Source Photographic Review Essay
23 September 2013

Known Unknowns
Chris Clarke. 10/2012
from SOURCE Photographic Review Essay Issue 72

 

There are some things I know about Patrick Hogan; that he is from and later lived for a period in Tipperary; that his images vary across genre and scale; that he often allows the negatives of his images to sit for some time before printing in order to accumulate dust and marks; that these prints are displayed in a non-linear, ‘loose’ arrangement that doesn’t prioritize any set, standard reading; that he keeps re-arranging, even repeating these images.

That still leaves much unexplained, and, in Hogan’s new series entitled ‘Still’, this may be precisely the point. If, as Susan Sontag once pointed out, “the identification of the subject of a photograph always dominates our perception of it – as it does not, necessarily, in a painting […] what a photograph is of is always of primary importance,” then, in these works, the ambiguity and arrangement of images resists this desire for identification. From the perspective of the photographer too, uncertainty appears to play a role. Hogan states: “I found it difficult to justify combining these random and visually incoherent images, but as I looked closer, I could see underlying relationships and patterns. This process of editing and arranging pictures has become an important part of my work.” The protracted re-evaluation of his images is realised in various technical and formal strategies: the delay in developing negatives and the eclectic shifts in size, subject and surface qualities in his works suggest a process of refinement and deliberation, a critical reflection of the initial impulse that led him to take one picture as opposed to another. A grainy, close-up shot of an open hand, palm turned against the lens of the camera, appears to be cradling a beam of light, while, in another image, an amorphous, glistening bubble hovers against a thicket of tree branches, revealing and reflecting – in translucent pink, blue, green – the dappled light that penetrates the forest backdrop. Elsewhere, one sees the doubled-over figure of a butcher at work, leaning across an animal carcass while another hangs stiffly to the side. The scene is out-of-focus and shrouded in shadow. As for any “underlying relationships and patterns” the selection appears up for grabs. One might reach for an emphasis on the ephemeral, the transitory: the ripples of the bubble infer an impending collapse while the apparent solidity of the shaft of light will, in turn, move on and fade. The abattoir as a site of termination, and, read in accordance with these other images, reminding one of photography’s inherent status as a record of the past, a reminder of death. As Barthes puts it: “Life / Death: the paradigm is reduced to a simple click, the one separating the initial pose from the final print.”

In revisiting and returning to the images, Hogan complicates Barthes’ dichotomy to emphasise the tension between the initial moment of taking the photograph and the deliberation over how they affect and impact upon one another. One can easily imagine the moment of the “simple click” in his print of a white automobile, parked alongside a country road. In the odd juxtaposition of a flashy car with a serenely verdant setting and the formal affinities of clear sky and pristine paint job, orange-rimmed tires and crimson flowers, Hogan’s composition immediately evokes the instinctive response of the photographer, serendipitously happening upon this unusual alignment of formal complements and contrasts. Yet the scenario also implies a number of potential, unverifiable narratives: the sinister implications of an abandoned automobile, the intrusion of extravagant consumerism on rural Ireland, even the romantic excursion of a young couple (perhaps the passengers aren’t visible for other reasons?). While Sontag’s ‘subject’ is all-too-clear, the absence of an underlying context propels any reading back into terrain more familiar to painting: the formal issues that are primary to painting but “of secondary importance in photography” are, in this case, prioritized in lieu of any additional information. What is visible here is the compositional, formal sensitivity of the photographer, at loss to explain (as far as we know) the narrative behind this unusual instance any more than the viewer can.

The ‘still’ – a term that captures the essential nature of photography as well as its pervading legacy – is exemplified in two particular images, both portrayals of Hogan’s girlfriend (although I only know this because he told me). In one, she sits impassively, fingers interlocked, eyes fixed on the camera. Her hair is swept to one side, directing the viewer to a table behind her, an assortment of bowls of fruit, a vase, a plant, and the armrest of the adjacent couch. The rigidity of her bearing and the seeming deliberation in the placement of objects recalls earlier examples of photography, of sitters forced to hold their position and the attempt to emulate the conventions of portraiture and still life painting. By contrast, the other image is almost unreadable. She sits unclothed, relaxed, her hand held to the side of her face as if mildly embarrassed or amused. It is an intimate shot, expressed not only in her nakedness but through the spontaneity of the pose, the artlessness of the composition, the blurred surface and miniscule scale of the print. And, paradoxically, it appears more ‘real’, in its abandonment of all the former photograph’s deliberate artifice and construction. Or is it a ploy, an acknowledgment that, set against all these other disparate pictures, the still image can be arranged to suggest precisely those features opposed to stillness: movement, frivolity, lightness? Standing back and separated from that moment, one might simply find an obscure, alienated instant, buried under a patina of incidental marks and unfocused memories, becoming increasingly distant and ever more unreadable. If Hogan knows more, he isn’t saying.

 

Chris Clarke, 2012