Karen Knorr’s Gentlemen is a series of 26 photographs anchored by short texts, taken inside the exclusive private members clubs that dominate the area of London just north of St. James Park. Photographed between 1981 and 1983, the series is overshadowed by the Falklands War, the last death throes of an empire of which these clubs formed part of a privileged ruling nucleus.
These photographs, which Knorr describes as a ‘documentary fiction’, depict the club interiors, its members, and on several conspicuous occasions also the staff who serve within. The texts in turn are drawn from conversations, parliamentary records, and contemporary news reports, and paired with each image they serve to draw a viewer to particular visual details and juxtapositions to reflect on notions of patriarchy, gender and class.
It is an interesting thing when a series from an earlier era re-emerges again to consider what feels fresh and unchanged and what is less so. Despite a renewed interest in the possibilities of image-text pairings, it is still perhaps this very strategy that dates Gentlemen most immediately. It instantly calls to mind a particular moment of art production concerned with cultural theory, and recalls work by both Knorr’s contemporaries and predecessors; for example Victor Burgin’s photo-texts or, earlier still, the photo-epigrams of Bertolt Brecht.
More noteworthy is that which does not really age Gentlemen at all, that being what is shown in the photographs themselves. Despite the fact that they are photographed during the abyssal depths of the Thatcher era we now find ourselves three decades later in a situation that feels little different, in a society which remains hierarchical, and fixated on distinctions like class, gender, and increasingly, of course, also on foreignness.
If the recent European referendum can be read as the last gasp of sections of the United Kingdom desperately seeking a return to an impossibly lost past, the timing of Karen Knorr’s latest publication is apt to say the least. Apt, but it also begs a question; where are the photographers documenting the ‘gentlemen’ of today?
All images courtesy of STANLEY/BARKER. © Karen Knorr