Londoners come from anywhere and everywhere. Once you move here, you become a Londoner whether you came here from Surrey or Sudan. With the world coming to London for the Olympic games, The Photographers’ Gallery decided to commission a series of portraits of Londoners for a public art exhibition called The World in London. The aim was to find and photograph a Londoner from each of the 204 countries sending a team to the Olympics. They almost managed it; there are two or three places from which no Londoners have yet been found: American Samoa is one, Nauru another (there may be more that I’ve forgotten about), but the exhibition lives up to its title.
A more recent approach to photographing strangers without permission – albeit a rather less surreptitious one – is that taken by Philip-Lorca diCorcia for his series Heads. This series was made in Times Square, one of the busiest places in New York City and a place where bright lights and tourist cameras go with the territory. DiCorcia rigged up lights, using portable flash synced to his camera which was focused on the area he was lighting, and stood twenty feet or so away with a telephoto lens on his camera. When someone he wanted to photograph came into his zone of light and focus he pressed the shutter and recorded the head of his subject. Simple.
Julia Margaret Cameron, The Angel at the Sepulchre, 1866
Given Madame Yevonde’s use of photography to retell classical myths in the mid 1930s, the relationship between storytelling and photography clearly goes way back. But though Madame Yevonde’s use of colour was unusual and though her images were genuinely different, even eighty years ago the ides of using photography to represent old narratives wasn’t a new one. In fact it’s essentially as old as photography itself.
Something about the colour and the relationship between portrait and object in Urs Fischer’s Problem Paintings reminded me about Madame Yevonde’s Goddesses, a series of portraits of society women posing as figures from classical mythology made in the 1930s using the short-lived Vivex colour system. I’ll be honest, I have no clear idea what the Vivex system was but quick google suggests it involved separate plate negatives for cyan, yellow and magenta – which means it can’t have been easy to work with, especially given exposure times of a few seconds – and that Madame Yevonde used some sort of automated camera back to expose the three plates in succession. All the faff was clearly worth it though as the results are stunning.
After two consecutive posts about a body of work that – while not, in fact, devoid of laughs – is best described as thought-provoking and challenging and which raises questions about the worst aspects of twentieth century history, it seemed like time for a bit of light relief. It was thinking about seeing Yael Bartana’s work at the Venice Biennale that brought Urs Fischer to mind and though the Problem Paintings weren’t what I was initially planning to write about, they make me smile in just the right way so the work by Fischer I saw in Venice will just have to wait.
People take pictures for all sorts of reasons. The family album is the way we build shared memories as a family group. Our appearance is recorded for documents such as passports, driving licenses and the like. Artists make portraits for a host of reasons but often the aim is in some way to understand people and how we relate to one another or to the world around us. Self-portraits can provide an opportunity to pretend, to become someone else, perhaps to suggest a narrative in the way that someone like Cindy Sherman does.
For Gillian Wearing, self-portraits are usually made from behind a mask. While many of us put on what is effectively a mask-like expression for the camera, Wearing goes for a more literal and painstaking approach.
Cindy Sherman started making her Untitled Film Stills thirty-five years ago. I suppose it’s part of the nature of that project that though the images are now very familiar and though others have moved into Sherman’s territory in the meanwhile, her images don’t seem dated. In mimicking different film genres, Sherman created a body of work that has a certain level of timelessness built in. Nonetheless, thirty-five years is a long time and the Cindy Sherman who appears in the pictures in the on-going Untitled series over the past decade or so is very different from the young woman who appeared in the Untitled Film Stills. Sherman is now middle aged and the work she’s made in recent years reflects this; she is a woman of a certain age.