PHOTODRAMAS – Both an exhibition of photographs and a telling of tales

Catalogue Essay for Artspace exhibition with Anne Zahalka and Ken Heyes

SCREEN GEMS

Firstly, the medium — the Cibachrome photograph. A beautiful, hard object, the sheer gloss of which often obliterates the image whilst dazzling the viewer. The viewer’s head must constantly move in an attempt to slip the gaze, almost surreptitiously, under the image’s emanation; whereupon flecks of silver can nearly be fancied embedded in the plasticized emulsion.

Truly a technology of restless desire — an object whose image tantalizes. Not an object of prolonged contemplation, where the viewer’s gaze can be comfortably absorbed into a palpable surface, or can come safely to rest on the tread of a brush-stroke. Rather an object from which the gaze skids — always nearly too quickly, always nearly out of control.

Cibachrome is a technology of loss, of almost but not quite. Like a film frame which is only projected momentarily we cannot focus on the image’s grain, cannot fully grasp its informational plenitude. All we seem to be allowed is the chance to prepare ourselves for the next, equally elusive, frame. These images are at once near and far. at stasis and in movement. They are Screen Gems, auratic and fugitive.

FILM STILLS WITHOUT A FILM

Secondly, the succession — the story. Not a series in the ‘Directorial Mode’ of the 1970s, not a relentless click-click-click leading to that inevitable punchline which invariably testifies to the directorial subjectivity of an artist. Nor a purposively muted ‘catalogue of events’. Rather, a procession of photographed tableaux with a diegetic reference, but not a narrative rationale. Images which are freed from the ruthless logic of temporal causality but which remain articulated within a metonymic succession.

Like film stills without a film they are nodes of dramatic over-determination left high and dry by a receding story line. These images take their cue from those other moments of film that are similarly marooned by cinematic narrative: those romantic moments on the ship’s deck against a back-projected moonlit sea; those dizzying car chases down Broadway where the back-projected pedestrians appear to sway drunkenly as they step from the kerb: those ‘significant’ close-ups on that vital clue; those attenuated ‘establishing shots’ before anything actually happens.

These Cibachromes are images which simultaneously ‘hold’ and ‘pull on’. They have metaphoric depth — they reach out to pull in the viewer’s powers of association — yet they also assume the viewer’s movement from one image to the next. They both burrow back into the gallery wall and point the way along it.

They are filmic without being cinematic. The standard cinematic suturing devices of ‘shot, reverse shot’, ‘point of view’, etc, are kept to a pragmatic minimum. The streamlined efficiency of the mechanics of traditional narrative is abandoned; each image is allowed, instead, the possibility of a ‘permutational unfolding’.

These successions are concatenations yet more still, since syntagmatic progressions are discounted each image is granted a multiplicity of paradigmatic levels on which to operate. These are not moments of connection between a before and an after, but moments of association within a configuration of befores, afters and nows.

TO SHOW AND TO SHOW TO SHOW

Thirdly, the image — the tableau. Not simply a photograph, since each image in enunciated by a scenario. Nor simply a montage, since there is no hope of a purely formal resolution to the image’s internal dynamics. Neither is there any surreal contradiction, nor any ostranenie. These are not dream images, nor images of formulaic play. No feats of imagination are required from the viewer, nor any self-satisfied grunts of privileged recognition — only work, reverie recharged as reading.

Each image is a semantic confine of diegetic elements — a careful assemblage of people, places, props, and other photographs into a plot, though not a plot closure. The awesome, rational, renaissance space of the camera is not attacked, nor embraced — merely assumed for the sake of argument.

These images proclaim their artifice, but have no point to make about it They both show and show to show for the viewer’s benefit, not their own. The viewer is faced with a referential emptiness in which a new reading must be made. The artifice of these images is a function of their considered construction from a lexicon of cultural redolences. The viewer’s reading of these images must be just as considered.

These tableaux are attempts to work with the visual culture without being subject to it, to manipulate cultural signs without simply being quotational or ironic. The viewer is left with the pleasure of working from one image to the next without consuming them. As part of this work reading may slow down, pause, reverse, or even speed up; whilst never losing sight of the ‘diegetic horizon’, nor ever simply following the logic of a story.

INHABIT FISSURES AND TRAVEL FAULTLINES

Finally, ‘Photodramas’ does not attack photography or film. It is not avant-garde, nor revolutionary. Rather it seeks to both loosen and rupture traditional cinematic and photographic modes of reading. The viewer is invited to inhabit the fissures and travel the faultlines of these ruptures, to read the stories without being their subject, to view the photographs without being the camera’s eye. In fact, to be the worst possible audience — interested but obstreperous.

Martyn Jolly

Sources

Roland Barthes. “The Third Meaning”, from Image Music Text Fontana, 1977

Alain Robbe-Gnllett. “Order and Disorder in Film and Fiction”, from Alpha, Trans, Chung, by Peter D’Agostino. NFS Press 1978.

KILLING TIME (What’s on our minds)

1985 Text for Mori Gallery exhibition Killing Time with Jeff Kleem, Jacky Redgate, Maureen Burns, Anne Zahalka, Ken Heyes, Juliee Pryor, Bruce Searle, Martyn Jolly, Mori Gallery January 1985

We no longer feel any joy in camera vision. We no longer delight In the eye. Photographers were once ever alert to the new, the revealing, the penetrating. Not any more. No more vertiginous camera angles, no more witty composltlons, no more frozen moments, no more timeless landscapes,

The photographer’s eye once strained to see as far as possible, penetrate as deeply as possible into the real. ‘The real’ was a complicated plot that only reluctantly revealed its secrets. It was a veil to be lifted, a chaos to be ordered, a depth to be plumbed. Not any more. Now our  photographer’s eyes are numbed. The stroboscopic ‘shocks of recognition’, provoked by ‘decisive moments’ in time, have reached the frequency of a tv’s pulsation. Everything now pereieved through the camera’s lens is an always already seen, known and read. Now we do see forever, for in photography we see everything always.

The photograph was once the function of a vertical thrust – a probing lens, a straining eye. Print clarity, lens resolution and artistic perception were all indices of this depth. Photography once seemed to be simply the collection of these photographs – a set of individual ‘seens’, a forest of camera extrusions. Now Its ubiquity has congealed into a field of contiguities. Each photograph is now merely one of all the photographs in the world – an image with edges but no boundaries. Each photograph shares in the same substance as every other photograph, each dips into the same pool of immediacy and veracity. The Integral history and historical location of each is subsumed into the immanent photographic presence. All the photographs in the world have congealed to form a global, gelatinous skin. Photography is now not so much a window on the world as an oily film which coats it.

Current photographic practice has ceased to be defined by the vertical thrust entailed In the act of taking a photograph. It Is no longer a series of Individualistic probes. Now it isdefined by the horizontal slide of the photograph’s infinite displacement and endless proliferation through reproduction. (A reproduction in which the mechanical and electronic exponentially multiply the photograph’s Inherent reproducibility.) Now we blindly feel our way across the global, mobius surface of photography with the expectation of revealing nothing new.

Yet photography qua photography persists. Its horizontallzation has not destroyed its priveleged relationslilp to the real  ‑ its optical andchemlcal -causality. Its almost carnal palpability. Only the particularity of the object, the eye and the Instant has been lost: individual photographs endlessly circulate beneath photography’s smooth skin; the photographer’s eye stares blankly ahead; the decisive moment expands to dissolve the instant.                                  –

We abandon vision In favour of the surface, penetration in favour of the survey. We Invite the quotatlonal, parodic and ironic to play across the photographic field. Photographs are rephotographed. Empty arcades are searched for the traces of previous photographers. The immaculate ‘reality’ that once-upon-a-time existed before the, cameras of famous photographers Is recreated and rephotographed in a cruel parody of ‘original vision’. Faces loom in a conflagration of masterpiece and blowup. Innocent, ‘sensitive’ emulsion is clinically spread to passively await its fate. The delicious pain of precious memories is nurtured in funereal swadling, or casually collected like holiday souvenirs. The two-dimensional and three-dimensional relentlessly fight it out. Texts and images gossip about each other behind their own backs. The game of portraiture is played out on an elaborate scale to once more gain our attention. Individual photographs supi-iliantly curl in their own transparent nests.

Martyn Jolly