Mingling with the Gods
The Lightning Strike and Other Stories was at the Fermanagh County Museum, 28th April - 17th June 2000
Review by Rhonda Tidy
What sublime force could possibly unite Bertrand Russell and an arse struck by lightning? Lightning Strike and other stories...100 photographs from the Osman Collection, visited Enniskillen Castle recently. Introducing himself as 'an enthusiast on a limited budget', John Osman has been collecting photographs since the early 1970's. There are apparently a number of contradictory impulses at work in his collecting; buying precious old photographs and news pictures, he seems inclined to be a democrat and a connoisseur at the same time. Whereas his acquisitions include examples from Henry Fox Talbot, Francis Frith, Julia Margaret Cameron, Roger Fenton and Bill Brandt, he invites the viewer to identify with the images of iconic and historic figures, Peter Sellers as Dr. Strangelove, Winston Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, Eamon DeValera, James Dean. He prides himself on having an eye for photographs of and by the unknown; Daguerrotype of an unknown seated man, Grannies' Yuletide, Chess Game, Oirishman on a Donkey, and so on. Making a clear distinction between himself and 'the greatest collectors', the distinction, he insists, is a matter of prestige and wealth rather than one of taste. In his own words, his collecting has enabled him to '... mingle with the gods.'
The arse belonged to an unfortunate sergeant in 1909. It appears on both the promotional poster and the cover of the slick catalogue. Although we learn much of how the picture was acquired as well as the controversial resurrection of the image as a golfing prize, one can't help wondering what purpose the photograph originally served? Osman makes no secret of the fact that history has no real purchase on the work for him but provides interesting trivia for the visual and emotional appeal of the display. The neatly jumbled display was divided over two levels. The lower level was reminiscent of a family album concerning itself mostly with historic moments, places of interest and portraits, some in their original frames. Kitchenbound 1981, by Stacy Weiss, probably due to its size, took its place as a political statement above the landing of the stair well. The more challenging works, the Arbus, Doisineau, Weegee, etc, and the only four colour prints shown, were consigned to the upper level giving it something of the atmosphere of a college dorm.
Osman's talent lies in his ability to combine quirky, historic and popular imagery to build a personalized view of the past. This runs from photography's inception to Sun, Sand and Cement in Temple Bar, 1997, by Sean Hillen, the construction of the present Gallery of Photography which he founded in 1978. Osman uses humour to make the work more accessible while 'some sort of serious stuff had to be included to balance an arse struck by lightning'. However, his treatment of this work makes it seem just as bizarre as the arse. Take Talbot's The Open Door, c.1843, a serious attempt to elevate the status of photography to that of an art form. Osman makes light of Talbot's intentions. Taking the trouble to quote Talbot from The Pencil of Nature he jokes 'Sounds like Proust to me - pass the Madelaines'. This jocularity cannot be applied to the Daguerrotype of an unknown seated man. Battered and worn by love and neglect, it is allocated to a glass cabinet preserving the sense of its authenticity as well as its sentimental value. As the title suggests, each image has its own story. Nevertheless, Osman has created a level playing field where the sentimental value ascribed to the display is undercut by the cost attached.
Osman's homogenizing view denies photography the credit it deserves for its considerable versatility and ability to change role from historic record to scientific curiosity to art object. He seems to be interested in preserving the notion that photography evolved as a craft which works against the popular modernist convention promoting the proliferation of seemingly autonomous images. Osman's interest in the craft aspect also goes some way to explain the collection's deficiency of contemporary photography. Of course, as a collector Osman is entitled to build and perceive his collection any which way he chooses. Given his limited budget he rightly prides himself on having a collection of such breadth. Preferring to talk capital rather than culture he tells us the cost of each work at the time he bought it, inviting the viewer perhaps to experience the thrill of it all. What is of concern here is that while the museum is functioning as a commercial outlet much of the richness of this marvellous collection gets overlooked. Osman's world is fun and I wouldn't deny anyone the experience, but why not stage it in a shopping mall?