BEST OF SOURCE
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Initially, I spent a lot of time looking through the complete library of Source but the process of actually choosing the majority of pieces to discuss began by evaluating my initial emotional response to them. I resisted any form of intellectual reasoning. I then return to these pieces again after a couple of days. The pause enabled the work to settle and allowed for a process of ‘looking again’, which encouraged further curiosity and eventually led to an articulation of the piece. This is how I approach my own work – my gut reaction is the overriding force that guides my practice, though it is closely supported by a period of reflection. But I was also fascinated with the purely intellectual, almost philosophical, pieces by David Campany, John Taylor, the joint interview with Emma Dexter and Frances Morris, and finally, Lucy Soutter. The extraordinary wealth of knowledge, their deeply engaging discussions drew me into the theorising aspect of photography, and in particular its relationship with fine art. Like so many articles in Source, each piece will surely become an invaluable historic document which future photographers and inquirers of the medium will look back on for decades to come.
Photography has this wonderful ability to create deeper connections over time. I was particularly moved when I revisited Andrè Penteado’s Dad’s Clothes, a series provoking thoughts about the fragility of masculinity and the complex father/son relationship. My relationship with my father ended at 17 when I ran away from his home, since then I have been making work around the themes of masculinity, and continue to deal with loss myself. The series also reflects a profound shift in Western society to recognise male fragility, prompting discussions about loneliness and the worrying epidemic of male suicide. These conversations have created space to open up about the fundamental interdependence between men, brotherhood, masculine rituals and the significance of male social communities, all of which have been in deep decline for decades.
I first came across Gillian Wearing’s work when I was scanning through art books at Goldsmiths College library as a first year undergraduate. On the front cover of one in particular was a portrait of a well-suited man holding a handwritten sign, ‘I’M DESPERATE’. Those words, presumably his inner thoughts, challenged my first impressions of a portrait which ostensibly portrayed a privileged city boy. I became fascinated with Wearing’s use of video and film as she defied conventional documentary and portrait photography; she was the first artist I’d come across who was producing art through the medium of photography.
Karen Knorr’s sumptuous work instantly induces that feeling of falling in love with an image, it exudes emotional beauty. Stunning architectural scenery is interrupted by live or taxidermied animals glamorously placed centre stage bringing a quiet drama to the work. The result is an otherworldly experience celebrating the hybridity of two principle South Asian cultures, Hinduism and Islam, where the use of animals as avatars to articulate a story has been used for millennia. A masterful and timeless series.
Taken from her trilogy Evidence, Diana Matar’s series Disappearance, draws me into its poetry, its violence and the flickering lights that celebrate ominous shadows. A pictorial mourning of Diana’s father-in-law, these disquieting, faintly oppressive, imprisoning images attempts to capture fragments of a man, the Libyan opposition leader and exile, Jaballa Matar, who was kidnapped in Egypt in the early 90’s and taken back to his homeland, imprisoned and ultimately disappeared. Diana’s essay should be read out loud; reciting the loss of a man she never met, she tries to feel his presence through family portraits, searching for his genetic legacy and character traits, while he remains tragically enigmatic. The work is deeply personal, yet political considerations permeate the work.
Lorna Simpson’s early icon photo-text works from the 1980’s exploring themes of race, class and gender stereotypes had a considerable influence on my practice. Her use of captions act like punches to the stomach, a single word or phrase expands, questions, realigns and disrupts our reading of the image, taking your breath away as you physically experience the weighty power of words. Subsequently, in my own work, I have used my sitter’s interviews, employing this powerful dance, or struggle, between text and image, to challenge preconceptions. There is also reference in Simpson’s work to the Elizabethan miniature, round and concentrated, the portrait in this form would have been carried close by the beloved, no doubt inducing a different, though equally powerful emotional reaction.
John Taylor’s suggestion that he experienced PTS syndrome after experiencing distressing photojournalistic images of 9/11 is no surprise, the event will forever retain its moment in history when the western world was de-patterned, reconstructed and indoctrinated with fear. Images on the front pages of the world’s newspapers penetrated our minds with steely grimness as the press attested to the materialization of a Hollywood 90s action movie into reality. Taylor’s essay writes about the curse of photography: the stillness that lengthens the moment of realisation, prolonging the inevitable trauma where some things are known and some are unimagined. Twenty years have gone by and the unimagined consequences continue to be borne out from an event which heralded global upheaval.
In this interview prior to the opening of Tate Modern’s first exhibition dedicated to photography, Cruel and Tender, Emma Dexter and Frances Morris discuss the gallery’s previously complex relationship with photography. The interviews, themselves fascinating historical documents given they are now nearly 20 years old, rigorously weave in and out of the intellectual discourse surrounding photography’s many complex guises. The discussion was important, vital even to me, since from the beginning of my practice I sought to define my work as fine art portraiture.
Zarina Bhimji’s work has always fascinated me, her hauntingly eerie atmospheres, particularly prevalent in her series Love, capture the ambivalence of beauty, tending both to aesthetic appeal and the allure of decay. I am struck by her ability to photograph traces of humanity even while the human body is excluded. Instead, she portrays empty buildings showing history’s layers peeling away, opened windows that will never be closed, neatly collected and dismantled chandeliers (requirements of a bygone opulence) and disorderly stacked newspapers, all forged into forgotten landscapes. Such evocative images produce powerful feelings of lost love, sadness, fear, loneliness, grief and anger which become all the more gut wrenching when you discover that Bhimji work is dealing with the legacy of postcolonial psycho-trauma.
Soutter’s exhilarating article delves into the concept of art photography. She draws on art history, philosophy, economics, politics, an army of theorists, leading photographers and defining cultural constructs, the ideas of modernism and postmodernism whilst at the same time gently acknowledging the deniers. Her discussion of Vuitton’s successful legal battle over French Sunday trading laws and their choice to use Vanessa Beecroft’s photographic work at their opening exhibition is a brilliant summation. Thought provoking and in its approach and definitive in its argument this is a seminal piece of writing.
Soromenho’s photo-scanned images of ‘unconventional’ plants, commonly referred to as ‘weeds’, may be seen as a metaphor for current global political upheavals. Drawing parallels between the thoughts of those who have wandered to seek refuge, with Soromenho’s own as she walks, ‘human struggle, strength, progress, life, death’, the metaphor could not be starker. For the purist gardener, these ‘invasive’ botanical outsiders steal valuable nutrients and sunlight, validating their removal from cultivated, ‘civilized’ grounds. Providing them with a painterly status, Soromenho has challenged us to see the plants as we see those in Dutch paintings. This re-examination of these flowers reveals their botanical worth, their delicate complexity and understated sophistication. This is the artistic and political power of Soromenho’s series, elevating the misunderstood in all their uncontrived beauty.
As a fellow portraitist, I have always been intrigued by Thomas Ruff’s work. Like me, he also came from an art background that encompassed the study not only of photography, but also the history of painting and sculpture. Surface and scale is central to Ruff’s work. His passport style portraits, blown up to grand proportions give the misleading feeling the work deserves attention simply due to its scale alone, yet simultaneously challenge viewers to see beyond the person. Equally, his unpretentious technique coupled with a seemingly uncomplicated aesthetic, belies the complexity of the portraiture which becomes increasingly demanding, perplexing even. These are the conversations I love most, for Ruff is simply saying sitters are worthy enough just to be seen, further explanation is not necessary.