Weddings, Parties, Anything
Book Review by David Lee
Published by: Aperture
Remember slatternly Janet in 'Living Rooms', Waplington's first book? Well she's back. She still parades her 'Kev' and 'Ian' tattoos on her popeye-like arms and smokes nonstop, and if I'm not mistaken she's done us a favour and shed some weight, which means that she's now within spitting distance of seventeen stone. She's also married a black man called Clive, who looks generally seedy and peers out suspiciously from what might be the squashed face of a former boxer. Overflowing ash trays and several night's empties are still strewn around the living room floor and that piece of orange peel, which seems oddly familiar from the previous book, has now taken root under the gas fire. The wallpaper has changed from plain naff to a jazzy chevron (Clive's personal touch I'll warrant). Apart from the wedding, for which Janet ill-advisedly squeezed her tyres into a white satin dress, and following which there was a Bacchanalian session down the club, everything is much as it always was on this Nottingham council estate. Meaning that short of a lottery win its inmates will die here.
But wait a minute. Are these pictures by the same Nick Waplington who told me in 1991 when 'Living Rooms' was published, that he wouldn't return to this particular subject except for his own personal interest? So why is he repeating the formula now? Hmm. You may recall that 'Living Rooms' was a better than average first effort. It was clumsily edited around two puffs of young Nick by no less luminaries than Richard Avedon, who apparently continues to show blind faith in his protege, and John Berger, who compared Waplington to Rubens. Rubens! (For so perceptive a critic Berger is periodically capable of prizewinning stupidity). The pictures were, it is true, seen with originality even flair. Snapped from odd angles, frequently carpet level, and exploiting the distorted close-ups already familiar from the then 'New' Colour Documentary, there was a raw authenticity about Wapplington's tenderness towards his subject which precluded charges of exploitation of the two families he had be visiting for the previous four years. One gave the photographer the benefit of the doubt and waited for what would come next.
Unfortunately, the Young Turk got rather big for his boots and started thinking of himself as an artist. Thus, in his naivete, he went about doing what he thought artists ought to do, namely getting heavily into fashionable 'issues' and the 'self'. His second book, 'Other Edens' published in 1994 contained panoramic photographs taken in worldwide locations from Russia to Easter Island in which the 'artist's' shaved head can be picked out. Sometimes he was hard to find, like the eponymous main character in the 'Where's Wally?' books for infants, which, incidentally, have a mental age significantly above 'Other Edens'. In short, this was among the crassest, most pretentious photography books of this or any other decade. One wondered why Aperture had squandered resources publishing such a dud. Like many 'concepts' dreamed up by contemporary artists, the idea behind this book, such as it was intelligible (it was something about spoiling 'the environment'), was so inconsequentially tiny it could have been conceived by Paul Gascoigne after twelve pints of lager. The fascinating thing about 'Other Edens' was the critical response to it. A number of commentators wrote up this trash as if it was the latest outpouring from a modern-day Velasquez. Someone with clout should have taken Waplington aside early on in the project and politely spelled it out to him ... beginning with a capital C.
With his career as a serious photographer in abeyance and clearly no future in 'art', what next? Answer : swallow several heaped bucketfuls of pride and return to a tried and tested subject. This is why 'Weddings' feels like a career prop instead of a concerned attempt to continue the low life, Hogarthian soap opera began in 'Living Rooms'. Follow-ups rarely better originals and even then only if they drive the subject in new directions. 'Weddings' doesn't. It is haphazard. Camera angles are familiar, scenes commonplace, narrative lines (such as they are) ditto. All these repetitious shortcomings would be more tolerable if this was merely a book of snaps, but it isn't supposed to be. It is a photographic book with a specialist audience and the gallery crowd in mind and by the criteria of that genre it flops. Worse, it is boring. The people are terminally uninteresting- apparently they have little resembling a life outside their lounge where apparently, they spend most of their waking moments laughing, drinking and tickling one another. They are never anything but predictable in their behaviour and being congenitally empty-headed they have nothing to offer but their low social situation, which I suppose at least makes them a curious subspecies for the books intended readership. The adventures of Janet and Clive are insufficient fodder to warrant further exposure of their dreary existence. And to justify the book in terms of the photographer's sensitive treatment of poverty, as Irvine Welsh does in his introduction, is too pat and obvious. I no longer believe any photographer who contributes to the specialist photographic book market (and therefore, whatever they may say to the contrary, exploits subjects for his own career ends), when he says or implies that the subject and their condition is what he is most concerned about.
This book is a naked exploitation of those in it and a shameless attempt to bolster a flagging career. Predictably, many fixers, backscratchers and sycophants of the British photographic fraternity are acknowledged in ''Weddings' which, therefore, probably ensures its success. A touring exhibition will Inevitably follow and the usual spineless critics will line up to praise it if only because Janet and Clive are poor. But as I have said elsewhere, poverty is not always a virtue and nor should it preclude criticism of its victims.