The Photographers’ Gallery in London, at 16 Ramillies Street, just a side alley off Oxford Street, is a destination vacation for photo fans and historians. Three active floors of exhibits in bright clean spaces, a bookstore with lots of film (and I do mean photographic film), and a pretty decent cafe on the main floor, plus free admission before noon and a right low (£3) price after noon all make a nice stop for — well, I will say it — photo buffs. There are two temporary exhibits this August, one of Shirley Baker (more on this one in another entry) and one called We Want More: Image-Making and Music in the 21st Century. Since photography and pop music are my games, I was eager to look.
One of the things I like about these two exhibits is that each features a video interview with its curator. Brilliant! In addition, you can access that interview on the exhibit’s web site (Diane Smyth on We Want More — though I don’t know if this will be a persistent link). As she explains, there are two parts to the exhibit, each featured on its own floor. I started with the Fans part, and at the end I actually liked this part better, or at least thought it was more successful, than the Musicians part. There is a mild double entendre in the title of this part; these photos are by photographers who are fans of the music, and their subjects are also fans. I expected, or feared, blurry iPhone photos from twenty-three rows back, but these are interesting, arresting images. One scary sequence features Michael Jackson impersonators, shot formally with studio lighting by Lorena Turner. Several of these “Michael Jacksons” choose, with putty or other sculpting materials, to portray themselves as the musician in his later and most distorted phases. Why not? If you love the guy….but this has a visceral impact. Turner considers herself both a photographer and a sociologist, and she paid a kind of observer’s tribute to the many who actively mourned and honored Jackson and his huge cultural impact when he died a few years ago.
I think among the Fan photos I was fondest of Ewen Spencer’s respectful portraits of beautifully dressed clubbers in the UK’s garage scene.
I have to admit that I liked these because they were in some ways the least depressing of the collections, which include Gareth McConnell’s collection of photos of rave attendees in Ibiza (great project, sad shots in their content, not their art).
The Fans section of the exhibit hangs together better; it has a natural focus. Like McConnell’s photos, many of the artworks are pretty depressing. Persons out ready for a good time in our rock and rave culture are not the most thoughtful or compelling subjects in those moments, and in fact often portray our culture at its most facile and superficial (not the persons themselves, but their/our collective activities in those states of rapt anticipation and fandom). But the Musicians segment of the exhibit does not cohere well, though it contains a number of wonderful photos. Ostensibly the theme is musicians when they are not on stage. Daniel Cohen’s photos are arresting, backstage shots of the simple moment between final song of the set and the encore, when sweaty musicians are grabbing a water or beer and have oftened entered that near-comatose place of post-performance high or low they share with athletes. Dan Wilton’s photos of the LA band The Bots are, actually, adorable, picturing these youngsters touring Europe and having a good (or vacuous) time in stores and on the streets. These he made into a zine called STOB EHT. (See more here.)
More weird stuff: shots from Katy Perry’s set for the video BIRTHDAY (2014) by Ryan Enn Hughes; more cool stuff: drummers, by Deirdre O’Callaghan. Gotta LOVE those people.
Several of these shots depart from the theme and show drummers in full action (though in practice mode). Her book project, THAT DRUM THING (in process), is indeed focused on drummers in
living and practice mode, so it does reflect this exhibit’s spirit. I’ve shot a lot of musicians in their full glory, and while I love doing it, I often wonder what is the point? That is, in still photographs musicians’ art is separated from and only hinted at through their images. You can make a slide show and add a sound track, but then you might as well shoot a video. Or not? In fact this dilemma is not separate from the philosophical dilemma of all still photography: why freeze the action? I can tell you one of the reasons I love to do it, and that stems from my core passion for quiet contemplation, heavily mixed with the ego satisfaction of capturing a moment of action. I can hold somebody’s else’s victory in my hand — or on my screen; I can appropriate, to appreciate, somebody else’s joy or determination, their amazing effort, their genius. Well, it’s fun.