Buck Ellison

Perfect White Family

Essay by Daniel C. Blight

Picture this if you can. The obsequious glow of white skin, in your house, at your work, in your mirror. If you “don’t see race”, see it now. See the thing you were taught to ignore. This signifier — this sallow epidermis — is what renders you invisible. Without your conscious permission, it places you at the unseen centre of what it is to be human. The ‘unmarked nature of whiteness derives from it being the centre point from which everything else can be viewed’, writes Steve Garner in his Whiteness as a kind of absence.[i]

White people are ghosts, invisible to themselves.

Photography is the social and technological history of “seeing white”. It finds its origins in the long 19th century and is often framed as a miraculous invention pioneered by the polymathic glow of elite European men. Sir William Henry Fox Talbot, the imperious Knight of the British Empire. Nicéphore Niépce, the son of a wealthy French lawyer. Photography then rapidly becomes the visual tool of European Imperialism — power, war, continued colonisation. At first, wealthy white men set out to photograph the world around them; “dark” things they find outside the centre of whiteness. White skin commands the signification of purity at home and black and brown “natives” form the subjugated portrait of the Grand Tour abroad.

Google Image search “family portrait”. The algorithm offers us a picture of white familial normativity. Perfect teeth, rose-tinted skin, wavy locks of hair. Race is also a question of class, of course. The same algorithm delivers us a picture of wealth: three of the first ten images in the search return a photograph of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with their two young children. Immaculate teeth, snow white skin — human “perfection”. Where does this image come from, why does it appear so avaricious and white, and what happens if we turn it against itself?

Buck Ellison flips the antipathy of such an image on its side. His “perfect” family is an image of acknowledgement; one that references a history of art bound to white, upper-class familial representations, from Dutch Golden Age painting to contemporary photographs of monied elites. But it is also an image of critique; one which captures the currency of financial aspiration and success in the present-day West. The psychology of wealth-making underpins our consumerist drives to accrue money and the sense of power and independence that often comes with it. As a recent research paper, The Psychology of Wealth[ii] notes, ‘Individuals endorsing the beliefs that self-worth and net worth are intertwined, that success is defined by how much money they earn, and that money helps give their life meaning were more likely to have attained a high-income level.’ In short, if you believe you are a high-value person in social terms — if you are able to perform that kind of vanity — you stand more chance of earning highly, so the story goes. One might pose the question here: what is the relation between narcissism, wealth and cultural traits associated with the social construction of whiteness?

In a period of ludicrous economic inequality, the photographic representation of this type of domestic space provides a seldom-granted look in to a 1% culture which owns 90% of American dollars. Ellison visually documents this space, and at the same time renders it artifice, fiction. As Gillian Rose writes, domestic space is ‘connected to the public space of political, economic and cultural relations’[iii] and we might therefore interpret it as a space that is constructed. While reflecting a social class that is very real indeed, the subjects of Ellison’s photographs nonetheless perform their identities, assembling the meaning of the space around them. How might this function, as an image?

One of Ellison’s visual references is 17th century Dutch painting. As Martha Hollander notes in her An Entrance for the Eyes[iv], Dutch painters designed a complex and thoughtful series of signifiers into their images which in equal parts documented and allegorised the lives of the subjects featured. Ellison has made a series of photographs that work similarly to reveal various tropes and details. An American war of Independence drill manual, a First World War cannon, a diamond engagement ring, a phone call made or taken in the Ritz-Carlton.

The Prince Children, Holland, Michigan, is a semi-formal group portrait. The photograph gives us a number of venerably posh signifiers: flowery upholstered furniture (good taste); a large, welcoming fireplace lined with parquet woodwork (a warm and wholesome environment); plenty of pictures and books (knowledge is power); the boy wears his polo-neck tucked-in (smart, well bred) and the girls sit or stand in plaid skirts and knee-high hosiery (European cultural heritage, check). This type of family photography, as French writer Jean Sagne notes,

puts in place a system of signs, which translate
into the image of a class…. The conformity to
the model, the constraint imposed on the individual
to bend to [certain] rules can but translate into
a voluntary assimilation, a recognition of a social code.[v]

I cannot claim to know these people, but I am socialised to recognise the image they project for I have come to unconsciously desire it myself. As Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks shows in her Desiring Whiteness,[vi] whiteness is the ‘master signifier’ to which all other racial categories must be submitted. White people are thus lured towards it; our lives lived in a state of flux between ignorance of what we are and a certain crisis of knowing, somehow, that we are living in a state of denial; a refusal to give up that chimerical promise that was offered to us, for nothing, at birth. It is not our skin that makes us white, but rather the way we act upon the world. As Cheryl Harris has shown[vii], whiteness was in part devised as a system of property ownership, and it is with the notions of property, assets and profit that white people continue to be obsessed. In this respect, whiteness is capitalism, and we barely know it.

Photography complicates questions of race and class considerably. As a medium shifting between documentary and fiction, it both reaffirms the dynamics of social, political and economic power and at the same time places them out of reach. Ellison’s pictures are enigmatic in the way that they both “image” and “imagine” a certain kind of reality. To look at the family group is, as Philip Stokes writes, ‘to add the assumption of a whole thicket of connections between the sitters; most viewers allow themselves the pleasure of extravagant supposition.’[viii] We, as viewers, do not know who these people are, but we can suppose who they remind us of, if not directly ourselves.

All images courtesy of the artist and The Sunday Painter, London. © Buck Ellison

Daniel C. Blight is a writer based in London. He is Lecturer in Historical & Critical Studies in Photography, School of Media, University of Brighton and Visiting Tutor, Critical & Historical Studies, School of Arts & Humanities, Royal College of Art. His first book, The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization is forthcoming from SPBH Editions co-published with Art on the Underground.


[i] Garner, S. (2007), “Whiteness as a kind of absence” in Whiteness: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

[ii] Klontz, B.T., Seay, M.C., Sullivan, P. and Canale, A. (2014), The Psychology of Wealth: Psychological Factors Associated with High Income. Journal of Financial Planning, 27:12. Denver: Financial Planning Association.

[iii] Rose, G. (2003), Family photographs and domestic spacings: a case study. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. London: Royal Geographical Society.

[iv] Hollander, M. (2002). An Entrance for the Eyes: Space and Meaning in 17th Century Dutch Art. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

[v] Sagne, J. (1984), L’atelier du photographe. Paris: Presses de la Renaissance.

[vi] Seshadri-Crooks, K. (2000). Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race. London: Routledge.

[vii] Harris, C. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106:8. Cambridge: The Harvard Law Review Association.

[viii] Stokes, P. (1992), “The Family Photograph Album: So Great a Cloud of Witnesses” in Clarke, C. The Portrait in Photography. London: Reaktion.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

One Wall a Web

Book review by Taous R. Dahmani

The photograph on the cover of One Wall a Web is a close up of a brick wall. If it seems to block access, as an attempt to establish a border, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s book quickly turns out to be an invitation to deconstruct, brick by brick. He invites us to observe the physical and mental dismantling of racial and gendered violence as it is expressed and experienced in United States society today. Driven by the author’s impulse to tear down this wall so that, once the book is finished and closed, we find ourselves facing two abandoned bricks. Taking the metaphoric nature of these bricks as a point of departure, we might explore the forms of Wolukau-Wanambwa’s discourse through the prism of the poetics and politics of a renewed and contemporary western tradition of scrapbooking.

At first glance unsettling as a result of the multiplicity of narrative strata, leafing through One Wall a Web makes it possible to understand that the story is told both through the photographic image and by the text. Though designed in collaboration with graphic designer Roger Willems, the reader is clearly invited into Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s thoughts and state of mind. Professor in the English department of New Jersey City University and historian of the scrapbook, Ellen Gruber Garvey wrote in her 2015 article Homemade Archives: ‘Each scrapbook is a window into the life and thoughts of its maker — and into his or her reading habits.’ Reflections, judgments, positions, observations, speculations and imagination form a complex stream of consciousness. The narrative is constructed using associative jumps and analogies. Various chapters punctuate the work but do not break the flow of reverberations and resonances. Such a juxtaposition of sequences of images and texts recalls the rhythm of the films by American film maker Arthur Jafa and in particular his video APEX.

As such, Wolukau-Wanambwa orchestrates an erudite back and forth between quotes from the fascist website breitbart.com, excerpts from Allen Ginsberg’s poems Howl and America, quotations from a Donald Trump interview published in The New York Times and stanzas from Breaking Open and The Speed of Darkness by poet Muriel Rukeyser. These authors, alongside the original and appropriated photographs, are mobilised by the photographer as a network of collaborators and evoke the Rhizome theory as developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (1980), 1987. Texts and images being put on the same level, the work then becomes an evolutionary device that can extend in all directions. Arborescent thinking is opposed to the line of subordination, rooted and taking form, in this case, in the history of structural racism and sexism in the United States. Polymorphic, the rhizome is thus sometimes chaotic, not in its negative sense, but for its capacity of interconnectedness, as Édouard Glissant had it. Linearity and continuum are discarded in favor of fragmentary power.

Successor to commonplace books, popular during Early Modern Europe, where authors could compile their knowledge, usually by writing information in existing books, the scrapbook is a method of textual and visual conservation, presentation and classification that usually offers a meeting point between history and personal narrative. In One Wall a Web, Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa plays around with the possible interweaving between history and current events, in particular by linking his own photographs taken in recent years in Virginia, Alabama, New Jersey and New York, and appropriated archival negatives collected online, printed as positive and displayed as equals to his own images. The range of references used by the photographer-author shows his acute awareness of how history is written and told; regularly shaped by popular culture, journalists, experts, politicians and of course the Internet.

Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s publication aligns with Pero Gaglo Dagbovie’s statement in Reclaiming the Black Past: ‘Black history is a vital part of contemporary black culture.’ Once he had arrived in the United States, British-born Wolukau-Wanambwa lived and observed the brutality of a society against the black body and inherited the deep scar that is the violent history of African-Americans. Free, radical and sometimes brutal, the verdict proposed by Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa is irrevocable.

Mobilising the tradition of scrapbooks has allowed me to include the photographer in North American storytelling dating back to the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance. Many pioneering figures must be mentioned: L.S. Alexander Gumby, a queer African-American man, who kept scrapbooks on a wide range of subjects, focusing on black history and black-run newspapers whose critical muscle against the white press is groundbreaking. In his close circle, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican of African and German descent, also made scrapbooks which would become, among other things, the basis for the collection of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. Another seminal person, Frederick Douglass, known to be the most photographed American man of the 19th century, also kept scrapbooks in order to create a corrective image of race representation. If today this practice seems extremely gendered and depoliticised, for the African-American community, and for these three men, scrapbooks were spaces of the expression of their liberties and their opinions, notably made with cut out newspaper photographs or family albums. Scrapbooks then became volumes that told stories, allowed sharing knowledge widely and as such became a kind of handcrafted archive, validating Jacques Derrida’s statement: ‘There is no political power without the control of the archive.’

Whether in history, or in contemporary proposals, such as that of Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa’s or Clarissa Sligh’s photobook entitled It Wasn’t Little Rock, the meaning of the scrapbook, its poetic range and its political force is thus, in the act of montage and juxtaposition. The cut-up technique, developed by dada artists, and popularised by William S. Burroughs, is based on the idea of making a text from fragments of all kinds. This technique was also used by Burroughs in his scrapbooks, which were visual and textual collages, and tools for prefiguring new ideas for future work. If for Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa and Roger Willems the scrapbook was not a direct source of inspiration for the design of the book, Wolukau-Wanambwa has confided to me the fact that he had been keeping red-fabric scrapbooks for many years. Definitively not a work in progress but a finished object, One Wall a Web, by the combination of his own texts, borrowed words and phrases, his photographs and found images is Wolukau-Wanambwa’s way of recomposing American and African-American history.

All images courtesy the artist and Roma Publications. © Stanley Wolukau-Wanambwa

Taous R. Dahmani is a photography historian, working between Paris and London. She is a PhD fellow at the Panthéon-Sorbonne University Paris, where she teaches 20th century photography history. In 2019-20, Taous will be a researcher attached to the Maison Française in Oxford. Her thesis project is built around the representation of struggles and the struggle for representation. Her writings and her talks always tackle politics and its relations to the photographic medium.

John MacLean

Outthinking the Rectangle

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

If the sharply defined edges of the photograph mark a limit, a “disciplinary frame” – to quote John Tagg – it should be evident that we rarely transgress the boundary, the hard edge of the image. Why are we so passive within the photographic process, so quick to concede to the image, and its predetermined geometries? What has led us to assume, in our gestures and as well as within our theories, that a photograph is so fixed and regular?

We concede not only to the photograph’s restraint as a sharply defined image – even though it is more accurately an accumulation of cones of light – but we submit also to the claim that the photograph’s meaning exists in what it shows, over how it does so. We have placed representation ahead of the gesture, ahead of the act. Perhaps this has to do with how photographic theory fixates on the image and its melancholy relationship to death: we are resigned to the image escaping our original intention and becoming a document with some alternate, informational purpose after our lifetime. We forget that gestures, actions and propositions also matter: they frame the trajectories of an image.

John MacLean’s Outthinking the Rectangle proposes to work with and against the photograph. His project, comprised of an array of observations, surfaces, spaces and gestures, teases from the image a space beyond its straight edges and conventional geometries – a space where the image is active and has agency in its forms. The possibilities he explores – to break with flatness, to slice, extract, bend, rearrange – take the resulting image beyond a melancholy fixation with depiction and the past. What emerges is both a space of play and a search for critical strategies, which, it could be argued, seek to approximate, or attempt to reveal what is often called ‘the real’.

Photographs typically make a claim to reality through their directness and seemingly unmediated presence. This is, in fact, a fallacy: photographs are media, with mediation at their core. ‘The real’ might emerge only from an image that allows access to the process of its making, and key to MacLean’s sharp sense of the image is an acknowledgment that photography is industrial. This fact can be easily neglected: it is inconvenient if the expression of the self is being exalted, or the facticity of the picture is being declared. Photography’s hard edges attest to its industrialism, as does its smooth appearance and surfaces. But photography’s actual encounter, between the machine and human ‘operator’, to use a Flusserian term, invokes a jolt, a jump, or a rupture. There is a grafting of eye and hand to machine, best compared with the experience of parallax: the failure of two visions to fully converge. Parallax is not a glitch or a stutter, but more the sense that the camera has its own way of seeing, a pictorial logic that points beyond the human. The artist and photographer must engage then with a logic beyond their own sight – this is a condition of working with photography.

Artists test what the image can and cannot do: they discover new possibilities and new ways of looking. They resist the camera’s capacity to produce images that can be quickly absorbed and made redundant. Outthinking the Rectangle begins, as do so many of MacLean’s photographs, with an image that we think we know, only to discover that it is not exhausted by its first encounter, and cannot be seen reductively, at a glance. He directs us repeatedly to something uncanny. We are drawn towards the properties of the photographic, which he has placed within the image: a vignetted edge is rearranged to become a centred horizon; a limousine is cropped shorter and so returns to its original size, a remainder left to the side; the viewfinder’s focusing zones find themselves singed into the surface of a road. All of this demonstrates that the photographic tool does not remain solely within the camera: it acts out in the world with concrete and often comic effects.

As these images are examined closely, their edges move from being frames to become subject matter. MacLean uses the ambiguous white of the photograph intentionally: this begins with the white ‘canvas’, or white edge of the print– its border. White bounds the image and affects all that is contained within. Photographers print flat monochromatic skies into darker tones, to separate the image from the white of the paper; vivid white objects are underexposed so that the paper still defines the limit of the image. When bleached or washed out, white is both too much and too little, saturated with information while providing none.

MacLean’s Picture Plane image shows a solitary car parked against a white surface: a wall which may be so reflective as to disappear (only a long look at the white reveals its shadows and marks). The car and its grounding to the tarmac are solid, but the wall appears like a void. It is as if the photograph itself is threatening to disappear: we scour the image for detail to reassure us of more familiar pictorial qualities. In another image, Ladder, the bottom portion is both surface (a wall lit by the sun) and the bright white of the photographic paper. A ladder offers a route into the image but it is, perhaps more significantly, also a route out. Is the white like a pool we could swim in?

Outthinking the Rectangle has been made at a moment when photography has entered an expansive practice of multiple forms. It is often conflated with collage and some of the assemblages of sculpture. It is tempting to read some of MacLean’s images, especially those broken into parts, as collage also. Yet such a characterisation is hasty, and we should be wary of what may simply be another convenient ‘disciplinary frame’. His images do not leave the field of photography, but show how the medium necessarily involves the space it occupies, on the page and in the world. To claim otherwise would be to suggest that a detail cut from a photograph is no longer photographic (and it would be strange to want to make such an assertion): photography itself cuts and fragments.

MacLean proposes a complex process of seeing, framing, modification and encounter, which retakes control of the photographic apparatus. He wrests control from the technology of photography at its source. As we attempt to exit our technological late modernity, we must return to how we make images in the first instance: to outthink the image before it produces its spectacle.

All images courtesy of the artist. © John MacLean

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and Course Director of Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. He writes regularly for Artforum, Art Monthly and Elephant. In 2011 he curated the exhibition Anti-Photography at Focal Point Gallery, in 2014 John Hilliard: Not Black and White, at Richard Saltoun Gallery, London, and currently on display at Camberwell Space, London, is Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions, which runs until June 1st 2019.

Janire Nájera

Atomic Ed

Book review by Alice Zoo

An envelope marked ‘SECRET’ falls out of Atomic Ed when the book is opened. Inside is an informational leaflet entitled ‘You and the ATOMIC BOMB: what to do in case of an atomic attack’. We are cautioned that “An entire city could be crippled temporarily by one bomb,” and “If you are above ground anywhere within three quarters of a mile from the air burst, you will have less than a 50-50 chance of survival.” We are told to roll towards a wall if no shelter is available, and to cover our heads from the heat and flash and radiation of an air burst. Despite the above, the leaflet positions itself as rational, empowering, even soothing: “If you are one of those who has said to yourself, “There is no defence against the atomic bomb,” the facts, as you will see, are otherwise.” Its inclusion within the project primes us, a contemporary audience living without such immediate fears, for the context that informs the work: the threat of annihilation, the gargantuan power wielded by governments and scientists in pockets of the world like Los Alamos, New Mexico. Janire Nájera immerses us within this context, and introduces us to one of the bomb’s fiercest opponents – whose moniker lends the book its title – Edward Bernard Grothus.

Nájera’s book project, published with Editorial RM, is the result of six years spent travelling to New Mexico and sorting through Ed’s archive, curated and presented here in the form of a remarkable narrative which makes up the first half of Atomic Ed. We meet Ed as a young man, rejected from the military on medical grounds, travelling through South America. The first images in the book interweave formal portraits of Ed’s parents with an image of him as an infant, the origin story of an understated hero. In one early image, he gazes out across a Rio de Janeiro skyline, hair slicked back. Soon after that photograph was taken, at the age of 26, he accepted a position as Machinist at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, helping to develop and refine the atomic bomb itself. At this point, the narrative skips and fractures: we see Ed much later in life, beaming, bobbing amongst a rally of people bearing signs announcing one of his favourite slogans: “One bomb is too many.” It is here that we meet him as he came to be known. Atomic Ed was a campaigner, a lifelong agitator against the atomic bomb, its consequences, and the brutal decisions made by those in power.

Following Ed’s archive and a collection of his correspondence, during which time we come to know and befriend him, we are presented for the first time with a series of Nájera’s own images. The Black Hole – so named because “everything seemed to go in but very little ever left” – was the shop Ed ran and curated. It sold assorted surplus material from the Los Alamos National Laboratory and acted as the hub of his political campaigning. After Ed’s death in 2009, no longer tended to with his obsessive care, the shop closed down and a sale occurred, designed to ensure that “as much stock as possible was owned by members of the community rather than being sold as scrap”. The Black Hole was a record of Ed’s meticulous attention to the cause, a rescuing of the materials that surrounded and populated his work; it was the physical embodiment of his enduring fixation. Nájera’s photo series documents a selection of these strange objects and materials, mostly unintelligible to the layperson when seen uncaptioned: gadgets and gewgaws with protruding wires, some sinister with symbols warning hazard, some seemingly benign (a box of phone handsets, books, a stack of graphite bricks).

The Grothus archive as arranged by Nájera is engaging and visually appealing. The vivid colours of childhood snaps counterpose uncomfortably beautiful photographs of bombs bursting on desert plains: a burst of white gold in the centre of a blue-tinged dawn sandscape, the billowing orange bouquet of a mushroom cloud, each enlarged from slides taken from the Los Alamos lab documentation of bomb tests and trials. The rhythm established is one of ordinary life running alongside immense powers of destruction, a precarious coexistence that is rarely confronted in the everyday. Running through this uneasy admixture of imagery is Ed’s voice, via the telegrams and letters he sent, at times righteous and rageful — “Stop waging war. Stop your stupid war.” — and at others hopeful: “We cannot put the genie back into the bottle but with abolition of nuclear bombs we could all be certain of a future”. The voice that emerges is chipper yet obstinate, that of a sincere person fired up by a cause. It is striking, then, following the warmth and energy of the letters and family snapshots, that Nájera’s still lives are so austere: photographed in stark black and white, against plain monochromatic backdrops, and removed from context so that the objects she portrays seem baldly alien. Like the atomic advice leaflet that acts as a kind of prologue, it bookends Ed’s archive with the foreboding nature of its theme, that of atomic capability, which in fact — of course — has not dissipated: we live in a world where countries consider it necessary to retain nuclear power for the morbid quasi-reassurance of mutually assured destruction, should it come to that.

It is refreshing to meet with a work so free of ego in a photographic landscape that, at times, feels increasingly preoccupied with ideas of authorship. The recontextualisation of an archive allows a pile of letters to become a work of art, and even of friendship: we feel the anger and resistance and determination of a person dedicated to a vast cause that didn’t dissipate after the administration of a particular ‘president’ or with the end of a war, but that was ongoing throughout his life, though the acuteness of its threat shifted and transformed. Nájera’s particular achievement with the archive is to draw out this determination at the same time as Ed’s winking sense of humour and charisma. It is this extraordinary levity in his dealings with such a doom-laden subject that makes Ed’s archive so beguiling: his rightful rage is tempered by the velvet glove of his sarcasm and flashing grin. A 1973 telegram to Nixon, for example: “I think it is so very nice that you won’t be able to kill, bomb, burn and destroy beyond August 15th.”

At the time of writing, London’s roads have been blockaded for several days by the Extinction Rebellion. Commuters have been incensed by the inconvenience. Media discussion of the protests veers between the urgent and the hopeless. (Ed was aware of climate threat, too: he said that “a solution to the energy problem, so necessary for survival after the easy energy has been consumed should become a widely, freely, and ardently discussed issue here in Los Alamos.”) It is, of course, impossible to quantify the impact of a single campaigner or campaign on colossal issues like climate change or atomic capability, but Ed’s case is instructive: agitating for a better life while not seeing immediate results does not have to be disillusioning, but instead can be a lifelong attitude. Refusal to kowtow to the status quo can be both fierce and joyful. In the portraits of Ed that feature in the book he is, invariably, smiling, white-haired and with a twinkle in his eye; his desk strewn with books, his shelves packed with atomic detritus, and in front of him, a sign that reads “The legendary ED GROTHUS.”

All images courtesy of the artist and Editorial RM. © Janire Nájera

Alice Zoo is a photographer and writer based in London, working with national and international publications such as BBC News, the British Journal of Photography, and the Washington Post. She is also a freelance photo editor at the FT Weekend Magazine, and co-founder of Interloper magazine.

Joanna Piotrowska

All Our False Devices

Exhibition review by Eugénie Shinkle

I spent most of the 1980s scared out of my wits. Environmental pollution, stranger danger, the chance that we might be wrong about the sun, and that it might burn through its supply of hydrogen and flicker out not in five billion years, but tomorrow or the next day… it was a scary decade, but the spectre that I lost the most sleep over was nuclear war.

In May of 1980, the British government released a booklet entitled Protect and Survive as part of a civil defence series on living through a nuclear attack and its aftermath. The first image in the pamphlet was terrifying – a three-colour graphic of a mushroom cloud boiling skyward, the result of an explosion so cataclysmic that it wasn’t clear you would actually want to survive it. Standing firm in the face of this prospect, Protect and Survive instructed citizens to build a fallout room in their home, complete with a thick-walled ‘inner refuge’ cobbled together out of whatever household items they had to hand – doors, furniture, clothing, books, bags of earth or sand.

Luckily for humanity, the need to build a fallout room or an inner refuge never arose, but such ad hoc shelters stood little chance of weathering a nuclear explosion, and even if they had, the body was still likely to succumb anyway – there’s not much that sofa cushions and stacks of books can do to prevent a slow death by radiation poisoning. But Protect and Survive wasn’t actually about protection or survival. It was an antidote to pervasive feelings of helplessness and fear – a way of keeping hope alive in the face of what were probably insurmountable odds. Building a fallout room and an inner refuge was a demonstration of agency – a way of giving people the sense that they could do something.

Joanna Piotrowska’s All Our False Devices, currently on display as part of Art Now at Tate Britain, explores the subtle balance between agency and vulnerability. Her work is often said to deal with gesture, but the ­installation at the Tate Britain – a selection of framed black-and-white photographs and three 16mm film loops – asks us to think about the term beyond its obvious associations with body language and nonverbal communication. A gesture can also be understood as a testimony, and the various gestures that comprise All Our False Devices testify, in different ways, to the nuanced character of human frailty.

Between 2016 and 2018, Piotrowska invited subjects living in four cities (London, Warsaw, Rio de Janiero and Lisbon) to build shelters in their homes. Like the inner refuge, these shelters are weird eviscerations, thrown together out of things displaced and dragged out of cupboards: blankets and chairs, books and sofa cushions, along with unlikely items like rocks and lumps of rubble, musical instruments, empty picture frames and random pieces of metal. Some are imaginative and even inviting: a cosy fort made of a patio umbrella and patterned throws, a wigwam topped with a wreath. Others feel like outward manifestations of inner pain: in one image a woman lies curled in foetal position in a hallway, sheltered by an unsettlingly clinical assemblage of metal racks and white sheets. In another, Piotrowska’s subject lies prone on a mattress, buried under layers of bedding with only her head showing. All of these arrangements are unstable and temporary, but their fragility is beside the point, because their purpose is symbolic. They are expressions of identity – of a childlike impulse to create, and a more grown-up will to survive. Less carefully planned than the domestic interiors of which they’re a part, these enclaves represent something primal – a basic animal instinct to shield the self from unnamed threats.

Some of the most pervasive of these threats are invisible – psychological violations directed not at the body, but at our sense of self. The complex, gendered nature of such threats is the subtext of two of Piotrowska’s films, which feature young women working through a series of odd gestures and poses, adapted from instructions in self-defense manuals. The films are projected small and low on the wall, the images nearly hidden by the machinery of the projector. You have to come close to see what’s going on, leaning in to observe what look like slow rituals that the women have yet to properly master. Alternately stable and wobbly, Piotrowska’s subjects rehearse the same movements over and over, their performances wavering between futility and triumph.

Another film features a pair of hands, shot from the wrist down, one exploring the other, feeling its way along the uneven contours of the wrist and forearm. Intimate and strangely hypnotic, it’s a body’s tactile reflection on its own being, and a meditation on the enigmatic nature of touch. The reversibility of touch was something that preoccupied philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty throughout his career: ‘When my right hand comes into contact with the left hand palpating something,’ he wrote, ‘its activity easily reverses into the passivity of an organ being touched by the other hand. At the crossroads of touching and being touched, my sensible body manifests itself both as a tactile agent and a patient … ‘. For Merleau-Ponty, our relation to the world begins with the body, and as such, it is always, simultaneously, resolute and yielding.

Vulnerability, in other words, is an essential part of being human rather than a failing; being itself – human or otherwise – involves a fluid state of compromise between strength and surrender. Vulnerability is something intimate and political, overwhelming but also somehow comforting. Protect and Survive encouraged the building of shelters as a way of renouncing this. Installed in a high-ceilinged, imposing room that’s been wall-to-walled with thick blue carpet like a soft cyan sky dropped groundward, All Our False Devices encourages us to occupy this ambiguous state for a moment and to embrace it as something fundamental.

All images courtesy of the artist, Southard Reid, London, Madragoa, Lisbon, and David Radziszewski, Warsaw. © Joanna Piotrowska

Installation views of Art Now: Joanna Piotrowska: All Our False Devices at Tate Britain, March 8th – June 9th, 2019. Photo: Tate Photography (Matt Greenwood)

Eugénie Shinkle is a photographer, writer, and Reader in Photography at the University of Westminster. She writes for various publications such as Foam, Aperture, Fashion Theory, American Suburb X, and The Journal of Architecture. Recent work includes Fashion Photography: the Story in 180 Pictures (Aperture/Thames & Hudson 2017) and ‘Painting, Photography, Photographs: George Shaw’s Landscapes’, in George Shaw: A Corner of a Foreign Field (Yale University Press 2018).

Alys Tomlinson


Essay by Caroline Molloy

We know a pilgrimage to be a journey of moral or spiritual significance undertaken as an act of religious devotion. British photographer Alys Tomlinson’s latest body of work Ex-Voto examines the practice of pilgrimage via a multi-locational study concurrently looking at three Christian pilgrimage sites; Lourdes in France, Ballyvourney in Ireland and Grabarka in Poland. The series of photographs intentionally avoid the spectacle of the pilgrimage and the objectification of the pilgrim, instead focussing on quieter, reflective moments of contemplation to include formal portraits of the chaperones and professional helpers that support the pilgrims, landscape views of the sites of pilgrimage, and, of course, the sacred ex-voto offerings that are left behind at the pilgrimage site, such as candles, crosses, notes and photographs (the term Ex-Voto is normally associated with the Christian faith).

Tomlinson recognises that there is a contrast between the hustle of the pilgrimage sites and the quiet serenity of her images for she is ultimately interested in the interconnected relationship between the mythical sites and the people that visit them. Through Tomlinson’s enquiry, the two are connected. Her landscapes are ethereal and the ex-voto offerings add a grounding context to the narrative forming a backdrop against which Tomlinson makes her portraits, with each sitter photographed individually with a direct gaze to the camera, and, by extension, us as viewers. An example of this is portrait #Untitled 1 2016-2018. It is impossible not to be enchanted by this face. In this portrait, the participants body and hair are covered, this removes all social and cultural signifiers from the image. Furthermore, the depth of focus of the camera lens is shallow inevitably meaning any background detail to the image falls away, thus isolating and emphasising the subject’s face. The individual is penetrating in her gaze, staring straight into the camera, captivating for the viewer. Indeed, there is an engaging intensity to all of Tomlinson’s portraits, which are reminiscent of the mid-20th century formal black and white portraits of August Sander. Yet these evocative portraits also appear discordant with the hegemonic method of contemporary social documentary portraiture, which is more usually associated with rapidly made environmental digital portraiture. Conversely, Tomlinson’s images are highly considered and do not appear to belong to this time, or at least seem to exist outside of it. Shot on a large format plate camera, with 5×4 inch negatives, the images are slow to create, this ritualistic process of image-making invites an interlude of time, this pause gives the viewer space to reflect on the meditative images.

Five years in the making, this work has taken time to evolve since clearly it is well researched and meticulously conceived. And although Tomlinson claims she is not religious, underpinning her work is an ongoing interest in the architecture of religious artefacts found in places of worship and practices of the sacred. Similarly, this tendency can be found in her earlier bodies of work, Lourdes, a colour documentary project that looks at pilgrims and the social environment of Lourdes, and the commissioned series Lourdes St Marie-Frai, a black and white project that focuses on relationships between the pilgrims, helpers and the church in the famed town in southwestern France. This curiosity is obviously informed too by her MA studies at SOAS, University of London, in the Anthropology of Travel, Tourism and Pilgrimage.

We can understand practices of the sacred to happen outside of the normalcy of everyday life, visible in the liminal spaces of rituals, such as practices of pilgrimage. There is a delicate balance to be realised when documenting such activity and robust arguments for and against depicting these practices from an insider/outsider perspective. Among others, this is highlighted succinctly by Abigail Solomon-Godeau when reflecting about the complex issue of the representation of the other. She writes: “Inside or out, one remains confronted with the ethical and political issues posed by Sontag and Rosler, where it is a question of the representation of the other, where the analysis depends on notions of voyeurism and objectification, tourism or imperialism.”

No doubt informed by her anthropological background, Tomlinson demonstrates great sensitivity in navigating this dilemma. She is reflexive in positioning herself as an outsider to the ritual of pilgrimage, yet engaged as a participant observer. Examining her portraits, it is apparent there is an intimacy which could only have been achieved in dialogue with her portrait participants given these are not images that could be achieved with any sense of speed or flippancy. According to Tomlinson this method of making portraits, slow-portraiture, enables her connect with the people she photographs but not reveal too much about them. Despite the fact that in conversation Tomlinson shares anecdotal information about the portrait participants and the pilgrimage sites, in the exhibition and in the book, the people are unnamed. In addition, the specific landscapes and ex-voto offerings are not located to any one site of pilgrimage. In doing this, connections between the pilgrim helpers and the geography of the natural landscape such as water, stone and forestry can be made. Tomlinson thus offers the viewer a sense of place of pilgrimage without specifically situating each image to open up a discourse with the sacred, one that suggests without describing a specific experience of pilgrimage.

The film that accompanies the Ex-Voto images is a vignette portrayal of Vera, one of Tomlinson’s portrait participants, an orthodox Christian of the Saint Elizabeth Covent in Belarus. It is a compelling observational film, in which Tomlinson gives insight into the rhythms of Vera’s monastic life and its daily tasks such as prayers and caring for and maintaining a stable of horses. The audience is given time to observe the mesmerising sequence of Vera’s modest existence as this lyrical film reveals an unseen world, far away from the bustle of the trappings of contemporary society. The film is due to be premiered at Les Rencontres d’Arles 2019 this July, as part of the Discovery Award in association with London’s HackelBury Fine Art gallery.

One might conclude by referring to one of the key points from Professor John Eade, in his contextual essay published in Ex Voto, wherein he reminds the reader that the experience of pilgrimage extends beyond a religious experience. He suggests it can be felt through a number of material engagements, such as touching a rock face in a grotto, responding to the shock of cold spring water and of course in moments of contemplation. As such Tomlinson’s images respond to this broad notion of pilgrimage and offer an experience of pilgrimage for believers and non-believers alike.

All images courtesy of the artist and HackelBury Fine Art. © Alys Tomlinson.

Caroline Molloy is an artist, academic and writer. She holds an MA in Photography from the Royal College of Art and an MA in Visual Anthropology from Goldsmiths. She is a Senior Lecturer in Photography at Coventry University, alongside of which she is PhD candidate at the Centre for Photographic History at Birkbeck, University of London.