‘Out of Focus’ Saatchi Gallery, OCA Study Visit on 14th July 2012 (Part 1)
(1) Preparation for the Exhibition
This was a large exhibition showing a wide range of photographic practice. As preparation it was suggested that we choose a photographer who appealed to us and see what we could find out about the work. The Saatchi Gallery Website has a list of reviews of the Exhibition that are as wide in their likes and dislikes as the photography on show and worth a read for that alone. It was also suggested that once we visited the exhibition we think about whether we had been taken to a ‘bit of a mess of a show’ and whether that made for a useful visit.
I found thirteen photographers who appealed to me at first glance; had queries on four others and made brief notes on two of them – Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou and Chris Levine. I linked them together due to particular similarities and differences, which I noted from the information that Saatchi Gallery provided about them.
I could not find a website as such for him but the Saatchi information informed me that he is a photographer in Benin, Nigeria, son of Joseph Moise Agbodjélou (1912-2000), and is now running what was his father’s studio. His father is noted as an ‘illustrious photographer’ and I wondered what it might be like for Leonce to be following in his father’s footsteps. The images on show are of Egungun masqueraders, spiritual guides for the Yoruba, who first began to appear 1000 years ago at Yoruba funerals to guide the passage of the deceased to the spirit world; amongst other multiple functions. W. Ewings’s text states that a century or more ago the photographer would have been a white man set out , ‘to document the ‘primitive, superstitious practices’ of people still back in ‘the childhood of Mankind’” who would have seen but not understood , whereas Leonce is a black man, citizen of Benin who has seen and has understood. The query for me was whether I would notice the difference between these two types of photographers and whether a spiritual aspect might be more noticeable in the work of Agbodjélou.
Levine was born in Canada and is now working in London. The portrait on show is that of Queen Elizabeth II. Levine had a commission to produce a holographic portrait for the Isle of Jersey’s 800th year of allegiance to the crown. Highly technical equipment was used (see here), with the queen required to sit still for 8 seconds at a time and the portrait on show at the Saatchi was taken when, between the ‘passes’ the queen closed her eyes to rest. Ewings’s text here states that such a picture “would have been inconceivable even 20 years ago … Closed eyes were reserved for great singers and musicians, who were in tune with another world; Kings, Queens and statesmen had to have their eyes open and fixed firmly on the here and now” ’In this sense she was ‘unaware’ whereas the Egungun Masqueraders were ‘aware’ when their portraits were taken.
I looked at Chris Levine’s website. His ethos is, “the pursuit of sensory experience through image and form. All objects and imagery are interacted with through the sensorial input of light energy and physical sensation.” There are suggestions I read elsewhere that his work, and use of light, including LED, has a spiritual effect.
Going back to similarities and differences which interested me:-
- The Egungun masqueraders are ‘aware’ subjects whereas the Queen in this particular instance is ‘unaware’
- The suggestion of a spiritual aspect in both sets of portraits
- A photographer who ‘knows’ and experiences the world of his subjects and one who observes his subject.
- We cannot see the faces of the masqueraders and this is part of their mystique. We rarely see the Queen with a relaxed face. In this sense both sets of subjects are ‘wearing masks’ to the outside world and we know little of their true identities. They also wear ceremonial dress which sets them apart from the rest of the people.
- Both sets of subjects are revered by their followers/subjects.
- We have one photographer who works in the old, traditional style and another who uses highly technological approaches.
The other photographers I noted were Mikhael Subotzky, Hannah Starkey, Mariah Robertson, David Noonan, Katy GrannanMitch Epstein, J.H. Engstrom, Matt Collishaw, Elina Brotherus, Jonny Briggs, and Olaf Breuning. I had queries on Sara Van Der Beek, Ryan Mcginley, Matt Lipps and Noemie Goudal. I’m mentioning all the names so that even if I don’t write about them here their names will stick in my head for the future (I hope!).
(2) Stated Visit Objectives
Gain a personal perspective on the work of a wide range of photographers
Reflect on the experience of seeing photography in a gallery
Network with other OCA students
(3) The Visit
A rainy day saw a large group of us gathering together at the Gallery. As ever it was good to meet with staff, catch up with other students, and say ‘hello’ to newcomers. Again, it was suggested that we walk around the Gallery and concentrate on photographs which resonated with us. I also decided to buy the book of the Exhibition Out of Focus (2012), despite my previous decision that I wouldn’t because I already had too many unread books. My rationale was that looking through it afterwards would help me to make sense of what I was seeing and the essay within by William Ewing had also been recommended as very useful reading . The book also came with a free copy of the Exhibition Guide which was very useful as I walked round.
“Let’s begin then, by zooming out, and letting the entire world of photography swim into focus” (W. A Ewing 2012). Well – it was more like being in a flood! I’ll confess now that I felt increasingly depressed as I walked around the different galleries because, at first sight, none of the photographs really called to me. However, I made a real effort to lift myself above this by going back to look again and also read more around particular photographers afterwards. Here I will only write about some of those images which struck me strongly.
In Gallery 1 – “Caught in the glare of the California sun, the figures stand, shift, turn, look away – resigned to the next throw of the dice while not holding out much hope that it will go their way” (Exhibition Guide). White walls, bright sunlight shining a broad spotlight on sun damage, lipstick runs, vein-corded legs etc. Magnified at size approx 139.7 x 104.1 cm. My first strong, emotional reaction was, “I can see that in the mirror every morning when I first wake up, so why should I want to look at it in a Gallery”. They had a powerful impact but I didn’t want to see!
The information states that all these subjects agreed to be photographed and , “… she has tipped her hand, relinquishing the power of the candid shot of the street photographer for a risky collaborative portrait session”. I haven’t yet managed to find any statement from Grannan which explains why she wanted to make these portraits in that particular way. I can only guess – but then I would be creating my own narrative. Grannan is young and attractive at this moment in time. Does she wish to be reminded of her eventual fate (that of all of us)? Does she wish to find the inner beauty that is there if only you will look? Is she searching for the young spirit which still lies within these subjects who are now the sum total of all their experiences, thoughts and feelings so far?
I have to say that the more I have looked, indeed allowed myself to look, the more compelling I have found these images to be. They are all aware of the gaze of the lens and it’s as if they are allowing themselves to be explored by it in minute detail.
Leonce Raphael Agbodjélou and Chris Levine
I’m putting them together because that’s what I did in my head before I saw them in situ. However, once I looked I couldn’t see any similarities so I had led myself up a wrong path. On-screen the Egungun Masqueraders had looked large. In the gallery the portraits look small (57 x 40 cm) old-fashioned somehow and with a rawness about them. A comment was made to the effect of ‘National Geographic”. Well – yes, I could see that link. Reminds me though of my previous thoughts concerning the person of the photographer. Is an insider view different from an outsider view in informing me more about the nature of a subject? The reviews I’ve read give a lot of information about the Egungun but the portraits themselves remain enigmatic for me.
Co-incidentally, there was a recent post on the Travel Photographer blog linking to Dan Kitwood’s Gallery of a Benin Voodoo festival in the Guardian . Dan Kitwood is a UK photojournalist. Voodoo is the state religion of Benin and yet there’s a belittling of it in the language used – well to me at least. These images are glossy and colourful but they do look like ‘travel photography’. What do I mean by that? Well, photography which invites/attracts me to want to know more about a country and/or culture by using the most attractive images of it. In this particular instance the photographs do look like those typical ones where you’re on a cruise for example and the locals put on a show for you. Surely, these images can’t convey the deep traditions of a country. It’s words that are needed here I think and also with Agbodjélou’s images as I’m still left with questions concerning the real function and meaning of the Egungun Masqueraders in the lives of the people of Benin. What I’m looking for is is social documentary photography/film.
From looking at various websites I had expected to see a series of his photographs of the Queen but I had obviously misunderstood. There is only the ‘unaware’ portrait taken whilst she was resting momentarily. The print is 76.2 x 61 cm and I was disappointed that, firstly, there was just this one image and not the hologram portraits and, secondly, that it seemed small. However, after only a few moments it shone out for me in gallery 9. The silvery tones, silver hair and diadem tiara, white pearls, white fur – with that flash of red lipstick and some colour in her skin, the stillness of the image. Looking at it again now it reminds me of one of those marble statues in a cathedral slowly coming to life because you can see the living person there even though her face is still rather masklike. Is it spiritual? Well it doesn’t lift me into a transpersonal sphere really but it does have a trandescent quality about it. Is it subversive? It is in the sense that Ewing writes about I suppose with eyes closed rather than open. What’s also just flashed into my mind as I write this are a comparison with the Katy Grannan portraits which are earthy, raw and grounded in the here and now.
Well, now I’ve started I just want to keep on writing but I’m going to confine myself to mentioning just two more photographers – Mitch Epstein and Hannah Starkey.
Two works from the American Power large scale to the extent that we could stand, contemplate and discuss in detail. It took me a while to comprehend the scale and the immensity of the BP Carson Refinery as it dwarfs the regimented trees which line the fence. I was imagining that if I were driving along the road, with concentration, then I would probably only see the trees and ordered landscaping. What was incongruous to me was the massive US flag affixed at the top of the scaffolding. Pride in such an edifice which is consuming a natural resource at a great rate. In the guide, Ewing writes, “Behind the bluster of American power, Epstein seems to be saying, is great frailty”. My problem is that I can’t see that frailty there.
The other image is the Chalmette refinery. This time the perspective is of a ‘majestic’ avenue of trees and mown grass leading to a view of something in the distance which, at first sight, looks like a fairy tale castle until one realises that it is another refinery. We had some debate as to whether the perspective is wrong and there should be less vista and more refinery. I don’t agree because I think Epstein is pointing out to us that this is how we are sold the American dream. Actually I had a similar experience in the UK last year when driving over Bradwell Edge in the Peak District.
Bleak landscape, howling wind, dusk falling
and suddenly to my right, as I came over the crest, I saw what looked like the towers of a fairytale castle until I realised, as it came more into view,
that it was a cement works – said to bring much needed employment into the area and a part of Lafarge UK which ‘is committed to sourcing its materials and managing its supply chain in the most responsible and sustainable way possible.
Starkey grew up in Belfast and one of her earlier influences was the work of Don McCullin. She describes her work with street photography as, “I tend to observe, wait for all the elements of the picture to come together and then wait for the right person to come along. It is at this point that I say, ‘Excuse me, would you mind being in my picture?’”. In this sense her photography is less ‘in the moment’ and more constructed. What she doesn’t say is how she knows it’s ‘the right person’. Despite being ‘constructed’ her images do look ‘in the moment’ – young women in various locations and hinting at stories yet untold.
Thoughts so far
I’m aware that I’ve concentrated on images which had a positive resonance for whatever reason. There were others which I either couldn’t understand or which I found unpleasant (such as Pinar Yolacan and her British matrons kitted out in animal flesh – each garment, “made expressly to complement her physiognomy” and to remind us that we are what we eat). I need at some point to have another look at those images where I had a more negative reaction. I’m also aware that the Photographers I’ve discussed above work in a more traditional manner in the sense of straight images as opposed to one which have been collaged, cut about or constructed in more complex ways.
I began by stating that I came away feeling depressed, which I did, but I think a part of that was experiencing that ‘bit of a mess of a show’ which I now translate into, ‘a sample of the myriad ways in which photographers views, create and construct their own realities’. The psychology of perception comes into play here in terms of the sum of the parts proving too overwhelming for me to make sense of – hence the ‘depression’. I dealt with this by allowing the experience to settle for a couple for weeks and reading the book of the Exhibition and other books which have provided me with a way to better understand both my reaction and the photography itself. I have also started to view the videos on the Saatchi Site concerning Photography and the Art World.
In Part 2 I will reflect further on my reading.
Ewing, W.A. 2012 The Focal Point, in Out of Focus : Photography, Saatchi Gallery, London
4th August 2012