Christopher Thomas: New York Sleeps

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The cover of New York Sleeps by Christopher Thomas. 310 x 285 x 23mm. 160pp. Revised and expanded edition 2016. Prestel Verlag. My first impression is of a New York that I don’t recognise. Sure, I recognise the places, but where are the people? As Frank Sinatra sang: “New York, New York. I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps.”

Right from the start this is a disconcerting book. There is a consistency of vision and technique that makes it a single body of work even though the photographs span 8 years. The sequencing of the images is clear and evidential in its logic, and the print and paper quality is gorgeous. Including the Polaroid film edges in every image give them a ring of authenticity and leads us to make the assumption we are seeing the whole, unadulterated image, and yet the lack of people gives them an other-worldly feel. The more pages I turn the more I have a premonition that some terrible instantaneous event has happened to make everyone disappear while leaving the lights on and the fountains running with only the camera remaining as witness. It’s not so much New York Sleeping as New York Depopulated.

The more I read New York Sleeps the more I find a number of tensions running through it: these are black and white images of a colourful subject but is this done for artistic purpose or to give a documentary impression?; there is a studied static feel to the images, which shatters our preconception of New York as a dynamic city; finally the lack of people lends the images a dream-like surreal atmosphere that is heightened by the time exposure blur in many of the photos.

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Times Square. Not a typical image from the book, but one of my favorites. It breaks the rules: the highlights are bleached out, the greys carry little information and the main centre of attention is a trash can. Could it be aliens landing? 

After several readings I began to see it increasingly as a work of fiction (or perhaps ‘dream’ is a more appropriate word, given the title) so I decided to treat the book like a storyboard for a movie. It provides the raw material for the readers’ imaginations to find their own answers, make up their own stories and resolve the tensions. To treat this book as a linear set of sequenced images (as good as they are) would be a waste; there are layers beneath this that are worth exploring and for this I would definitely recommend it.

Thomas Mailaender’s Gone Fishing

Thomas Mailaender is one of my favorite photographers, although he is really better described as an artist. He has the ability to work on quite serious subjects in a humorous irreverent way. A fine example of this is his Gone Fishing project from 2010 that resulted in a book published in 2012. I didn’t review it at the time but a recent visit to Roman Road gallery, London, where the work is on show (until 15 April 2016), prompted me to buy a copy.

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Thomas Mailaender’s book Gone Fishing. soft cover. A4. 39pp. Numbered edition of 500, 1-299 in French, 300-500 in English.

The work is fictional but is rooted in Mailaender’s own impending fatherhood at the time and, as with much good fiction, has the ring of truth, or at least credibility, about it. The work contains a series of letters and photos from Thomas to his long-suffering partner, the pregnant Marion. Thomas has decided that he cannot face the responsibility of being a father and has taken off on an long fishing trip to various parts of the world; a kind of extended stag party for the dad-to-be.

Each letter home is short and accompanied by a postcard-sized image of Thomas and his latest exploit but done with a subtle tongue-in-cheek humour. For example, alongside a picture of Thomas with a dead shark are the words

Sorry, but I needed to think about all this far from you and the baby. Soon I’ll be a father… It keeps turning around in my head and this little escapade is doing me a lot of good (I even caught a shark) and I think that now I feel ready for us to have a little girl together. I’ll be as promised in Paris Thursday evening.

A few letters later and he still hasn’t returned. He says

…I caught this superb 2.5kg sea bream. I can tell you I had to fight like a devil to get it. The poor beast struggled for over three quarters of an hour and the whole time I thought of you.

And in another letter

I found this superb thistle (in the photo). I spent a long time observing its most minute details: its striking vegetal beauty, the intense purple of its flower and the fine down that covers the slender stems almost make you forget the threatening needles at the end of the leaves. Don’t take it badly, but this plant reminds me of you.

Thistle image from Thomas Mailaender's 'Gone Fishing'

Thistle image from Thomas Mailaender’s ‘Gone Fishing’. 2012.

The metaphor is obvious so it’s hardly surprising that he constantly complains he hasn’t had a reply from Marion! I bet she is purple – with rage.

The photographs all have a cheap snapshot aesthetic. Some of them look genuine while others have had Thomas’s face pasted in to what I assume is an image found on the Internet. This is all good – it adds to the humour and fiction of the work. Mailaender has taken the trouble to match the lighting on his face to the lighting of the found photograph so there is some skill behind the apparently artless snapshots.

The letters all have the theme of love for Marion and the intention of returning home very soon but expressed in such a way that the reader quickly gets the idea that there is a gulf between Thomas’s intent and the reality of his trip: he is enjoying himself way too much! This echos the conflict that many feel between the part of us that remains a child and the internal voice of the responsible adult that comes to dominate as we grow up. But the book doesn’t resolve this in Thomas’s case: we are left on a cliff-hanger as he wins a large sum of money which allows him to continue his escapist vacation. We wonder, will he be an absent father forever?

The exhibition and the book have the same content but the exhibition presents each letter alongside its accompanying photograph whereas in the book the letters and photos are printed single-sided, making them less of a pair. The letters are printed on a lighter weight paper and given the appearance of having been folded for the post. The photos are on a paper of similar weight to a high street photo processing machine with a gloss varnish over the image to enhance this impression. Printing the letters and images on separate sheets means that they cannot be viewed as a pair, which is an aspect of the exhibition that I liked. But this is a minor criticism and the book is still an entertaining, humorous and thought-provoking read.

 

Masahisa Fukase: solitude or loneliness?

The show ‘Solitude of Ravens’ at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London (until 23 April 2016), has a bleak mid-winter feel. A profound sadness pervades Fukase’s images which were made over a ten year period following the photographer’s divorce. The images speak not just of solitude or being alone but of a deeper loneliness that may have become – or been caused by – a long-lasting period of depression.

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The photographer Masahisa Fukase peaks at us from between two Raven images

I can imagine the photo series starting as a means of working through a traumatic period but inadvertently becoming a brake on emotional recovery; as if the photographer is mired in a self-perpetuating cycle of depression rather than finding an upward recovery towards a happier springtime.
The motif of the unfairly maligned raven recurs through the series as a bird of ill omen. The birds are frequently depicted in silhouette like shadow puppets subject entirely to the external control of the puppeteer, alluding to the lack of control the photographer may feel over his own life.
Sharpness and definition are rare commodities in these images, which are more about mood than content, about emotion rather than fact. There is a muted tonal pallet: black shapes and grey textures dominate even in the non-Raven images.

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Limited tonal range, blur and grain typify the images in ‘Solitude of Ravens’

The photographs are not sequenced but several are placed close to each other to emphasise their similarity. Fukase originally made the series in 1982 but the images here are a re-working by a friend of his, with some additional ones. Most of the photos are printed beyond the image frame giving a rough-edged look with a hint of 35mm film perforations, reminiscent of a frame from a movie or a keyword chosen from a sentence: a staccato summary of a bleak period in life.

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The show is not ordered like a narrative but there is an association of pictures that seem to speak to each other

Masahisa Fukase died in 2012 after being in a coma for 20 years following an accident. One is left with the distinct impression that his was not a rich and happy life. But the show is a masterful demonstration of how photography can be used to evoke emotional intensity and as such is well worth seeing.

Charles Petillon: Invasions

On show for a brief period at Magda Danysz Gallery, London, was the sculpture and photos of the French photographer Charles Petillon. Petillon is a commercial photographer but the exhibition showed his personal work. Inflated white balloons of various sizes are placed or squeezed into various locations, often with associated lighting. They are fascinating interventions in space that play with scale in a fun way; an approach that has lots of potential for the future.

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Part of the Charles Petillon exhibition. You can just see some white balloons through the doorway on the left

The sculptures can be like clouds or foam or bubbles, or like droplets of liquid before they coalesce. The installations are transient but preserved as photos, which become the artwork. Or another artwork really. Although not a new concept (c.f. the works of Richard Long or Andy Goldsworthy), the photograph becomes the work rather than simply a record of an ephemeral installation.

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Petillon uses the landscape, the built environment and interiors as spaces for his sculptures

Petillon plans to continue with his balloon sculptures internationally over the coming years, so keep your eye out for some fun!

Paul Graham: I turn a set of photos into its own world

Mack Books organises events in collaboration with Waterstones bookshop to promote some of their new photobooks. These are not simple “come and buy the book” events but have the format of conversations between a photographic critic, historian or curator with the photographer. This gives an insight into the photographer’s working practice and some back story to the book.

On 29 August 2015 Paul Graham (b. 1956) was in conversation with David Chandler to coincide with the publication of The Whiteness of the Whale. Paul is British but had been a frequent visitor to the United States before finally moving to New York. He felt it necessary to acclimatize to the US but needed to be an outsider looking in.

He describes his work as an unfolding thought process rather than a story or narrative. His process is to “edit the world into a set of photos then turn this set into its own world”. His work has to progress and change for his own interest to stay alive and grow. He keeps an eye on what’s being done, especially regarding photobooks, but does not copy or appropriate others’ work. His new book The Whiteness of the Whale evolved into a trilogy but was not planned this way – it emerged as the project progressed.

He does not see his books as documentary despite being labeled as such by some. Rather he sees photographic fact and fiction on a continuous scale with his books somewhere between the extremes.

He prefers working with multiple images and is positive about his perception that more people are seeing the book, the whole body of work, as the art form rather than the single picture on the wall. Nevertheless, he says that the book isn’t the artwork, it’s the container of the work but is sympathetic to the work.

The titles of Paul works often have literary connections (in the case of Whiteness of the Whale it’s Moby Dick) but come later in the project. They are not part of the picture-taking process but become part of the work at a late stage.

Linda Lashford’s Songlines

Linda Lashford travels for a living, and photographs as she travels. Hers are not simple documentary records of places though: Linda photographs by theme and the images in this exhibition “Songlines” are grouped into Intimations of Landscape, The Splintered Coast, and Trappings of Light. Her images are on display at the Joe Cornish Gallery, North Yorkshire, UK until 23 September 2015.

As you might guess from the title, Intimations of Landscape are intimate semi-abstract photographs of aspects of landscape such as water, distressed paint or mist using a limited tonal range and colour palatte. Most show close-up details that imply much larger landscapes.

4 images by Linda Lashford

4 images from Linda Lashford’s Intimations of Landscape series.

Most of the 12 images in this series have little in the way of compositional elements to hold them together or guide the eye; the viewer is left to wander through each image and imagine what lies beyond the frame. These aren’t images of something but rather about something. That “something” is really for the viewer to decide based on the emotions and memories the images evoke. The images hover between a physical reality and a spiritual plane. As Minor White would have said: it’s not what is photographed that’s significant but what else is photographed.

3 images from The Splintered Coast series by Linda Lashford

3 images from The Splintered Coast series by Linda Lashford

The Splintered Coast contains 6 studies of the coastlines of Cornwall, South Wales and Brittany. Of all Linda’s images these are the most anchored in reality, the most literal of the themes. Unlike her other series, most of these contain horizons – perhaps it is this horizontal reference plane that implies the reality and makes it difficult to make the mental jump to any metaphoric plane. Instead I found myself comparing the similarities and differences of the coastlines depicted, which made it, at least for me, the least satisfying of the series.

The beautifully titled Trappings of Light series was taken in an abandoned cork factory in Portugal. “Oh no, not another abandoned-factory-stroke-urban-decay project” you may be thinking. Well no, it isn’t another me-too project about decay; Linda’s control of the photographic process and her eye for isolating and composing details out of visual noise show their strength in this series of 8 images. Form and texture interact with controlled abandon; there is light and shade but the highlights have detail and the shadows never block up. The light is without doubt trapped by these images and give pleasure and intrigue to the viewer that, like Intimations of Landscape, is rewarded by lingering with each photograph in a meditative frame of mind.

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Top row: 3 images from Trappings of Light. Bottom row: 3 images from Intimations of Landscape. Photographs by Linda Lashford

Songlines is a varied and satisfying set of images from a talented photographer. My only reservation isn’t about the images but about their display: the presentation and framing of each image is excellent but the hanging splits the series between walls and floors in the gallery, making them less coherent as bodies of work, and appears to associate images by superficial visual similarity rather than developing an underlying theme or narrative. This is understandable as the gallery is quite crowded with images from various photographers and tends towards a hard-working emporium of pictures rather than an art gallery, but it is a commercial enterprise and if that’s what’s needed to keep it running then I’m not going to knock it. Just control your expectations if you go there – and I recommend that you do!

Clare Strand: performance photography

Clare Strand's Getting Better and Worse at the Same TimeGrimaldi Gavin Gallery, London, are currently showing Clare Strand‘s latest photographic works (ends 6 June 2015), which they describe as revealing “Strand’s discordant relationship with the photographic medium, exploring its promise and limitations through unexpected and eccentric means.” Such a description has me rubbing my hands in anticipation and I wasn’t disappointed: I loved the sense of directed play and the irreverence towards “art”, which is something I wasn’t expecting at a gallery situated in an area of London renowned for being rather affluent and well-heeled.

Although there isn’t much time left to see the show, leaving it until the end has the advantage that you will see more output from The Entropy Pendulum. This pendulum has a foot designed to scour the surface of a print in a central stripe. The print is changed each day and the one from the previous day put on display in one of the 35 waiting frames. The original images are not Strand’s but have clearly been chosen for their centred composition, which means the pendulum abrades and corrupts the original meaning, giving it a new meaning. Although I could intepret the images individually I couldn’t make any sense of the sequence, narrative or developing concept, which I think is a trick missed. Though it’s entirely conceivable that it was just me who missed this final point.

Clare Strand's Entropy Pendulum and the display of resulting prints

Clare Strand’s Entropy Pendulum and the display of resulting prints

The Entropy Pendulum in action

The Entropy Pendulum in action. I was attracted to the dust generated by the abrasion of the print’s surface

Rubbings is as close as Strand gets to conventional photography: she photographed the bifurcation points of trees, printed them life-size then pinned them back on the trees for a time thus letting nature create the art, and she photographed the prints on the trees from a little further away. On display were the now-weathered prints from the trees twinned with the record of the work in progress. As an experiment in random decay it’s OK I suppose, but what elevated it for me was its unintended juxtaposition with the concurrent exhibition by Robin Maddock and Benedicte Kurzen at TJ Boulting Gallery, which I saw the same day (see my review here). The latter also examined time/decay of photographic objects, and the two works together were particularly resonant.

The Happenstance Generator went even further into randomness with a selection of small images blown about as if by the wind followed by a short period to allow them to briefly settle before being blown about into another random sequence.

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The Happenstance Generator (and a strikingly red sofa)

The Hapenstance Generator maintenance log

The Hapenstance Generator maintenance log. Not content with playing with photography, Strand is also happy for us to see the artwork warts-an’-all!

As a microcosm of the random images we see everyday blurring past us and occasionally visible to our conscious mind, it makes its point well. I had expected to see a random display of images that the viewer could develop a story from during the quiet dwell time of the apparatus but unfortunately the dwell time was too brief for me to grasp more than a couple of images before they were whisked off again into the vortex of the machine, which is a shame because a small adjustment to the timer could have allowed this extra level of interaction and engagement of the viewer’s imagination. So a great concept falling just short of great implementation, well for me at any rate.

There were a couple of other works on show but I’ve gone on long enough. I call her art Performance Photography in the sense of performance art and in this too she is pushing forward conceptually. Suffice to say that I think Clare has a playful and insightful imagination that resonates with my own ‘world view’, and I look forward to seeing more of her work!