Young girl beauty pageants, 2005

Photos, Histories, Absurdities

Photographers are indisputably both narrators and and analysts of history. In the work of these six photographic artists, the notion of historical narrative is approached in widely different ways.

Photos, Histories, Absurdities: Undisputed in these varying methodologies however, is the presence of the photograph as object and as testimony, to a time, a place, an event. At a time when the boundaries of photographic imagery have shifted, both intellectually and technically, and as digital manipulation can alter reality at the touch of a button, when the only photographs we truly trust to be ‘real’ are the trophy snapshots of renegade soldiers emerging from world conflicts, then photographs become true fictions, real theatre.

Real Time?
Photojournalism is seen, in many ways, to be photography’s bedrock, its consummate point of reference. Photojournalists go out into the world, to places where upheaval-famine, war, extreme social dissent – is taking place. They are present in order to witness events, and to make photographs which are marketable to a media dependent on a flow of news. In Paul Lowe’s photographs of Snipers Alley in Sarajevo, made at the height of the Balkan conflict, the photographer’s art is dependent on his ability to convey drama and reality to a wide international public. His position is a Brechtian one, creating epic and strictly ideological theatre. Photojournalism challenged the position of photography as a vehicle of illusion, positioning it as a platform for political debate. When Paul Lowe photographed in Snipers’ Alley, he undoubtedly had a point of view, and, playing on the absurdity of the situation (city workers, students, children making their way to work, college or school under violent sniper fire) he was able to use photojournalism to present a precise view of history. Lowe’s photojournalism, like that of his contemporary Simon Norfolk, is as much a meditation of events as it is a describer of them – concealed beneath the rich patina of photojournalism is an intense personal reflection on a war which redefined our notion of Europe.

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The photojournalist’s position could, in some ways, be said to be an uncomplicated one – the spectacle which we expect when we view ‘news’ pictures is one with clearly defined boundaries. We anticipate a certain amount of action, and of unpalatable scenes, we expect to see death and destruction, grief and chaos. Lowe’s photographs are quintessential representations of conflict within the civil zone (rather than the battlefield) in which all the ironies and ambiguities of conflict on city streets are brought into sharp focus.

Whose documentary?
Also ‘real’ are the photographs of baby beauty queen contestants made by Florida based documentary photographer Colby Katz, whose work is based on a deep understanding of her local community. Colby Katz, like Paul Lowe, is interested in what happens when everyday existence becomes extraordinary, when conjunctions of events produce strange and remarkable conclusions. Colby Katz, uses a documentary methodology which is familiar within contemporary work – colour photographs which explore the bizarre nature of modern domestic society, seeking out oddities and contradictions – a three year old girl made up, strangely sexualised and dressed like a doll posing against the bleak background of a hotel curtain. Katz is interested in the clash between infancy and adult expectations, in the idea of children competing against each other to be beauty queens, and she belongs to an important and interesting group of women photographers (including Sally Mann, Rineke Djikstra and Clare Strand) who have explored the complexity of girlhood. In her series, Spice Girls (1996), photographer Clare Strand also looked at the photographic and dramatic possibilities of dressing up and impersonation, and in doing so, like Colby Katz, Strand explores vulnerability and disguise, youth and aspiration.

Though the history which Colby Katz explores is very different to that which Paul Lowe represents, it is interesting that both photographers have taken a definite position towards the real. They have found the locations and the circumstances in which they are able to use photographic methods to examine their sense of unease and fascination with contemporary society. Their methods are enduring and simple methods that photographers have used since the beginning of the contemporary medium – real people in real places in real time.

Archival?
In his complex and many-layered book AHR (1989), the American artist Warren Neidich has created a remarkable archive of American history, acknowledging the importance of the archive in our consumption of history and challenging its position as a mute record of events. Neidich has shown that the archive can be radically recast and re-formed, that certainties can be shaky and that the documentary ‘real’ is deceptive. Neidich’s reconstructions are artful and enigmatic, using ‘real’ archive photographs and also ones which he has created. He is a master of fabrication, we have to look many times at the photographs he presents to navigate our way through the skilful layers of costume and pose, the multiple ironies, the mistimings, the sly insertions of dates and information, to come to the core of his discussion of photography’s place within historical testimony. Neidich takes two photographic archives – one invented, the other real. He makes a history of a black family living in American in the days of slavery, and attaches fictitious press captions to the photographs he constructs. As John C Welchman wrote in the essay from American History Reinvented: ‘By posing black actors in (impossible) imaginary contexts of white middle- or lower-middle class ‘normality’, Neidich seems to offer precisely the negotiation between stereotypical extremes (the ‘inbetween’) that Todorov marks as absent both in 19th century fiction and ‘theory’, and in the recent commentary upon them. By explicitly staging the production of racial illusionism, Neiditch not only questions the category of ‘race’ itself, but visualises the insufficiency of textual deconstruction to address specific material issues in the historical production of (‘racial’) difference.’

Neidich’s work is an incisive reflection on the meaning and position of documentary photography. By contrasting news agency photographs of Japanese Americans interned in relocation camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbour with constructed ‘documents’ of an invented Black American history, he questions all histories, all photographs.

Re-enactment?
While Warren Neidich has constructed histories, Julian Woollatt records the reconstructions of others, in what is a fairly chilling series of historical re-enactments, played out on the show grounds of semi-rural Britain. There are few occasions (as we see in the recent coverage of Prince Harry’s Nazi fancy dress blunder) when it would be seen as legitimate to wear the uniform of a member of the Hitler Youth or the Waffen SS, or to pose as Teutonic twins in all the Aryan regalia of thirties Germany. The arena of the historical reconstruction is, however, seen to be a legitimate one for this recreational role playing. Julian Woollatt, in his series The Historians, has made a series of portraits of historical re-enactors which succeed in creating the synergy between what we know to be disguise and what we know to have been real.

Woollatt’s portrait of a young boy posed as a member of the Hitler Youth movement contains a certain kind of madness, reflected from the photographer to the subject and vice versa. It is as if they have some compact, in which the potency of photography is thoroughly understood. The eyes roll, the lipstick is apparent and the final effect is both lascivious and dazed. The performance takes place. Woollatt works within the same parameters as Colby Katz, who looks out for oddities among her fellow Florida citizens, for the re-enactment on a makeshift stage of a theatre of vanities and a confusion of scale. Neither Woollatt or Katz look for motives, they have the cool insouciance of those who look, with some delight, at the strangeness of others. While Warren Neidich reconstructs from a knowledge of history (or what might have been), Katz and Woollatt document the reconstructions which make up a perverse kind of leisure – the baby beauty queens, the Aryan twins, the Waffen SS.

In Place?

Daniel and Geo Fuchs have a long history of exploring melancholy archives. Their early nineties’ series on preserved anatomical specimens in medical museums speculated on the dead and the dismembered, on people and animals who died long before photography was invented. In their new series on the offices of the Stasi, they explore the resonance of the ordinary, invested, as it is in this case, with layers of the extraordinary. Were it not for the Stasi’s reputation as a brutal, divisive arm of the totalitarian state, we would think nothing of these bland communist era interiors, except perhaps to register the depth and skill of the Fuchs’ photographic work. We might perhaps wonder why they had chosen to photograph these places with such care, when they are so ordinary. But Daniel and Geo Fuchs are interested in information gleaned from history. They know that we know the significance of the East German Secret Police force, of the power of the archives left behind after the collapse of the iron curtain. They are aware too (as they were when they photographed the medical museums) that we are fascinated by the macabre, by the banality of the police photograph, by the blankness of the prison identity portrait, by the mystery of the found, by all images which can be reinterpreted to suit our cultural obsessions.

British photographer Matthew Andrew also has a precise interest in the archival. In his recent series Tautology he locates the nineteen libraries which contain a copy of Andre Malraux’s Museum Without Walls in which ‘Malraux writes about how all art works will eventually end up in museums.’ Andrew photographed five of these locations, showing the aisles where the book is stored. These are cool places, institutionalised, only occasionally showing any sense of clutter, of the haphazard nature of information and Matthew Andrew has avoided, or challenged, the drama of photography. There is no layering or altering of history here, events taking place in the present or the past have no relevance to this calm taking-stock of the repository. This work, when set against the storytelling of Neidich, Fuchs, Katz, Lowe and Woollatt is perhaps the codicil to narrative.

In all the photography featured here, there is a kind of absurdity, a looking from the sidelines at the remarkable situations which we willfully construct. From the fleeing office workers of Paul Lowe’s Sniper Alley to the strangely domestic and frayed quarters of the Stasi secret police, encompassing Neidich’s press photo reconstructions and Woollatt’s eerie portraits of the English at play in the remembered killing fields of Europe, there is an acknowledgement of photography’s close relationship with theatre, with fantasy and the spectacle of the real.
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Published in Photoworks issue 4, 2005
Comissioned by Photoworks