Tim Page was at the Ormeau Baths Gallery, Belfast, 1995. Mid Term Report was published by Thames & Hudson.
Review by Nicholas Allen
In an era which adopts everything North American into its own set of cultural icons, the photographer Tim Page has chronicled the depths to which Uncle Sam's little intrigues plunge. The complexity of his work arises from his position as wilful participant as well as disengaged artist. There is a sense of energy in the earlier photographs as the photographer gives himself to a world of sudden death, lingering addictions and slow, slow pain. The book Mid-Term Report itself contains several pictures not on show in the Ormeau Baths Gallery. The opening photograph of a street in Bangkok gives away what one suspects after viewing the exhibition. Page's reflection can be seen in the wing-mirror of a Harley whose tank has 'Rebel' painted on it. There is a sense of a Romantic emigre's self-portraiture about the scene, a sense that the connections in the images rely on reference to Western culture even as they sympathise with the East; a certain voyeurism which at times sneaks a suspicion of doubt into an otherwise striking image.
As the above might suggest, Page's fixation with the "Vietnam experience" encompasses the indigent population as well as the more newly arrived. There is an opium addict resting by his burner. Two women, arrested for apparently no reason, are pictured screaming in a helicopter. At which point a doubt arises. Without the accompanying text the image could quite easily be showing two people afraid of flying. The fact that they are of an Asian ethnic origin and placed in a collection of photographs by a celebrated Vietnam photographer allows the viewer to make the connection. A look of discomfort; Asian; Tim Page. You can picture the equation as all the requisite parts of our cultural references meld together to arrive at the point of civilised outrage. To me this signifies a distance in the work. The traditional Western association of the 'East' with the exotic provides the final key. A picture of a sampan in a blue lagoon is all very well. But after all it is only a picture of a boat from which people trade. It's like photographing a Citybus and selling it to the Incas as an example of technological beauty.
It is relevant that Page's view of the world, in which we are all represented as creatures of a hyper-tech century, often places vitality and exhilaration in purely physical objects. A photograph of a UN helicopter carries a Prince away from his supporters to leave them beaten by the rotors downforce. They grip onto hats and scarves as the temporary whirlwind pushes them around. As a metaphor for the manipulation necessary to the promotion of power this image bubbles with undercurrents of irony. In the besieged US base of Khe Sanh in Vietnam, a soldier prowls the background half-swathed in polythene. It flows from him like a breeze while his companions smile at the camera. Page believes that those who are blessed with what he calls "that extra millimetre" have a duty to record what is around them as a means to understanding it. In moments like this such achievement is there, the frailties of the muscles which make a smile exposed.
As I walked around the Ormeau Baths Gallery the faces of the Southern hemisphere look back. There is a young girl, windswept and backgrounded by fragile tents. The Western ideal of the eternal nomad is subtly questioned by the gleam of chrome shining through the dust-clouds. Page reflects in his commentary on the fact that a previous photographer's shot of a Jewish refugee in 1948 is almost identical. When interviewed, he simply remarked, "Only two things are guaranteed, change and death". The change of face is apparent but its signification of identity is arbitrary.
Such identification is attempted in the exhibition's final photograph. In this a man wearing a hard-hat traces out a name on the Vietnam memorial. His hat reads 'Never Again'. It is a powerful image, redolent of the pointlessness which was the war. It reminds the viewer that the slogan is like some of the 'war' photography on show. Pictures of death and famine are common to the point of over-saturation, as the recent UPI exhibition in Galway bore witness. It is up to the photographer to make the image they are creating somehow new, somehow individually shocking in a way which reminds us that we are witnessing a new disaster each time. To do otherwise is to abdicate a responsibility which is, in such situations, the very strength of the lens. Page grasps this in photographs such as that where he captures firemen digging out a buried girl after an explosion. They crowd scrabbling around her. The photographer's shadow with arms extended at full length can be seen reflected in the silver of their helmets. Finally, a distance which recognises itself while creating its own disturbed image of something irrevocably other.
Special thanks are due to the Ormeau Baths Gallery and Tim Page. Thanks also to Waterstones, who kindly provided a copy of Tim Page's Mid-Term Report published by Thames and Hudson for review. Further copies can be obtained from them. The review copy can be consulted at the Photo Works North office.