Who’s Slick Now?
Duncan Wooldridge (curator) – Focal Point, Beecroft Art Gallery 17th January - 2nd April 2011
Review by Stephen Bull
‘The Anti-Photographers’ is an influential essay by Nancy Foote, first published in a 1976 issue of Artforum Foote surveyed the use of photography by artists from the late 1960s until the mid-1970s. Most of these artists, primarily making work in a conceptual or performative mode, took or commissioned photographs to record their actions and ephemeral constructions in order to disseminate their work to a wider audience – with many of them also exploring the nature of photography itself. Foote argues that all of these artists using photography, or ‘anti-photographers’, went against the preceding Modernist art photographers’ emphasis on technical skill and precious prints. Instead, the new generation used photographs as mass-reproducible documents providing information.
Foote’s essay is the acknowledged inspiration for Anti-Photography, a group exhibition curated by Duncan Wooldridge and spread across the Focal Point Gallery and the Beecroft Art Gallery in Southend. The first thing a visitor to the Focal Point Gallery sees is work by one of the artists that Foote discusses: Jan Dibbets’ Perspective Correction (1968) is placed in ‘The Non-Objectivity of the Document’, one of the three sections to the exhibition. The section focuses on the decisions made by the artists in the process of making their practice that can be seen as going against the idea of the photograph as an objective record. As such, it seems appropriate that the artists themselves and hands – either of the artist or of someone else – appear constantly in this section, suggesting the personal touch rather than mechanical distance. In John Hilliard’s well-known grid of images Camera Recording Its Own Condition (7 Apertures, 10 Speeds, 2 Mirrors) (1971), his hands hold the camera as it is reflected in a mirror, another mirror positioned to reveal the adjustments made to aperture and shutter speed in each photograph as they go from white in the top left to black in the bottom right, the ‘correct’ exposure being somewhere in the middle. Seeing this work in its full-scale forty years after it was made reveals the effects of light and time on the prints themselves has caused them to begin to turn yellow and peel from their mounts – another indicator, perhaps, that these anti-photographers were not overly concerned with the archival value of their work.
The other section at Focal Point, ‘The Arbitrariness of Subject Matter’, is themed around photography’s ‘failure, dysfunctionality, serial repetition and the limits of representation’. For example, in Hans-Peter Feldman’s (2004) the various dashboards we see provide no evidence of what we need to hear. Epic fail. The inclusion of Feldman’s later series, along with recent work by practitioners such as Anne Collier, Ceal Floyer and Sherrie Levine serves to suggest that Wooldridge sees ‘anti-photography’ as a practice that continues.
It’s not clear what section the works in a third room at Focal Point belong to. In it, Mario Garcia Torres’ Some Hold, Some Push and Some Don’t Even Know How to Take a Picture (2004) revisits the subject of Martin Parr’s photograph, made ten years earlier, where tourists pretend to hold up or push over the leaning tower of Pisa. But this time Torres presents the actual tourist snapshots themselves, an indicator of another movement in artists using photography that has happened since Foote wrote her essay: the increasing employment of found photographs.
No one represents the technique of found photography better than Joachim Schmid, whose notice for the First General Collection of Used Photographs Photographs (1990) hangs in an empty room in the section of the show ‘The Use of Images’ at the Beecroft Art Gallery. The bare walls of the room belie the millions of photographs Schmid’s fake recycling project brought him in the post. These days, Schmid mostly trawls the web to find his photographs – a technique used by David Raymond Conroy for two series of images found on eBay and shown on digital photo frames in this section. In one series, the sellers of mirrors are reflected in the photographs of their wares, in the other each seller’s hand is visible, opening the bag or purse they are promoting. Both series point to parallels with the revealing of the artist and their handiwork in the ‘Non-Objectivity’ section of the show; only this time, those using photographs as documents are not artists but the entrepreneurial public.
Also in this section are two dramatically enlarged images from Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s recent series People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground (2011) [see Source 65], where they worked with Belfast Exposed’s archive of photographs from Northern Ireland. In one, a woman’s face is almost obliterated by a thick squiggle of black ink that was applied to the print in the archive. In the other, where a pool of white milk covers the road in the midst of a mass altercation, a red spot has been stamped on the surface of the image, emphasizing both the initial archival context of the images and their material qualities.
But the practice of Broomberg and Chanarin, Conroy, Schmid and a number of the other contemporary artists in this show also suggests something else. Towards the end of her 1976 essay, Foote identifies some artists using photography who were beginning to concentrate on ‘professional quality’ and presenting photographs in "larger, much slicker form", coming full circle back to a Modernist approach. Many of the contemporary artists in ‘Anti-Photography’ use photographs made either by amateur or non-art photographers, whose aim, like those ‘anti-photographers’ of the 1960s and 1970s, was to take photographs only to record and document. Now, it is contemporary artists who are appropriating these utilitarian images and re-presenting them professionally, large and slick.