exceedingly well judged photographs – the somewhat indeterminate portraits of Kris drinking, smoking, or cradling his rifle, in nagging juxtaposition with the bleak but beautiful February landscape. One can almost feel the damp. Yet even a bleak, damp landscape will be a great loss when you are behind bars. I call the portraits indeterminate, not because they are soft in focus, but because they have an unsettling quality, which may come from nothing more than the sight of Kris in a short-sleeved tee shirt in a winter landscape – even though we are told that the weather was unseasonably warm during the shoot. Of course, it is more than that, Schutmaat has conveyed the psychology of this moment in Kris’ life unerringly, and makes us feel it too. Little wonder we are disturbed and unsettled.

In the end, Good Goddamn is about the photographs, which is not always the case with photobooks. As he demonstrated in Grays the Mountain Sends, Bryan Schutammt is a photographer with a rare sensibility, the pictures in Good Goddamn are so finely calculated and balanced. I can only compare his talent to that of a superior musician. There are many calling themselves ‘musicians’, but the difference between an ordinary musician and a great one is vast, and yet tiny – a matter of subtlety, the right emphasis, and nuance. It is like this with Schutmaat’s photographs. His images sing, like a well-played piece of music. They are a pleasure to contemplate, and contemplate over and over again for their felicities. They lend the book its visual delights, but also its emotional depths and bitter-sweet tone.

As always in photography, they are pictures of things we have seen before, many times. Ordinary but important things. Yet in themselves they are new, pictures we have not seen before.

All images courtesy of the artist and Trespasser. © Bryan Schutmaat

Gerry Badger is a photographer, architect and photography critic of more than 40 years. His published books include Collecting Photography (2003) and monographs on John Gossage and Stephen Shore, as well as Phaidon’s 55s on Chris Killip (2001) and Eugene Atget (2001). In 2007 he published The Genius of Photography, the book of the BBC television series of the same name, and in 2010 The Pleasures of Good Photographs, an anthology of essays that was awarded the 2011 Infinity Writers’ Award from the International Center of Photography, New York. He also co-authored The Photobook: A History, Vol I, II and III with Martin Parr.

Luke Willis Thompson


Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

The philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes that, ‘The demand for transparency grows loud precisely when trust no longer prevails. In a society based on trust, no intrusive need for transparency would surface. The society of transparency is a society of mistrust and suspicion; it relies on control because of vanishing confidence.’

The live-streamed video of Philando Castile’s murder by Minnesota Policeman Jeronimo Yanez, filmed by his partner Diamond Reynolds, was viewed over 6 million times across Facebook Live – where it was originally broadcast – and YouTube, where it has been shared. In the video, Reynolds, with remarkable poise, narrates Yanez’s shooting of her partner four times in front of their young daughter. Pulled over for a missing brake light, Reynolds recalls how Castile had calmly and voluntarily told the police of his legal possession of a firearm in the vehicle. Reaching for his licence, he was shot and killed. Reynolds speaks to camera in the absence of a reliable system of justice: indeed, Yanez was acquitted, despite video footage from both Reynolds and from the dashboard and sound mounted camera on the police car. Castile can be heard informing the police officer of his weapon: his honesty exists in stark contrast to the accountability of the juridical system.

The video’s large viewership now circulates with the story. Often used as a banal statistic, such information considered more closely opens up to thought the complex and challenging conditions of visibility which structure relations of power. It is not uncommon for social media videos to be valued by their quantitive measure, but this is not a simple or innocent act of accounting. We are encouraged to share images of ourselves – this, as Han points out is a form of control that we ourselves maintain – but at the very same time, there is a need to broadcast, because power acts often without consequence: despite it’s claims to transparency, the law and governance remain hidden. The viewing figures that have been grafted to Diamond Reynolds’ video tells us something valuable, but it needs to be unpacked, for it risks being a spectacular but meaningless statistic. First, there is Reynolds’ instinctual decision to broadcast: she shares the event, like protestors and others before her, as the only recourse to the unaccountable relationship that the police have to (especially black) subjects, who are routinely pulled over, questioned, and – more frequently than allows for the term ‘accidentally’ to be used other than disingenuously – murdered by an overzealous trigger finger. Second, there is the diffusion of the event as a collective protest or call to action: the dissemination, copying, and diffusion of the original video, preventing its shutting down or blocking on networks. Viral multiplication of imagery has become a frequently adopted strategy to counteract the censorship, which results from the digital contest of broadcasting and the logics of post-truth politics, where the event must be accessible for its actuality to remain known. Finally, there is the video as an object of the news, and its disconcerting proximity to becoming entertainment: viewers watch the video as it goes viral, as much for fear of missing out as for social and political concern. Such an image participates in a quest for spectacle: the continuity of violence is witnessed and quickly passed over by the click-driven attention economy.

Luke Willis Thompson’s silent video Autoportrait, commissioned by the Chisenhale Gallery and subsequently shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018, was conceived as a sister-image or corrective to the widely viewed video of Reynolds. In the first of two long takes, Reynolds is set against a clear middle-grey background – perhaps the sky – whilst she holds her position, moving only slightly to raise or lower her head. In the second take, with a subtly different image, she is also calm and static, and speaks, though the sound is not captured. Her voice is withdrawn, just as the image’s colour is withheld. Autoportrait comments then on the long consequence, memory and implications of images and the events they represent, and how Reynolds became enveloped in this image. As Willis Thompson has done so in his Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016), he positions the image in relation to the language of film and media, and their relationship to our consciousness.

Autoportrait contains a strong reference to Warhol’s screen tests, with the cameras prolonged gaze and lack of narrative. Willis Thompson adopts this format to complicate our presumed understanding of Reynolds: silent and dignified, she maintains her calm balance, but here her demeanour resists the divulging of herself to the camera, which she is seen by but looks away from. Warhol’s videos gathered people from the circle of his studio, and participated in their fleeting celebrity: Reynolds too has been subject to a sudden thrusting into the spotlight, though her experience is a thoroughly contemporary manifestation, born of images from our networked reality. She encounters the camera, but it is with a contrast to that intuitive calling to record of her urgent live broadcast: she does not speak to the camera, so much as understand that it both presents and captures her simultaneously. It is for this reason that Willis Thompson has suggested that his collaboration with Reynolds proposed the taking back of her own representation. She is lit from acute angles on both the left and the right. It is a light that brings out detail on Reynolds skin, producing an intense detail that suggests an encounter where Reynolds retains some agency. Doubled highlights effect a sense of her as someone who has quickly become public at the same time as being unknown: she has been made, for the time being, double by her mediation. Autoportrait partakes in a critique of the visible, presenting it as both necessary and constraining at the same time.

Collaboration is an important facet of Willis Thompson’s practice, and his work with Reynolds constructs a representation that places the viewer in a position whereby it is not the producer so much as the recipient who must think and become involved. Willis Thompson’s practice is important for how it adds a complexity to the process of seeing and therefore witnessing. In many of his works, he has actively collaborated with performers to take viewers to locations to develop a personal experience which is detailed in not only narrative or historical, but also visceral and sensory information. For the New Museum Triennial in 2015, visitors were instructed to follow a black guide with a backpack and hoodie who wordlessly took them to poorer areas of New York, occasionally looking over their shoulder to ensure that visitors followed, at the same time turning them into pursuers (the work references the histories of stop and frisk in New York, and takes participants on paths that reference the histories of inequality and black culture). Upon arriving at the other end of the subway, the guide would end the piece without explanation, leaving the viewer to unpick the history of the walk and its resonances. The viewer’s embeddedness in a neighbourhood, at its remove from the safe parameters of the gallery in the gentrified Bowery, seeks a human encounter which places the body of the spectator into a site that most accurately relates to an experience which is told through the work. Autoportrait, though bound within the gallery space, affects an interesting inversion, taking a media representation, and making it static. There is something in its arrestedness – in the long take, and the slowed down gaze of both viewer and subject alike, that construct a space of different reflection.

If our culture seems to insist upon transparency and a logic of visibility, it is noteworthy that we regain control of our images by producing more complex, even secretive depictions. Willis Thompson and Reynolds recognise the necessary resistance that must be presented to us. If the culture of visibility is ultimately one where trust has been displaced in favour of total surveillance, the construction of new representations must account for the demands placed upon us to be visible, and the uneven representations of power, which hide in spite of its calls for openness. We might foster trust by not always being rendered subjects of an ideological visibility, but by retaining a private space that might allow for us to distinguish between where trust is deserved and unwarranted. The gallery must exist as a site that is made not for readily digestible imagery: it might become a space of difficult or counter narratives, as Willis Thompson proposes in his gesture to Reynolds to work with her to retrieve her image.

All images courtesy of the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery. © Andy Keate

Autoportrait was commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 opens on 23 February 2018 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London.

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.

Simon Roberts

Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies of a Small Island

Essay by David Chandler

Imagine walking along a crowded street in any British city. It is morning, and the people around you are in a hurry. Most will be on their way to work and have a purposeful stride and an air of thinking ahead about them, and most are looking at their mobile phones. Some are smiling as they work their fingers across the handsets; others are talking loudly into the morning air, spoken names, places, and events conjuring that fleeting sense we all know so well of multiple lives – instantly recognisable but remote – colliding briefly with our own. Now imagine being in a shopping mall. It is later, maybe the weekend, and the pace here is less frenetic. People are ambling with their bags, looking in shop windows, lingering, waiting around and relaxing (retail having long since been resold to us as a space of recreation, as a kind of therapy). Many of the shoppers are also using phones, involving those elsewhere in their leisurely acts of looking and choosing. And all around, the amblers hold long, remote conversations as they move slowly through the mall, waving their arms in exclamation, making open demonstrations of their connectedness, as if being connected was an expression of their well-being and their relevance.

We have become accustomed to this distractedness, and it is a central paradox of our public experience that those drawing most attention to their physical presence on the street or in the mall are often openly declaring an absence of mind. Being there but not there, being explicitly detached, would seem to be a common sign not only of an increasingly affectless public realm, but also of fundamental shifts in the way we understand and value communal experience. It would be tempting to assert, as many have done, that new technology has begun to radically alter our behaviour, diverting us away from physical contact with others towards immobile screen-based forms of communication in a digital space where constant competition for our attention undermines our ability to concentrate, and dissolves or complicates the distinctions we make between what is public and private, social and intimate. Whether or not this is true, it is becoming clear that we now inhabit a plurality of publics and communities, manifest in overlapping physical and digital spaces that have reconditioned our senses of belonging as well as changed our patterns of social interaction.

The nature of public, communal experience has been an implicit theme of Simon Roberts’ photographic work of the last ten years or so. Since he embarked on his project We English in 2007, he has documented events and places across Britain that have drawn people together, all the while compiling evidence that the desire for common presence and participation, for sharing a sense of being ‘in place’, not only endures but might also harbour something distinctive about our national character and identity. That these gatherings are also set in specific landscapes and are embedded in unfolding social histories of place has been a distinguishing feature of Roberts’ investigation, one that has enabled him to critically conflate elements of a British landscape tradition – in which the land is seen as central to the idea of a national culture and identity – and those of social documentary photography in this country, drawn at particular moments in its history to exploratory national surveys. Roberts’ work presents the viewer with complex relationships between people and places, and incongruous juxtapositions of history and contemporary culture that create gentle ironies and underlying tensions across the images. Played out through particular local and regional contexts, it is these tensions that ultimately deny any consistency of mood and resist the coherent, and possibly seductive sense of binding national characteristics.

This decade of work has reflected debates in art and cultural geography that understand landscape not simply as territory or a mode of representation but as an active process, shaped over time by politics and economics as well as by geological and environmental forces. This process is largely one of incremental change, manifest in different ways and at different speeds across diverse spaces, and, in Britain, Roberts interests have gravitated towards evolving patterns of leisure, the consumption and commodification of history, militarisation, and to lines of demarcation and exclusion in the landscape. But in parallel to this, he has also chosen to photograph events and places that have a more immediate, topical significance in the turning of Britain’s recent history, and which – again summoning the sense of a national survey – might collectively offer a form of pictorial chronicle of these times. It is these particular photographs that provide the structural focus and thematic substance of this book. 

Merrie Albion ranges across various projects, both commissioned and independently produced over the last ten years, from single photographs made around the time of We English, to Roberts’ subsequent photographs of the General Election of 2010, his series The Social: Landscapes of Leisure (2013) and National Property: The Picturesque Imperfect (2013–15), and his photographs from the 2012 Olympics in London. The book also registers a distinct shift in approach, and tone, from We English. In Merrie Albion, Roberts has exchanged the element of discovery and revelation that came from his prior speculative journeying around England to many new and, for him, unknown sites, for a form of ‘reporting’, where he has responded to subjects and places that have already entered the public consciousness and can be seen as defining locations in the recent national story.

Roberts’ work on the 2010 General Election can be seen as representative of this change of emphasis, and its photographs assume a pivotal role in Merrie Albion. Importantly, they distinguish Roberts’ particular manner of recording events from that of the photojournalists and reporters who often appear in his pictures, as one not primarily concerned with capturing newsworthy aspects of the election but with observing what might be called the broad and multifaceted choreography of the electoral process as it unfolded in British social space. One abiding effect of this approach is that the photographs undercut the sense of politics constructed for us by the media, both by revealing that process of construction taking place and by giving equal status to scenes that would be deemed un-newsworthy, affording a monumental quality to the prosaic drama of the election embedded in the everyday fabric of British life. As Roberts steps back with a large-format, five-by-four-inch camera to take up his customary elevated, detached viewing position, the activities and incidents of the election, the jostling, walking, waiting groups of people, are not simply diminished in scale by the expansive space surveyed by the camera lens, they appear now as figures set against a much broader arc of social time, that slower course of history within which the towns and villages they live in – the housing estates, the communities, the streets, pathways and networks of communication – have developed into the familiar landscape of this country. This is the dialectical space/time of Merrie Albion’s social panorama.

Roberts’ apparently quiet, detached chronicling of the events and public atmospheres of Britain’s recent past – charting the mood swings of a diverse national culture – is also a discreet opening up of a set of complex ideas about places and their histories, and about the abiding influence of the country’s past on its present. In his comparative observations and contextual annotations Roberts provides his own form of narration here, and invites us to look with him, to think again, and maybe to think differently about Britain at a time when ideas of our national identity, our national culture and our international relations have never been more fiercely contested.

The world of Merrie Albion is a subdued, anti-theatrical space, with its slower time and sometimes daydreaming sense of duration, and its social panoramas displaying the consciously style-less, apparently detached and indifferent attitude that declares the photographer’s sociological interest as he journeys through the landscape of Britain over the course of its recent history. Yet, as this book so quietly suggests, this history is one of dramatic change and extreme social contrasts, and it is precisely that drama, the drama of difference and upheaval, matched against Roberts’ dispassionate recording of its representative events, places, and social gatherings, which gives his photographs their distinctiveness and unique value.

In many ways these marked shifts of place, culture, and atmosphere create, in themselves, an overriding sense of uncertainty and anxiety in Roberts’ national chronicle as it moves slowly towards the referendum and Brexit, and then culminates in the terrible iconic image of social inequality, injustice, and trauma formed by the blackened high-rise tomb of Grenfell Tower. At its heart Roberts’ work seeks to quell the visceral drama of events. He does not thrust his camera into the action, but steps back to see the wider picture, to create photographs that embody a kind of weighing up of complex tableaux of comparative information – whether that be a political rally winding away down a city street or a family on a beach, pausing for a moment to stare out to sea. Merrie Albion is a partial account; it is selective and subjective; but Roberts’ pictures draw us into the slow unfolding of social time and provide points of connection that encourage us, from one image to another, to think not only about the varied scenes as part of a unified historical process but ultimately to reflect on our own place in that history.

All images courtesy of the artist. © Simon Roberts

This essay is adapted from one of the accompanying texts for Merrie Albion: Landscape Studies of a Small Island, published by Dewi Lewis and has been reproduced with kind permission. An exhibition of the works runs until 10 March 2018 at Flowers Gallery, London.

David Chandler is a Professor of Photography at University of Plymouth. Since 1982 he has held various curatorial roles in museums and galleries, including the National Portrait Gallery, London (1982-88) and The Photographers’ Gallery, London (1988-95). Now he works principally as a writer, editor and curator, in the fields of contemporary photography, photographic history and the visual arts. He was also Director of Photoworks, Brighton (1997-2010).