Dead man lies: a photograph from the New York Police Department © 1915. Standing proud: August Sander's portrait from 1926
Undressing the truth
In In Visible Light at Edinburgh's lnverleith House, the camera is given the lie detector treatment.
Words: Susanna Beaumont
‘lt‘s not a soundbite show. It is layered. It is about how the camera conspired and how it manipulated.‘ So says Russell Roberts when asked about In Visible Light. the exhibition of photography he has curated. Does Roberts have it in for the innocuous little instrument that takes holiday snaps and photos of granny on her birthday? No. it is just that Roberts. soon to take up a post at Bradford‘s National Museum of Photography. Film and Television believes innocence should never be presumed when it comes to photography.
Take the work of Sir Francis Gallon. cousin of evolution champion Charles Darwin. Gallon was one of a band of ‘scientists' who gleefully took tip the camera in the mid-l9th century. Spanking new technology. it had the ability to freeze frame the real world and was believed to have unquestionable authority.
Roberts is keen to point out the camera also had the ability to manipulate reality. Gallon for one had a very Victorian interest in physical characteristics. A certain facial type could be ‘read‘ as evidence ofclass and intelligence. and even register a subject‘s tendency to commit crime — dodgy thinking. only an exposure away from full-on eugenics. To back up his beliefs. Gallon made composite photographs of ‘types' as proof. producing what he believed was
’The Show is a gesture. an exposition - oi the lively we look
corroborative evidence. it is fanciful to think the adage of ‘the camera never lies‘ began to trip off the tongue around this time.
"There was a growing consumer culture and scientific overlap.‘ says Roberts of the Victorian age. And the exhibition gets more elaborate.
Alongside those now considered pseudo-scientists. In Visible Light also features artists. There are Robert Mapplethorpe. Gillian Wearing. Karen Knorr. Andres Serrano. Andy Warhol and other big names in contemporary photography. So are artists guilty of classification and manipulating?
For Roberts the boundaries are blurred. Anyone by picking up a camera and selecting a view is interrupting and putting a slant on reality. Photography occupies an intriguing. ambiguous terrain. On one hand the photograph has — after being debated and in some quarters damned — reached the status of artwork when produced by an artist. and documentary evidence if taken by a photo-journalist.
There are gory moments in the show: scene-of- lhe-crime shots from the New York Police Department. all bloodied heads and limp limbs. The images are evidence of violence and death but also evidence of the current fashion in crime reportage. Then there are artist Andres Serrano‘s images — close-up shots of the faces of dead bodies in the morgue.
‘The show is a gesture - an exposition — of the way we look at history.‘ says Roberts. In 1870 the Berlin Society for Anthropology commissioned commercial photographer Carl W. Dammann to take photos that recorded anthropological and ethnographic differences between races. a visual classification to back up ideologies of supremacy. Who is to say the same isn't still going on. but has the art of subtlety now been learnt?
In Visible Light is at lnverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. Sat 13 Dec-Sun 15 Feb.
Observations from behind the installation.
WINDS OF CHANGE are whistling in Edinburgh’s National Portrait Gallery. Newly appointed keeper James Holloway is determinedly getting contemporary. The gallery's bookshop has been asked to stock the hi-gloss, cult of personality mag Hello]. Holloway rightly feels that the hairdos, chintzy interiors and pool-side shots of celebs and lesser- celebs are part of today's portrait
AN IMPORTANT DEBATE takes place on Thursday 4 December with a discussion on the issues of building a new Scottish Parliament. Held in conjunction with an exhibition about the history of Edinburgh's Calton Hill at the Matthew Architecture Gallery, it is chaired by the debating doyen, radio presenter Colin Bell. Doubtless the pros and cons of converting Thomas Hamilton's High School into a Scottish Parliament will be raised. The public meeting is at the Museum Of Scotland at 7.30pm.
STOPSTOP IS a new publication of contemporary art and writing. The initiative of Glasgow-based artists Caroline Woodley and Chris Evans, the first issue includes an essay by artist and contributor to The List, John Beagles. It is headed ’I cannot be arsed to spend all my time and money on art, there are more important things'. For those who feel they share similar sentiments, StopStop is available from a gallery near you.
GLASGOW'S TRON THEATRE is to unveil the first phase of its £Sm redevelopment. Three artists — Tracey MacKenna, Andrew Miller and Richard Wright - have worked with architects RMJM on the new box office. Kenny Hunter has made a cherub for the theatre's external wall, inspired by director Peter Greenaway's words about the desire to fly . . . ’as a bird, to fly
as a spirit, to ascend to the heavens
I Plans for Glasgow's CCA, see Agenda, page 24,
New face: the front cover of StopStop by Hayley Tompkins
21 Nov—4 Dec 199/ "IE [BT71