Friday, 21 October 2016
I thought this would happen. Or, more accurately, I hoped it might. Tinkering around with monochrome after such a long engagement with colour photography has turned out to be a lot of fun and – like viewing a scene through a strong red or yellow filter, if you can remember doing that – it has brought out certain qualities and connections in my backfiles that I had either overlooked or failed to appreciate before. In fact – and you probably won't be amazed to read this – a substantial, coherent, book-sized collection of images is emerging, this time around the theme of visiting museums. What, another one? For now, let's call it "museology".
This is hardly an original topic, I know. A very important body of work in my own development as a photographer was Gathering Light, an exhibition by Richard Ross in our own quirky campus art-space, the John Hansard Gallery, which was published by the gallery as a splendid book in 2004. Ross had previously published a book about museum displays, Museology (Aperture, 1989), and developed a compelling way of using the interrupted and refracted light that penetrates into institutional spaces, and finding those ironic juxtapositions that happen where unintended clutter surrounds the intended display. He has subsequently moved on to a very different kind of socially-aware documentary photography, but I remain a fan of this older work. Rosamond Wolff Purcell is the other influence to mention: her published collaborations with Stephen Jay Gould are well worth getting hold of, especially Finders, Keepers (1992), a book about early collectors of natural history. In contrast to Ross, she is unrivalled in the business of constructing a compelling image out of the museum objects themselves. It helps that she has a taste for the bizarre and the grotesque; few people seem to have been drawn, like her, to photograph the transparency and luminosity of preserved, deformed foetuses, for example.
Both of these photographers work with colour; Purcell, particularly, is fastidious in her signature use of light, colour, texture, and composition. Perversely, I have only come to see virtue in my own work in this area by draining out the colour and bumping up the granularity a bit. There is quite a lot of it to consider, too: I have visited and photographed in many museums over the years. I was aware of that already, obviously, but it had never before struck me as a useful thematic connection in and of itself. A lot of the work from my Innsbruck residency, for example, seemed irrelevant to my purposes then, but when transmuted into monochrome and put into the context of other, similar work, it has gained in significance and impact. Similarly with visits to Florence, Lisbon, Amsterdam, Bordeaux, San Sebastian, London, Oxford, Brighton... I may have little to say about the urban realities of those unfamiliar cities, fleetingly visited, but their museums and galleries may be seen as constituting a single, multi-faceted, virtual world, one which happens to be distributed around the globe, but in which I am always on home ground.
Suddenly, I find I have the urge to visit the Natural History Museum in London, something I haven't done for many years. As a "civilian", that is: I used regularly to attend meetings there, behind the scenes, to discuss library automation and related matters in the rather august surroundings of their library and print room. But I don't think I've had a proper look around the collections since taking my son to see the show of animatronic dinosaurs about 15 years ago. I'm prepared for disappointment, though: I'm fully expecting that taxidermy and vitrine displays will have yielded yet more ground to electronica and interactive "interpretation" for school parties.
And it's looking like 2017 may be a year of two calendars...