The Cloud Cleaner 1999
Mending the Earth 1999
In a world saturated almost to extinction by images, Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison’s photographs offer a unique, poetic and haunting vision. The couple want to portray our shattered environmental world but not in any simple documentary way. Their photographs tell stories of human struggle, loss and exploration within landscapes seriously damaged by technology and exploitation. The images “strive to metaphorically and poetically link laborious actions, idiosyncratic rituals and strangely crude machines into tales about our modern experience.” (Robert ParkeHarrison).
Their stark, often monochromatic photographs – such as The Architect’s Brother (1993-2005) series – are not simply taken but are fabricated in a time-consuming manner; the artists use performance and sculpture (man-made contraptions) to create the images as well as various darkroom and printing techniques. Robert plays ‘the Everyman’ in each photograph, engaged in strange, ritualistic tasks or in symbolic attempts to save our polluted planet. In Mending the Earth (1999) the man kneels on a desolate earth with a huge needle, trying to sew fissures in the earth back together. In The Cloud Cleaner (1999) he has a ladder and bucket and stares up at a filthy cloud.
Book of Life 2000
Burn Season 2003
These are complex photographs with an antiquated look and with mythic resonance. “I want to make images that have open, narrative qualities, enough to suggest ideas about human limits. I want there to be a combination of the past juxtaposed with the modern. I use nature to symbolize the search, saving a tree, watering the earth. In this fabricated world, strange clouds of smog float by; there are holes in the sky. These mythic images mirror our world, where nature is domesticated, controlled, and destroyed. Through my work I explore technology and a poetry of existence. These can be very heavy, overly didactic issues to convey in art, so I choose to portray them through a more theatrically absurd approach.” (Robert ParkeHarrison).
More photographs can be seen at the artists’ website at http://www.parkeharrison.com/
A short video of the couple talking about their work http://vimeo.com/12897298
Bill Brandt (1904-1983), a founding father of modernist photography and one of the ‘greats’ of British photography, believed in “the power of seeing the world as fresh and strange” and thought photographs could help people “see the world anew…as something interesting and exciting.” His images are atmospheric – a penchant was for sombre, brooding scenes, with strong tonal contrasts and dramatic formal compositions. His vision and reputation were cemented in the 1930s in London but drew on his time in Man Ray’s studio in Paris, which gave his work a psychological complexity, even latent surrealism. While his style is distinctive, he was known for the diversity of his subjects, from social class, to London in wartime, to Northern industrial towns during the depression, to portraits of British literary and artistic figures, to landscapes, to strange, sensual nudes on the Sussex coast.
Bombed Regency Staircase (1942)
Battersea Bridge (1930s)
Bombed Regency Staircase (1942) was part of his series photographing London during the Second World War. Although the subject is obviously bleak, Brandt brings to the staircase a startling vision and latent beauty, with its arresting contrasts of shadow and light and sweeping lines of the cast-iron banisters, which seem to twist back on themselves improbably. In Battersea Bridge (1930s), taken from a low angle, the curves of the River Thames and its shoreline have a sensual, organic quality, while the sharp distinctions in tone and bold horizontal line of the bridge with the bus add visual drama. Francis Bacon (on Primrose Hill, 1963) combines portrait and landscape, the receding diagonal of the wet path contrasting dynamically with the oddly tilted lamppost and with Bacon himself, who has a dour, introspective expression yet stands solidly against the stormy weather. There is a surreal sensibility here, the work seeming both familiar and strange, and a narrative quality – the image could be a still from a film about Bacon or one captured at a significant point in a story. These three photographs all attest to Brandt’s sophistication as an artist. “[The] viewer will sense himself in the presence of a rare concentration of thought and feeling,” observed Clive James in 1981.
Francis Bacon (1963)
“And the cobweb is the secret score/ To the music we are searching for.” Hugo Williams.
Misty mornings in parks, the shape of statues echoing that of nearby trees; long cobbled streets that invite the eye to wander down them; mannequins in shop windows that appear oddly animate. These are some of the 10,000 images that Eugène Atget (1857-1927) took of Paris in the first quarter of the 20th century, which are both visual documents of the city and carriers of a poetic sense of place. Atget’s photography was a quiet, personal obsession – this was long before the advent of the ‘photo-essay’ in contemporary art, in which a subject or world is photographed multiply and explored in depth. Atget didn’t even consider his work as art although his work was lauded by the Parisian avant-garde, by Man Ray who saw in his work a latent surrealist sensibility, an unexpected evocation of the unconscious life of the city; by Andre Breton who published him in Le Revolution Surrealiste and in his own books.
Atget used old photographic equipment with very long exposures so his photographs are often devoid of people. This allows the form of the city to be clearly seen, its architecture and arched bridges, its sweep of streets and stairwells. Yet the empty city still bears a palpable, if mysterious, presence of real lives lived and so invites narratives, stirs the viewer to imagine. Atget’s images also appeal through their nostalgia. They were memory traces of a vanishing world – he worked in the old parts of Paris being bulldozed to make way for wide modern boulevards. John Szarkowski, former director of photography at MOMA in New York, believed that the way Atget blended documentation and a distinct personal vision made him the first real modernist photographer: “The pictures that he made…are seductively and deceptively simple, wholly poised, reticent, dense with experience, mysterious, and true” (from Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs).
The advent of the avant-garde in the early 20th century had a liberating effect on many photographers. Surrealism in particular was a godsend for those frustrated by the verisimilitude of photographs, by their adherence to realism. Man Ray (1890-1976) was the driving force behind revolutionising photography in this way, turning it into a poetic means to investigate the world and the depths of the human psyche. New techniques like solarization and negative prints produced dream-like transformations that could provoke (at least at that time) a kind of psychic shock. In an interview in 1964, Man Ray observed, “The [solarization] technique allowed me to…get away from banality…to produce a photograph that would not look like a photograph.” His ambition was to photograph dreams and ideas rather than things. Using the new techniques, parts of the body – hands, faces – metamorphosize into dream-like aureoles that are alluring and strange. The lines which trace the shape of the body parts are sensual – almost erotic contours that fingers might map.
Man Ray – Study of Hands (negative solarization) 1930
Man Ray – L’oeuf et le coquillage 1931
Italian-born Tina Modotti (1896-1942), a committed Communist and ground-breaking photographer, took images of working people in Mexico in the 1920s and 30s in a refreshingly non-documentary and aesthetic manner. Hands were a particular preoccupation of hers. Hands of a Puppeteer (1929), whose subject comes from a popular form of Mexican entertainment, is an intriguing, artful composition that blends formal elements and political concerns. Modotti’s skill as an artist is revealed in, say, the dramatic contrasts of shadow and light, the criss-crossing diagonals of the arms/hands and wooden puppetry bars, and the textural detail of the strings draped across hands or the man’s arm-hair and veins. But as a politically engaged artist, Modotti would have been aware of how the idea of puppetry could be a social and political metaphor – the hands symbolising those in power, pulling the strings of the powerless. At the time there was growing disillusionment in Mexico concerning reform or emancipation for ethnic groups and the working-classes. Hands of a Puppeteer (1929) hints at this political message in a non-didactic way while offering an original, striking image.
Turning the photographic eye on particular parts of the human body was a distinctively 20th-century phenomenon – perhaps a latent metaphor for the fragmentation of the modern condition itself. The hands and the eyes, which lie at the root of the photographer’s craft, have been particularly privileged within the modern ‘focus on the fragment’.
An example is Imogen Cunningham’s (1883-1976) ‘Hands Reading Braille’. The pale hands, which emerge from a diffuse blackness – evocative of the man’s blindness – sit over white braille paper. The striking composition, and contrasting shade and light, suggest it is through the man’s hands, through touch, that he is able to reach out and ‘see’ in the darkness. The details of the bodily ‘fragment’ – the skin creases, protuding veins and tidy nails – accentuate the man’s profound humanity. Altogether this feels a quiet but potent image.