An Essay about ‘Still’.
by David O’Dwyer
The “capture” holds pride of place in photography’s vernacular and understanding of itself. In essence, the idea is of arresting a moment from time’s passing; to photograph is ostensibly to seize a moment, a scene, which persists unnaturally in a detailed, realistic, visual form following the event. As early photography progressed the shadowy figure operating the camera was unveiled and the discipline became aware that the photographer’s intentions and choices brought a lot to bear on the supposed objectivity of the mechanical camera’s images. This saw photography polarise at the extremes into a straight documentary tradition and an artistic tradition, the latter embracing the subjectivity of the photographer. Aaron Siskind, one such artistic photographer, saw it as a change from photographing ‘what the world looks like to what we feel about the world and what we want to the world to mean.’ Evidently this is a different sort of “capture”, one of the photographer’s feelings and thoughts through photographic means rather than some state of affairs out in the world.
It is in this sphere that we find Patrick Hogan’s Still: a photographic project which inverts the straight documentary style – where there is neither fixity nor identity on either side of the lens – and succeeds in justifying itself as true artistic expression.
The rudiment of photography is fixing a permanent image from reflected light. Subjective photography in a sense dissolves the distinction between the photographer and the world he photographs, collapsing the latter into the former – things in the world taking on a metaphoric meaning, which the artist intends. As an example, Siskind’s photography became wholly abstract to the point where he eventually relied on de-contextualised texture, detail and form to express his ideas. With Still we are presented with a considered, motley arrangement of images, whose form more resembles being within a life than being told about one (non-linear, contradictory, passive), and whose content attempts to connote visceral reactions, perspectives and solicitudes within the author’s life rather than any preconceived idea, agenda or even ego which would give rise to them. “Authorship” only appears to be present in the editorial and arrangement; the substance of Still appears to have been accrued by a faithful companionship with the camera and belief in its ability to capture heightened feeling. And, importantly, the authorship of Still employs the images to depict the very forces that inspired their original creation – a preoccupation with mutability, a desire to make use of the camera’s capturing faculty to snare meaningful moments, a wish to identify with oneself through what one does, but from the most fundamental perspective of why and for what and in what sense do I exist at all. In short, Still addresses primitive themes and forces – identity, doubt, desire, illusion, reality, etc. – that are so personal they transcend it and have relevance to everybody.
These may seem like exalted claims. How, indeed, do photographs lend themselves so? Does the photograph’s inherent fixity and opaqueness not immediately rule out poetic expression of a life in motion? How are framed scenes supposed to convey emotions? Still is an experimental response to this uncertainty within the medium, beginning with a subversion of traditional photographic practice. It rejects the primacy of the individual image, instead presenting a whole intra-relational photographic piece; it varies photo scale and format within this piece, allowing an additional element in the photos’ inter-relational significances; it makes ardent use of aberration, digressing into eschewed deformities including motion blur and digital noise, artefacts of sullied negatives, awry exposures, repeated variations of a photo notably without an archetype, among others. It is the selected scene before the camera in tandem with this ability to distort which produces the metaphorical depth to Hogan’s photographs. Here engagement with the world meets engagement with the medium; the images speak to what this photographic eye feels.
These mute, visual metaphors have a surprising penetrability to the personal themes, aforementioned. As an example consider the repeated presence of the woman in Still. She pervades the entire project and the viewer is made immediately aware of the attention she commands. However, Hogan in return presents her in psychologically suggestive visual variations: she appears obscured by light and semi-transparent screens in a variety of ways, is subjected to an interrogative cropping, is posed in certain locations, and, as in the book, makes up a chaotic, jostling contact sheet of faces. What is the viewer to think? Is the photographer showing that their relationship wavers in intimacy and mutual transparency; or is it, perhaps, a confession that within the habitual environment of the home they have an assured identity of each other, which nonetheless falls away upon abstract contemplation; or could Hogan actively be subjecting her to a metaphoric free imaginative variation, looking for some essential characteristic which persists through varying appearances? We do not know, but, something more fundamental is communicated: she is an ever-present part of his life; he has a complex and active thoughtfulness for her; and it is in spite of inconsiderate mutability that they choose to remain together.
Personally, from the general acceptance of mutability and rejection of illusory fixed identity, I consider the straight, posed photos of this woman to represent an honest conceit with a real-world parallel. All may be intangible and fleeting but the act of rejecting this reality in full knowledge of it, and choosing to create the reality one desires is a wonderful act of living, and is represented plainly through these photographs. Doubtless, Hogan could not make her a part of his life in this way if she were not making him a part of her own. It is on the level of such psychological and poetic investigations and hypotheses that Still operates.
As Art and Pedagogy
It would be a shame to give the impression that all this complexity is beneath the surface and only privy to the wordy person. Nothing could be further from the truth. As well as being as expressive tool, the unconventional techniques and arrangement serve as provocation to a public well accustomed to looking at photos, but from a very different perspective. Advertisements inveigle, facebook profile photos promote, and a hundred other photography-specific platitudes come to mind. If Still were the object of such myopic reflex judgement it would be deemed “technically inept”. If the would-be critic accepted that it was deeply personal that would hardly help establish its value. The devout instagram-er floods us with photos that are no less personal (an archetypal shot being the prepared meal prior to an all too secluded, and no doubt heathen mastication). What, then, makes Still worthy of its place in the gallery? The answer is that Still is neither simplistic nor trivial, neither egoical nor banal; instead it meditates on the effort of living in which we all engage and invites the viewer to empathise with another who, it turns out, has similar concerns and insecurities as his own. In this sense the existence of such a show is pedagogical: unlike so much photography it demands the active participation of the viewer who is otherwise not accustomed to being consulted, and in doing so it makes the viewer more aware of himself and his place among others. The theme, furthermore, acts as a limiting factor on the content. A, no doubt, voluminous collection of personal photographs has been whittled down to address psychology, insight, relativity, identity, and so on, which distinguishes Still from gratuitous exhibitionism and a mere literal, mundane itemization.
The Exhibition / The Book
The editorial of Still, into exhibition and book form, is the activity that fashioned it into a tangible and accessible work of art. And just as Still in substance is about process and change, so too does this apply to its structure across different mediums. The experience of moving around an exhibition space is entirely different to leafing through a book. So too is examining a mounted print to an appeased blank page.
Still,as a mounted exhibition, contains more of its essence. As previously submitted, one feels inside a life as opposed to just hearing about it. The spread across white walls provides the space to take large parts of the show in at once; the procedure of moving from room to room allows Hogan to stagger revelation and separate discrete moods within the whole; the precise arrangement is directly relative to the artist – his height, his sense of the space – and is like a fingerprint; the correlative scale and positioning between images is less restricted outside the dimensions of a page. In Still‘s debut show at the Gallery of Photography Ireland, as an example of discrete moods, the “first” room appears to deliberately yield very little – the white-washed portrait of the woman is flanked by a country road being swallowed by fog and an amorphous image of falling – the close, motion-blurred forest scene. It immediately sets the tone of the show. Another room, towards the “end” of the exhibition seems frantic, as though the exhibition to that point has missed the mark, has bore no fruit. There’s a greater concentration of images than anywhere else, numerous formats in close quarters, some arranged and others trailing off, uncertain of themselves. The room to follow seems like a different chapter, or the first chapter of the next attempt altogether. Some prints too are in a very real sense more than one photo. Take the noisy nightscape: standing close, aqua greens and blues, khakis, black and white make up a textured mesh, where drawing boundaries between the colours is impossible; moving back a little shape displaces texture, and perceptible coloured blotches appear; moving back again, distinctions between these colours is lost but the viewer is remunerated with the positive figure of the (tree) shape against a homogenous colourful negativity. It is obvious how this richness can readily be applied to themes of perspective, truth, relativity, perception and choice.
The book necessarily operates differently. Hogan makes metaphoric use of its linear structure in a variety of ways. Being confined to two pages at once allows for memory and foretelling within the work – ghostly variants on a photo appearing before or after their boldest presentation. Associative links, such as red play-ball to pulpy red fruit to deep orange car-wheel rims beneath deep pink tree blossom (cascading) to blood pouring from the dark pink circular top of a bucket, and so on, lead the mind through an enjoyable aesthetic from the whimsical to the grave, seamlessly. The page format suits particular juxtapositions and commentaries perhaps better than their wall mounted equivalents. For example, a delicious ruptured fruit faces a repulsive, skinned animal carcass. Funny that we should take death and mutilation so personally only when it comes close to concerning ourselves. You are not an insignificant fruit of the human tree.
An obvious facet of the book is its portability. Still is a complicated work demanding attention and sympathy, which does not always suit a public exhibition space. Having a unique formulation of Still – a continuation of Still– to appreciate in quiet is a wonderful accompaniment and extension of exhibition itself.
© David O’Dwyer