Harry Callahan is one of those ‘people’ in the history of photography, a name synonymous with the art and craft of it all and associated with the development of the medium as an art form. Teaching at the Chicago Institute before moving on to the Rhode Island school he will have met and worked with some the major luminaries of the world of photography. So it was with a sense of excitement that I ventured up to the fourth floor of the Tate Modern to see a display of his work and a sizeable selection of his work at that. This show, extracted from the relatively few images he printed, seemed somewhat eclectic, with no great theme holding them together – though as I went to the Tate primarily to view Richard Hamilton’s huge retrospective, it’s degrees of variation paled by comparison.
The first image I saw: ‘ Vogue Collage’ had me somewhat excited as I saw it as an image of representation, no doubt it was, hundreds of female portraits, culled, I presume, from the the pages of Vogue magazine and collaged for the male gaze, representing not only our (the male’s) traditional view of the other, but also perhaps questioning it; flooding the viewer’s senses with images of ‘beautiful’ women, from an archetypical purveyor of capitalism’s view of women’s own representation of women. These were passive representations of women
and I am there now in the frame as a silent observer. My initial excitement waned considerably though as I moved into the exhibition rooms. This may be in part because of what’s in my mind currently, what it is that I’m concerning myself with, in this course, and that is the representation of women, feminism and photography’s part in it all.
Callahan’s work on the white walls here disappointed me. The prints were, by and large, very beautiful, he was a more than accomplished printer and the influence of Ansel Adams was very clear to see:
There were a lot of these passive, flaccid works of nature, skilfully exposed and printed in exquisitely described warm tones of ‘nature’, the ‘great outdoors’ and I had a deal of fun re-toning them to re-present them here in similar tones. That Callahan left almost no notes of his practice or contemporaneous thoughts left me wondering why these images and not others – though what others might be included I’m not sure. I could find no sense of narrative, there seemed to be almost no contextual structuring to the show. And so to Eleanor:
There is a room dedicated to his wife, and I suppose muse, Eleanor. The portraits/studies were from a large selection that Callahan made of his wife for over twenty years; nude and clothed, inside and outside (in the world and hidden from it). Eleanor comes as part of the package, to know Harry as a photographer is to know Eleanor, she is there. And what I got from this work is that whilst she was there she was there for him; again skating on what may be the thin ice of comprehension of female representation, I found that all of the images of Eleanor were based on the premise of submissive passivity. Whilst the image above of the light touching her nude form, which spoke to me off my own recent work about light, Eleanor seemed to be portrayed as an expression of Callahan’s position of dominance, facing away from the lens. The power equation never seemed to balance, Eleanor seemed mute in these images. I couldn’t discern any sense of the person within expressing a sense of their own person through the images. This sense of submission was there even in the fully clothed portraits. I fully accept that my ‘reading’ of these images is a product of my own concerns and prejudices. I watched ‘Bailey’s Stardust’ (was there ever such an attempt to lionise oneself by the deliberate exclusion of a name to present oneself as a name – well not until ‘Rankin’ I suppose) recently about the ‘blockbuster at the NPG where he has a wall of a couple of his wives – ‘it’s good share‘ – was how he described why he would want to display nude studies of his current and previous spouses. As Tom Hunter expressed about the ‘sexist pig’ in an interview with Robert Elms recently – ‘we can’t judge them by today’s moral compass‘. Why not? I wouldn’t bracket Callahan with Bailey as I don’t think Callahan had as many chips on his shoulders as Bailey, but I wasn’t sure about why we needed to see these images, the show was eclectic as it was without Eleanor or perhaps without Eleanor Callahan wasn’t half the person that he was with her and to describe him without her wouldn’t tell half the story.
What connects these twin exhibitions is Goto’s work Lewisham which appears to have had their first outings at these events and that leads me to consider the effect of context, of the artwork in a situation, but I’ll come to that later.
Uncertain States is ‘a lens based, artist led collective Releasing a quarterly newspaper we attempt to expand a critical dialogue and promote visual imagery. The work reflects some key social and political concerns and challenges how perception is formed in a society like ours, on issues as diverse as politics, religion and personal identity.
In a time where the proliferation of imagery is rendering itself insignificant and meaningless, the artists in Uncertain States are concerned with the intention of the work. All the work published is made to be viewed with consideration and concerned with the meaning and reading of the photograph.
Uncertain States aims to showcase both established and emerging artists also through our exhibitions and web based publications. We include work from all photographic genres. Releasing a quarterly newspaper we attempt to expand a critical dialogue and promote visual imagery. The work reflects some key social and political concerns and challenges how perception is formed in a society like ours, on issues as diverse as politics, religion and personal identity.
In a time where the proliferation of imagery is rendering itself insignificant and meaningless, the artists in Uncertain States are concerned with the intention of the work. All the work published is made to be viewed with consideration and concerned with the meaning and reading of the photograph.
Uncertain States aims to showcase both established and emerging artists also through our exhibitions and web based publications. We include work from all photographic genres.’ Website here
The catalogue for the show lists nearly thirty artists with, perhaps notably, Kennard Phillips, Tom Hunter and Roy Mehta amongst them. Most of the work has a price tag, indicating a selling show. I had arranged this visit with Fiona Yaron-Field with whom I had contacted after visiting the Taylor Wessing 2013 show where she had been selected for her image ‘Becoming Annalie’. Fiona spent some time discussing the work with us, I was joined by two fellow students: Catherine Banks and Keith Greenough and her generosity was very helpful as we discussed the work and the artists behind them.
My overall impression of this ‘Group’ show is how difficult it was for me to comprehend the diversity, the inclusiveness of all the works on show. Spencer Rowell’s physically layered work that used dimensionality as part of it’s aesthetic explored the notion of self portrait from many perspectives, the layers of narrative matched by the application of layers of substance. The context of the work – which also interested me because of its use of text as a vital component – anchored in the written word became cogent only after Fiona provided the circumstance of the work and that opening to the work was extremely important to my comprehension – at least partways. Julian Benjamin’s ‘experiments in social fiction’ interested me in its use of a fictive narrative to develop ideas – in this case – as he says: “These are not pictures of things, these are pictures of ideas. I’m not saying this thing happened, I’m saying this idea happened.
And this is the photograph to prove it.”
But, as Benjamin says in the catalogue, he uses digital manipulation to create fantastic events, the photograph is evidence of it’s own truth and therefore is a self depiction of the real.
Frederica Landi’s examination of the transient marks on the human skin initially made me think of scarification but when I contemplated further I saw that these marks – the crumpling of skin, the marks of hair and the pressing of clothing to the skin’s surface were all transient marks, these marks reminded me of some work I have planned to explore about love and to which I hope to think about about starting soon.
Fiona Yaron-Field’s work continued her exploration of Down’s Syndrome condition.Ophir, her daughter, was born with is and I have written about it previously here and here. This new work looks at women – the 2% of expectant mothers who know they are carrying a child with this condition but who choose, for many different reasons, to carry the baby to term. It maybe the end of the project for this artist, but her discussion surrounding the work, her motivations were very interesting to hear in the context of the gallery.
So to John Goto’s work Lewisham. The artist spent some time in the 1970’s photographing young black people either singularly or as couples in front of a very makeshift backcloth before he left for Paris and a photographic scholarship that resulted in another work called Belleville. The Lewisham series were represented in Whitechapel by three images which were denoted as being printed by Micro piezo printing. Initially I wondered whether this technology was related to Piezography which I used in it’s very early introduction to the UK as a carbon based pigment ink system. It turns out that Goto was using he term as it relates to every inkjet printer and so I now wonder why, what I thought must have been an aesthetic choice that I couldn’t fathom is perhaps instead a simple issue of technical incompetence – which I can’t understand at all. These Lewisham Lover’s Rock series all have colour casts that I found distract from the observation of the subject. It may be that this colour casting is a deliberate ploy to add a tension to the image and in my lack of comprehension I gave up wondering and asked the artist himself. He very kindly provided me with other information but to the question of colour he hasn’t yet responded.
Now, whilst I am perplexed about the Lewisham series, which have a notion of Sidibe’s work about them his other work Belleville is another aesthetic altogether. These are moderately sized images one achieves a 20” x 16” size, but most are smaller, printed on Agfa Record Rapid with Neutol WA, these are works of beauty in and of themselves. Their consistency of tonal structure is at great odds with the digital prints, their stillness as images are though very similar. What I found myself thinking about is how now through a perspective of nearly forty years hence both sets of images are about memory. The instant generation of memory by the recording of these youngsters in Lewisham and the old architectural studies of Paris which were already steeped in memory as they were photographed.
The Belleville studies were of shop windows, old streets and doorways, old pictures in dilapidated condition, these images were layered in patina after patina of echoing and aching memory, marked by the presence of the jetsam of life and, as in a few images, the depiction of peoples long forgotten in old photographs. These images were still, marking the passing of a time and now, printed as they are in a process and on a paper that no linger exists they are images of something that is no more, just as much as the fleeting capture of the Lewisham Lovers Rock portraits are of a people and a place no longer there – though the genre of Lovers Rock is making something of a comeback – perhaps that is why these images turned up at the gallery in Whitechapel and not the ones that had been selected by the artist originally?
Which leaves me considering the way in which these prints were created. The wider expansive digital prints, from scanned negatives with clear and apparent digital artefacts about them and the gorgeously toned lustrous warm tine, moderately sized prints, printed to express the images in the best possible light. I am confused. Goto kindly provided a link to a Photomonitor article where he suggested I might find the answers to the questions I posed to him earlier today. I’ve read it a couple of times and this question of aesthetic still eludes me.
“To argue with a dead man is embarrassing and not very loyal. It is all the more so when the absent one is a potential friend and a most valuable interlocutor: but it can be an obligatory step. I speak about Hans Mayer, alias Jean Amery, the philosopher who committed suicide and a theoretician of suicide …” Introductory paragraph of chapter 6 entitled “The intellectual in Auschwitz” from the book “The Drowned and the Saved.” By Primo Levi
“Late one night, Chris was summoned to ‘headquarters’. That was how people in camp referred to the small house at the foot of the hill on the edge of the settlement. In this house lived the investigator who handled ‘particular important matters’. The phrase was a joke, since there were no ‘matters’ that were not particularly important. Any violation of the rules or even the appearance of such a violation was punishable by death. It was either death or a verdict of total innocence. But what man lived to tell the tale of such a verdict?”
Opening paragraph entitled “Handwriting” from “Kolyma Tales” by Varlam Shalamov.
Twin events recently have started to reshape how I feel about my work, and maybe how I start to revalue it. I don’t really think of this as a Damascene moment, for if truth be told I have been hesitating at a metaphorical crossroads for some time. The choices that seemed apparent to me weren’t clear, but weren’t not made for fear of wanting to move and engage with a medium that has held me in thrall in ever increasing amounts since before these studies began, although accelerating now.
Primo Levi, who studied chemistry at the University in Turin, a skill that helped him survive Auschwitz, was able to describe that horrific experience by writing beautiful prose that, translated into the English language, enabled me to reflect on man’s inhumanity to man. I was drawn into Levi’s experience by the means of his beautiful use of language. Similarly Shalamov’s book of short stories, connected only by their telling of tales from a Soviet forced-labour camp in North Eastern Siberia under the reign of Stalin. Neither of these books are easy reading, but their prose, and that of their other works delivers the readers to places that might be too difficult to reach without those words chosen to be read in an order that helps the reader to understand, to comprehend. John Glad, the translator of the “Kolymar Tales” says in his introduction.. “If you are about to read the stories of Varlam Shalamov for the first time, you are a person to be envied, a person whose life is about to be changed, a person who will envy others once you have forded these waters.”
I agree with Glad that I do envy those who haven’t stepped into that river yet, because, as he also suggests elsewhere in the same introduction, ‘you can’t step into the same river twice’, the river has moved on, flowed away.
Siegfried’s video from the Thames Valley study day shows the difficulty I felt/feel about my work. I had envisioned that the ‘pretty’ images that I brought to the event would entice, but I gambled on the audience reflecting, like me, that their substance was insufficient to warrant much discussion. And yes, there was a reason to talk about them at the same time as trying to talk about the other ‘documents’ that I had taken to present and it was that they linked to the later presentation on transition.
I was frustrated that I didn’t manage to convince the other participants of how I felt about my work, at either the review or the transition stage. And I don’t think now that the audience were just being nice – at least I hope not. To say that I have thought about this ‘prettiness’ issue for some time would be to underestimate it by some margin. That their comments haven’t stopped ringing in my ears would also be equally true.
“What’s wrong with a pretty picture” was and has been suggested to me a great many times, and the answer is of course nothing. Nothing is wrong with a pretty picture, these conversations about the worth of an image, a song, a poem which delights in the moment. They should be celebrated, they generally make us feel good, they make me feel good. Feeling good is good, what could be wrong in that? Vivaldi’s Stabat Mater Nisi Dominus Rv 608 : Cum Dederit Dilectis has me singing at the top of my voice, that it was used by Sarah Moon as a sound track to her film Mississippi One perhaps heightens it a bit for me, but I get the same buzz from listening to all sorts, though Vivaldi’s treatment of the Stabat Mater isn’t one that moves me to religion, I love it in the moment, it doesn’t have any discursive value for me; I am where I was before I started the cd spinning. The same isn’t true however with John Grant’s painful description of his lack of love for his father in “JC hates Faggots” from the album “Queen of Denmark”. They are things of beauty, some with and some without depth and I love signing with them (though it has to be said no-one likes me singing). Tin pan alley produced songs for the machine that was the music industry, there are many landscape and portrait photographers who produce images for the same reason and good luck to them, I wish them all well.
Tom Hunter, at a recent study date, described how he knew he had to engage with an audience, otherwise how would he ever hope to deliver anything to that audience. If a visitor to an exhibition isn’t attracted long enough, if a viewer to a web-site isn’t drawn to linger then the effort to create whatever narrative, however noble, will have been in vain. If the intent of creating imagery is to provide a platform or arena for discourse then it needs to deliver the primary function of being noticed, of capturing the attention. Hunter mentioned that his work stems from a documentary perspective and his need to want to engage with an audience was palpable, he spoke of making the “ugly” “beautiful”, I’ve had similar thought about Brent Stirton’s documentary work. About how the photographer takes a theme and in transfiguring the image the artist stands a chance to open a discourse into the area that concerns them. For Hunter it is the community in Hackney (now maybe he is venturing further afield) for Stirton there are many peoples around the world that have felt the effect of his lens.
I have though, thought about other artists who haven’t sought to engage with anyone perhaps but themselves, the likes of Francesca Woodman, Duane Michals and so on. For these artists maybe the internal conversation was all that mattered, maybe it didn’t matter to them what anyone thought about their work. Not entirely sure.
But I do know that I feel that I have to get over this ‘prettiness’ thing. I have strong feelings about certain subjects that I want to communicate, and in doing so I will need to draw people into that conversation. To help them to help me in a discourse about an area that concerns me and I can’t do that without a correspondent.
These past few weeks I have been wondering about how things start, how the seed of an idea finds the right conditions to germinate to find root and grow into a piece of work. Of late, I am beginning to think that mostly it’s about work. From a notion, start to work on the idea and see where it goes. Start to explore an idea, by both thinking about it and acting on it, perhaps even at the same time. See where it leads. See how it develops. Whilst the f464 club would struggle with not knowing where the end is, I am starting to believe that the journey into unknown territory is possibly more interesting and rewarding (hopefully) than the accomplishment of understanding and achieving a pre-visualized panorama.
I had little hesitation in requesting a place on the Tom Hunter talk; I had communicated with him nearly a year ago, culminating in this blog piece and, unfortunately, a meeting scheduled between us that was cancelled, where I had hoped to investigate his practice and gain an insight into how he goes about his work. I was quite disappointed at the time that the meeting didn’t take place, but on reflection I think that my appreciation of his work after hearing him during the study day event in Hackney, has probably served me better now, given the development in my vernacular of the medium to which I am still very much apprenticed to.
Hunter gave a hasty life story but lingered longer on his more contemporaneous work, he rattled through his biographic details leading up to his degree piece and then, how the work that he has become renowned for, had started. From his essays his tutor Kennard suggests a study of the Dutch painters in what is known as the ‘Golden Age of Dutch Painters’ which revealed Vermeer to Hunter and inspired the photographer to create a completely new body of work. The re-presentation of several of these Dutch masters’ works led to his winning of the John Kobal portrait prize (above) that largely launched his current trajectory as a ‘name’ in the world of ‘Art’ photography. A recent inclusion of a couple of prints to the permanent collection on MoMA in New York, seemingly sealing his fate as a recognised artist. Exhibitions in in various cities around the world are keeping his reputation alive, though as Hunter was clear to point out, this fame comes associated with the continued need to develop new work.
“I work ‘fucking hard” he informed us …”and it’s not easy, I work harder now than I’ve done before…”. “I’ve probably had 50 new ideas for work since Christmas..” There seems to be a constant pressure to perform, to delight the galleries, to delight the industry that seems to surround Hunter; he now has a number of assistants that he wasn’t exactly complimentary about, trappings it seems to me of the business that accompanies the rising of an artists’ reputation. I’m reminded of Struth bemoaning that he now has several ‘assistants’ that not only does he have to pay, but also to find work for; thereby increasing the price of his prints accordingly. I wonder how much Hunter’s prints cost now; he posted this on his facebook page “look what happens to the price of your book when it sells out!!!” http://www.amazon.co.uk/Hunter-Hatje-Cantz-Jean-Wainwright/dp/3775712771/ref=sr_1_sc_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1361278049&sr=1-1-spell
Hunter’s work has its roots in his local community of Hackney where he has lived for the most part of his life, in the documentation of the struggles of this district of North East London. Using the beauty of large format colour photography, natural light and a passionate belief in elevating the disenfranchised to a higher plain. Utilising the lingua franca of the advantaged to combat the march of capitalist encroachment, and by engaging with the instruments of power management Hunter has allowed the voice of that community to be heard. That Hunter was prepared to commune with the art establishment, for whatever reasons apart from those that enabled him to give oxygen to that normally suppressed minority, and swan with the likes Saatchi means that Hackney’s ‘ugliness’ is now finding an audience from places like Barcelona, Paris and now permanently on West 53rd, just a couple of blocks from Central Park. “Who’d have thought that of the kid who was ‘naff’ at school?” I paraphrase.
I find it interesting in Hunter’s presentation to see some of the headlines that provided some of the inspiration for his “Living in Hell” series, not that I doubted their existence, but it added to the realism of the work. Hunter didn’t try and define documentary, rather saying that he did document the world around him, and that (photographic) labels weren’t an accurate description. This photographer makes images; he wants to make images that people can engage with, he appreciates that if people can engage with them then maybe the narrative that he is exploring might be able to be heard. Without engaging an audience there can be no chance to have a conversation, and this is perhaps where I have most of my concerns about the nudity in some of his images. Is the nakedness of young women there to attract attention in order that a conversation might take place? I want to think not, though I’m not fully convinced. The concern over Cranach’s predilection for sexually charged young women being aped using the same visual elements has me troubled. Cranach, I still think, painted these images for the singular purpose of aiding a singular pastime for the patrons who paid a lot of money for the purpose. Couldn’t Hunter find another subject, or another visual means to subvert Cranach’s onanistic patrons?
I asked him about the pinhole work that he enjoys so much and he suggested that he likes not only the aesthetic qualities, but also the way that the image seems to echo the way we actually view a subject. That the periphery of the image is in distortion as we view the core of the image is a desired effect, this helps the photographs that are presenting the ‘staged persences in, for example “Prayer Places” almost training the view to the centre piece in the image. That the view takes many minutes to form a latent image on the film substrate is another welcome attribute of the process “I can go and have a chat with the Imam whilst the exposure is being made…” indicating that not only is Hunter a part of the community but that he wants to continue to develop his connection with it.
I came away with several strong feelings about the talk and subsequent discussion with Tom Hunter. Firstly, that his conviction to the medium of photographer as a way of delivering his narrative was very strong. Also that he committed to applying himself to the process of work, the “Dublin bay” series for example suggested to me that it was started by a desire to test the new camera that he received as a gift, but that slowly (perhaps very slowly with this camera) it developed into a narrative that Hunter extracted from the that ‘work’ to record, to document in the snotgreen sea before him. The “Prayer Places”, the “Ghetto” and others that may have started as curiosities but have turned into valid bodies of work that express Hunter’s feelings for places that have been, and are still important to him – mainly in and around Hackney, mainly in and around the oppressed in his community, the beautified and objectified ugliness in an area that is in transition.
Returning to the pressure of an artist who has been recognised, I wonder how he will cope with the continued need to perform. He mentioned that he has failed in advertising, not that he seemed overly bothered, and that he has been in Birmingham to do some work in completely unfamiliar territory. He has had limited time to both explore the area and for the assistants he has been trusting to ‘assist’ him, Hunter has had to ‘deliver’ product in perhaps a way that he isn’t used to. This pressure to perform might come easier to a commercial photographer who also has a private practice, but Hunter isn’t interested in the process of art as a means to make money per se – though I’m sure he accepts the trappings as perhaps we all might – but it has been about how to ‘make art’ that Hunter has got to where he is. I wonder whether he will change his practice to suit his new place.
A thoroughly inspiring event with an artist who provided an engaging and honest insight to his work and practice. I think some twenty-five students comprised the audience and there were a lot of questions to which Tom Hunter was generous is response. And apart from a couple of very minor technical hiccups the talk went extremely well. The post match team talk between the students and the accompanying tutor Sharon Boothroyd benefitted from the focus of the event. I would like to see more of these type of events. Interaction with and between students being something that most studying at the OCA don’t have that often and I think a sizeable number crave.
Tom Hunter’s work and essays can be found on his web-site http://www.tomhunter.org/
Keith Greenough on Tom Hunter http://photo-graph.org/2013/03/03/tom-hunter-study-visit/
I’m starting to formulate an understanding of feminism – firstly I am unsure though whether it should be Feminism or feminism, or whether that matters at all. Secondly I think I may form other understandings of feminism, in that what follows is a singular distance travelled in one direction, there are, I appreciate, many more directions that I could and may travel.
Of course I had a notion of the position of a ‘woman’ in society – John Lennon expressed it as ‘prone’ – and for many years I had always took that notion at it’s simplest level, the woman ‘laid out’ for the male, supplicant, available, subservient, exhibited much as ‘she’ has been for centuries by artists, nude or semi-nude for the gaze of the male. These notions weren’t conscious, they had been implanted by conditional means that seeped into subconscious via a multitude of visual, cultural and, now I think political mechanisms designed to keep the quo in stasis. However Lennon’s statement could be read as women’s political position in the patriarchal society as that of “prone”. Prone, by gender to under achieve, by their ‘other’s’ standards; to come second (if at all).
Much of ‘art’ until the democratization of the creation of visual media was destined for the privileged classes; patrons commissioned art for various reasons, to deliver their aggrandized view of themselves as a statement, to ease their passage to a better afterlife and not least to provide visual imagery for private, onanistic pleasure behind closed doors. Much as ‘Landscape’s’ traditional aesthetics have been driven by those with the ability to enjoy those landscapes, other than those who were destined to view them as toil, the view of the supplicant female entered the public consciousness by the same means of travel. When museums and mass printing became available the available aesthetic meant that what was extant, as visual imagery, became the de-facto norm in the lower reaches of the class system.
I am also coming to the notion that in our patriarchal, capitalist, consumerist economy, the objectification of the female image serves to reinforce those same value systems that have kept the male as the dominant role, bread winner, politician, King, President, Major, God. It all points to the same place, about three feet off the ground in a fully mature male body.
Reading De Lauretis’ book “Alice Doesn’t – Feminism Semiotics Cinema”, was a struggle at first – the usual issues with semantics covering semiotics, Marxian theories etc etc – but after a while, and by essay three: “Snow on the Oedipal Stage” things started to fall into place, pennies started to drop, it seems that what I had taken for granted may well be conditioning; either of a social/cultural or of a political kind. That, for example, I have always found the shape of a breast a thing of beauty could be associated with the Freudian notion of an Oedipal reaction, but nevertheless I still find that curve a thing of beauty, the same beauty of curve that I can see in so many commodities – especially those designed for male consumption, which is perhaps why we see it so much in visual media. That the breast has been iconified in Western media, and particularly by American mainstream media, and hence the motion picture, however I’m not sure why it is that don’t seem to have the relationship with the breast that the ‘media’ seems to assume that should have. My relations with the breast have been normal as far as I know, I was breast-fed, along with my twin sister – “turn and turn about” was how my mother described us, swapping over to ensure we got the same level of feed whilst both feasting at once. My wife breast-fed both our sons and she was not one to scurry away and hide in some ‘feeding station’ to do so (but that is her relationship with the breast and not mine). Femininity and body issues are though a current concern of mine and in particular the breast; I am working on a project to do with breast cancer, my wife had it, my sister had it, my mother had it and one of our best friends recently died of it, so it is current. The notion of breast therefore isn’t anywhere near as sexual for me as I suspect it may be for a lot of other people – male or female. But I am conscious that it is, in visual media, a strong symbol of sexuality.
If we look at Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting, “Cupid complaining to Venus”, about 1525 Oil on wood at the National Gallery we can see two bodies, one naked one nude; one a cupid figure, the other a young nubile epilated beauty. This beauty, or her like, has been painted a great number of times by this artist for a variety of clients and it would be unlikely that these commissions would have been on public view and, probably, not in a public place within the privacy of their owners premises. This nubile model is stated in a pose as to reveal most parts of interest to a male only gaze. Provocatively lifting her arms away from her body, twisting her pelvis towards the viewer and inviting our view. Compounding this immodesty is her wantonness demonstrated by her complete disregard for the infant cupid figure at her feet. This wretched child is being attacked by bees, it has clearly disturbed a bees nest that it is now, for whatever reason, holding. The infant is looking upwards imploringly to the young woman for help, but our Eve is ignoring him. This child, this young boy, isn’t a challenge to the viewer, the woman clearly is performing for the viewer’s alpha male gaze – we have as a viewer no challenge from this infant boy, any sense or potential of maternal feeling is subverted by her apparent need to serve her viewers needs and desires, that those needs are likely carried out in privacy of a secluded place and in a singular activity is perhaps seen as ‘job done’.
Why then would Tom Hunter develop his own rendition of the image? The Cranach image isn’t a particularly classical study, it is one that has been constructed for very little purpose other than for arousal I suspect. Developing a constructed image that professes to subvert the notion of class, as Hunter has done before and since, could have been accomplished with a range of different pieces, not least by the work he did on the Dutch masters such as Vermeer.
Girl’s Sex Acts in Club:Court.Cop:’It can only be described as having Sex through Clothes’ reprinted by kind permission of the artist Tom Hunter’
Hunter’s image, references the painting by Cranach the Elder and depicts another young and nubile young woman, but instead of associating her with the notion of motherhood, this young lady has the dubious pleasure of being associated with the male gaze’s vision of her – of a woman who is there purely for the pleasure of the male gaze, and one assumes the private pleasure thereafter. Hunter’s female has a fully-grown male observing her, perhaps pleading to her not for protection from the sting of the bees prick but for use of his own. This male’s gaze portrayed in the image is twisted and turned in order to get a better view, leaning forward craning his neck to peer upwards to her vagina, he has no interest in her breast, nor anything that accompanies her genitalia. She though only has eyes for us, She doesn’t recognize the man’s presence, her gaze is for us, the viewer that has expressed a desire to look at her, or perhaps for the viewer who is the ‘owner’ of this print of her, bought and sold. Could this though be a feminist vision where the viewer is reminded of consequence of his gaze, of his commodifying gaze that makes a product out of the subjugation of women? Or is it, this depiction of the naked and not nude, what De Lauretis has it in her introduction to her book Alice Doesn’t?… “Let’s say that this book is about woman in the same manner as science fiction is about the future….From the present state of scientific theory and research, the science fiction writer extrapolates and projects the possibilities that, were they to be realized and concretized into a social technology, would effect an alternate world; that future, then, being at once the vanishing point of the fictional construct and its specific, textual condition of existence, i.e., the world in which the fictional characters and events exist. Similarly here woman, the other-from-man (nature and Mother, site of sexuality and masculine desire, sign and object of man’s social exchange) is the term that designates at once vanishing point of our culture’s fictions of itself and the condition of the discourses in which the fictions are represented. For there would be no myth without a princess to be wedded or a sorceress to be vanquished, no cinema without the attraction of the image to be looked at, no desire without an object, no kinship without incest, no science without nature, no society without sexual difference.”
The road goes ever on.
There is a lot to admire in this book and some questions, but first the good-stuff. The quality of the printed matter is exemplary, I can compare quite a few of the prints against the National Gallery exhibition catalogue “Living in Hell and other stories” for which I have a copy – the NG edition is much ‘contrastier’ than this Hatje Cantz release and the former’s limitations are revealed by the softer renditions of the latter.
Hunter provides an introduction to the book that ends with a paean to Vermeer, the inspiration that has led this photographer from relative obscurity to a ‘name’. Hunter describes how, like the seventeenth century Dutch master, he too strives to use his practice to elevate people, any people, through art; as Vermeer engaged with ‘ordinary’ people and placed them in the bastions of high art, so Hunter seems to want to habituate his ‘ordinary’ subjects in similarly ‘high places’; democratizing through the shutter instead of the brush.
Vermeer, we are reminded in Hunter’s text, didn’t leave very much for art historians to work with other than the paintings, he left very few notes or thoughts by which we, today, could discern the motives of composition. Hunter isn’t afraid to relay his thoughts and provides it comprehensively in what is the most lucid writing in the book; there are two additional pieces, one by Michael Rosen and another by Geoff Dyer, Hunter’s thoughts provide an interesting accompaniment to the imagery, which at times seem to bounce around a trifle as it seeks to portray an autobiographical journey from school flop to a renowned and award winning photographic artist.
The prints are, as I have said, very impressive, but I have a few questions that I am struggling with. Hunter appears to quite like the pin-hole camera, a good deal of the images depicted in this compendium are created via this particular technology – Ridley Road Market, Prayer Places, Dublin Bay, a chapter with no name after Punch and Judy, Holly Street Voids (second chapter?), Travellers (second chapter?), Public Conveniences and then some more at the end of Unheralded Stories. Perhaps half the images in the whole collection are in this form, as we learn from the text, a hand built pin-hole camera. I’m not sure what this image portrayal mechanism serves. Pin-hole exposures takes a long time, seconds, often minutes and, as a consequence, there is movement in the frame. It also distorts the view the edge and the image corruption is quite marked in some images but less so in others. The camera was a gift from one of his tutors – Paul Smith – and one which “..gave me the inspiration and fortitude to return to Hackney and continue with my life’s work”. P9. I quite like the visual impact of pin-hole, and for that matter zone-plate cameras, but I am unsure about the volume of this work in this tome. I fully appreciate that this may well be down to my lack of visual vernacular, but “Seapoint” in the Irish Sea and “The Hackney Town Hall Chambers” do not sit comfortably together to my mind – connected as they are by similar visual corruption as it tends to attempt to connect them contextually – again in my mind – where they do not appear to have anything else to bind them. The Dublin Bay series were the weakest set for me, but I fully appreciate that they may be included as they might have been a “Damascus” moment for Hunter, if the pin-hole story is to be believed, as an episode of this auto biographical journey.
I’ll need to re-read Rosen’s piece as couldn’t fathom it’s inclusion nor it’s purpose and the normally lucid Dyer is quite dense in his piece “Endlands” where, I think, he tries to provide an overlay of contextual narrative to the images chosen, I presume, by Hunter. Dyer’s piece doesn’t appear to be a eulogy, nor a means by which this reader could find coherence from the prose he provides and I wonder what purpose is served by it’s inclusion. Hunter alone provides this clarity of purpose, his prose is clear and sharp about what it is he is trying to convey and depict. I have written about his work in my previous course here and the politicization of the pieces in, for example, “Persons Unknown” can be traced back to the early work of “Brick Lane” – indeed the first image in the book and this is something that I can see ‘clearly’, and works very well for this viewer. “Life and Death in Hackney” is another trouble for me. In “The Bus Girl” are those rolling hills and distant mountains really in the People’s Republic of Hackney? Are those bathers in “After the Dragon” also paying congestion charges on those large vans? I don’t think so either. I need to wonder more deeply perhaps.
I enjoy Hunter’s work in the main, and this auto biographical work is hopefully, an early statement of intent for further work to continue and there is much to enjoy about this book which will keep me viewing for a while to come.