Suzanne Mooney: Gallery of Photography, Dublin 16th May - 15th June 2007
Review by Siún Hanrahan
As Mooney suggests, '...conceptual play with the processes involved in image making from behind the camera, in front of the camera, and the camera itself' is at the heart of her work. Within her recent exhibition at the Gallery of Photography in Dublin, this play begins with the camera itself. Mooney's Decommissioned Camera Series I & II depict hundreds of analogue cameras that have been traded in by their owners in part exchange for new digital cameras. The images thus mark a key moment in photographic history, the dramatic and wholesale shift from analogue to digital photography.
Decommissioned Camera Series I consists in four hundred individually photographed analogue cameras. Occupying the whole of the Gallery's central exhibition space, the photographs are neatly presented in a grid pattern - sitting along narrow ledges, 10 rows deep, and aligned vertically. It is a curious collection - an odd assortment of cameras, in all their similarity and variation, from the relatively cheap and cheerful 'instamatic' to the more serious-minded 35mm SLR - with the arbitrariness of its selection reflected in the apparently random order in which the images are presented.
The scale of this curious collection, the overwhelming number and familiarity of the cameras washed up in the transition from analogue to digital, is indicative of the camera's place in our day-to-day lives. It is the lens through which events, people and places are recognised and remembered, in both public and private life. At a more intimate level, the particularity of each camera - the unique trajectory up to the moment they were photographed - invites a momentary imagining of the cacophony of lives and scenes they witnessed.
On a less whimsical note, the close attention given to each individual camera evokes notions of truth stubbornly enmeshed with photography. Taken at close-range and printed slightly larger than life, the photographs reveal the cameras' dents, scratches and miscellaneous repairs - traces of their previous owners and reminiscent of the indexicality upon which the truth claims of analogue photography rested.
Returning to the collection as a whole, if obsolescence is implied in Decommissioned Camera Series I - not only by the title but by the sheer variety of styles represented and the consequent possibility of falling out of style - it is confirmed in Decommissioned Camera Series II, in which the same cameras are photographed lying in a pile on a concrete floor. This intriguing image prompts an inquisitive impulse - a momentary interest in discovery and salvage - and a sense of how quickly things do indeed become redundant with the ever-hastening pace of technological progress. Like the images of Series I, Decommissioned Camera Series II is a nostalgic image, but the juxtaposition of these two modes of seeing - the shift from significance to irrelevance - converts that nostalgia to melancholy. Moving between the two works, individual cameras discernable on the concrete floor or perched on the surface of the pile can be picked out in the ordered assembly, the markers of their unique trajectory made redundant by abandonment.
The framing of the images in Decommissioned Camera Series I gives a clue to a further layer of 'conceptual play with the processes involved in image making' - an engagement with the photographic gaze and the structures that underpin it. Each of the cameras is photographed at a slight angle so that the lens is not directly pointing at the viewer; instead of being the camera's subject, we are invited to examine the mechanics of its gaze. The 'Other Works' of the exhibition title also look at how photographs are made. In Found Photographers, images of photographers with their cameras are re-photographed from a range of sources, pointing to the role of the photographer in the construction of the image. Not only in terms of determining what is worthy of representation and how it is represented, but also as the awkward reality behind the frequently seamless narrative of the image. In a similar vein, the photographs of Make Love To The Camera, which feature diagrammatic drawings from photographic manuals depicting how to photograph the female nude, invite attention to the artifice of photography - to the illusion of the photograph (the immediacy, truth and presence it affords are misleading), and to something formulaic in the versions of the world it composes. The particular genre of diagrams also suggests a somewhat ironic take upon one of photography's preferred subjects and the multifarious illusions it fosters.
Within this cool analysis of the context of the emergence of the photographic image - exposing the camera, the photographer, the artifice that underpins the exact moment of the photograph - one piece of work is unusual. My First Camera is a simple line drawing of an Agfamatic 2000 pocket camera. In being hand-drawn it is marked out for special attention. Why? Well, maybe Mooney has not abandoned her first camera and so it does not technically belong with the decommissioned cameras. But if this was all, then why not simply photograph it and let the title and separation mark it as different? Perhaps by drawing rather than photographing her first camera, Mooney forestalls association with the histories of the decommissioned cameras to focus attention on another key moment or structure of photographic practice: the moment of initiation, of becoming an insider, one who knows.