Photography: Weep Not By Day

Dorrell Merritt, a friend of Arran Gregory (the dude who designed the little birdies on this site) got in touch recently to ask me to consider a review of his graduate photography project. Weep Not By Day is a display of, as Dorrell describes it, “the power of night and an insight into dolefulness in female youth, set within the busy, lonely and unforgiving urban landscape of London.”

I liked his photos, so I agreed to interview him. I proceeded to harangue him on his choice of imagery, hoping to engage in a healthy debate about the portrayal of women in popular culture (i’m mad for girl talk). Sorry Dorrell.

Luckily he gave me some interesting answers and because I was feeling nice I chose to not to drill him about certain of them, like “we all enjoy to be voyeurs towards female subjects”.

Aside from everything else, the photos are damn good. They resonate with a captured sadness that is testament to the protagonists and the photographer.  You can truly feel the hollow, lingering depression of being in a big city, surrounded by people and feeling like you’re on your own.

They also portray someone seeing these women’s dejection – another commuter or passerby, who might be wondering why the woman in each photo is so distant – and I think the women know someone can see them and that they are wondering. I have experienced both sides of the coin as i’m sure we all have.

Dorrell, and his ‘we‘ – which I assume means ‘men’ – are voyeurs. He says “we have been conditioned to feel a higher level of empathy towards female subjects”, but also that “on the other hand I think we all enjoy to be voyeurs towards female subjects to some extent”. [my emphasis]

But can you “tell the woman’s story”, as Dorrell says he wants to do, and ‘be a voyeur’? I don’t think so. Either you can connect with them emotionally in understanding their sadness, or you are watching them as a distant subject. But perhaps I don’t identify myself as the voyeur because I identify with them, and seeing these women on my imagined journey feels coincidental and fleeting. As the viewer I don’t feel like i’m following these women to spectate. But do I feel natural empathy with them and a connection with their melancholy because I am too a woman?

Dorrell has done well to capture what he calls the ‘power of the night’. Melancholy holds its own in the night and this plays a part in the potency of the imagery. He told me that he thinks night has “an ambiguous presence; it can console us, make us more relaxed, more thoughtful, more creative, but also anxious.”

This we crops up again in our interview:

“Women are almost art within themselves, really. If we go as far back as 16th century art, and look at Jupiter and Io by Antonio Da Correggio, and skip to the present day; Death of Coletti by Tom Hunter, there is a technique which has survived 500 years: the use of women as a key emotional-narrational tool.

“We are so used to seeing it, we sometimes don’t even realise it. It is ingrained within us. I think there are a number of reasons for this historically and socially but regardless, we take great pride in observing women. We are fascinated.”

Women are tools in Dorrell’s art, to apply a feeling, or be applied. There are many issues here; the idolatrous worship of women as art forms is a component of a society that doesn’t view women on an equal footing. Women are to be admired, on a pedestal. It really is no advancement on viewing women as less than men.

Dorrell has done exceedingly well to capture the souls of his protagonists in his photographs. I just would have liked to have heard about their stories in our interview, rather than just his placing as voyeur.

“Critically”, he says “I guess it could be deemed a bit shortsighted of me as a man, to attempt to tell the stories of young women.” Gender does not define whose right it is to tell another’s story, but i’m not entirely convinced it’s their stories that Dorrell wants to capture.

Weep Not By Day by Dorrell Merritt (EXPOSURE 24 – Graduate Exhibition – Frameless Gallery 18th-24th, June, Clerkenwell Green)

Arts & Culture: Figures & Fictions at the V&A

'Babalwa', (from the series Real Beauty), Jodi Bieber, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

It seems like a cliché, or a dreadful pun, to say that a medium which began in black and white might offer a particularly clear window into a country in which, more than any other in the world, a preoccupation with colour has poisoned social relations.

Recalling her childhood in Cape Town, the curator of Figures & Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography, Tamar Garb, observed that “one’s way of negotiating the place was over determined by the social and political structures that taught you who you could talk to, how you could talk to people, how you could behave.” In this profoundly disturbing, disturbed society, photography offered the possibility that the social, cultural and moral distortions of Apartheid could be exposed by a documentary art form that could bring those contradictions right into the viewer’s face.

In South Africa, Garb argues, photographers have traditionally used three distinct modes of representation to tell the story of the place. One of these, dominant during the middle of the twentieth century, is the documentary mode described above. Another is the tradition of portraiture – I have a photo of my great-great-great-grandfather shot in a studio in Cape Town at the turn of the last century that can attest to the long roots of this genre. The third is the ethnographic, which collected and catalogued people, particularly non-whites, as nothing more than types, exemplars, specimens; almost an extension of the flora and fauna, Garb argues.

Having begun to think about the richness of contemporary South African photography after curating a show on contemporary art in London in 2007, Garb approached the V & A with the idea of putting on an exhibition which could challenge the dominance of these three modes, and show the subtleties and richness of contemporary photography in South Africa. She has succeeded in unearthing a number of photographers who are well aware of the role of these three traditions and capable of exposing the ironies and contradictions in South Africa’s photographic heritage.

'Blitz Maaneveld', David Goldblatt, 2008. Courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery

Roelof Petrus van Wyk deliberately subverts the ethnographic tradition with his series of pictures of Afrikaners – including Yolandi Vi$$er of Die Antwoord – who are depicted as though being subjected to examination or to measurement in a series of profiles and headshots. He thus parodies the fascination of ethnographers with native South Africans by his portrayal of twenty first century members of Africa’s only white tribe. Pieter Hugo and Jo Ratcliffe produce interesting reflections on the rest of Africa, and of the influence of their home country throughout the continent. Ratcliffe’s Angolan landscapes reflect on the aftermath of South Africa’s ‘Border War’ in the 70s and 80s, while Hugo depicts a worker at a toxic waste dump in Ghana with the words ‘Sun City’ (a gambling resort near Johannesburg) on his t-shirt.

A number of the works are deeply introspective, personal and sometimes ambiguous. Santu Mofokeng’s portraits, including of his HIV-positive brother, raise the spectre of human mortality, while Berni Searle’s work clearly reveals her background in sculpture, installation and video.

Graeme Williams’ work is the highlight of the exhibition for me (and I haven’t even mentioned David Goldblatt, easily the most famous photographer in the show). Seeking to move beyond the documentary tradition and capture a mood rather than an event, Williams shot street scenes that were deliberately confusing and difficult to interpret. “I wanted viewers to be slightly unsure of what was going on in each photograph, and this reflects how I felt about change in South Africa at the time,” he said in an interview with Garb.

Zwelethu Mthethwa’s photographs of young Zulu men dressed in ceremonial clothes remove them from their ceremonial context, placing them alone or in small groups in the landscape. This highlights the individuality of the subject and probably reduces the likelihood that the London audience will assume that they have seen this before, as perhaps they might if presented with a more familiar portrayal of Zulu ritual. The exhibition challenges our expectations of what South African photography should look like, and is the stronger for it. (For example, there are no pictures of rich white people walking past beggars with a just-in-focus Coca-Cola ad in the background, or of black men selling ice cream to white sunbathers on Camps Bay beach.)

Indeed, the viewer’s expectations are the elephant in the room. Sometimes it feels like the photographers have tried too hard to challenge these, as in a number of portraits of LGBT South Africans. The act of challenging conventions can sometimes in itself become a cliché. However, it’s important not to overstate this objection, and in general the quality of the work is consistently high.

South Africa is an endlessly fascinating place; troubled, poor in a lot of ways, but rich in lots of others. It’s also incredibly diverse, (much more than most people in Britain probably realise), and in this sense at least is probably more comparable with, say, Brazil than with Zimbabwe. I began this article by talking about black and white; well, you should see what people can do with colour film nowadays.

Figures & Fictions is on until 17 July at the V&A museum

Arts & Culture: The Cass Summer Show 2011

Ana-Doris Garcia / Metastases / Sculpture/ Installation

The Cass Summer Show 2011 is currently showcasing the work of 800 students from The Sir John Cass Faculty of Art, Media and Design (The Cass), in a range of disciplines including animation, fine art, film, textiles and design.

The Cass will host the work of the eight hundred London Met graduates from 15th to 19th June at one of its buildings near Whitechapel Gallery.

Monday’s private view of The Fine Art show offered a feast of photography, sculpture, painting, installation and time based media at Central House, which had been transformed into a multi-floor gallery for 2000 guests.

Eva Wilkinson, a graduate artist from The Cass, makes art which responds to the sociological and political context she finds herself in.

“My work is a reflection of my immediate environment,” she said.

“The chair was once a commode and the Queen’s jubilee plate replaces the toilet seat. As a result, it is completely without function as an object,” she explained.

Eva Wilkinson

Esgar Andre Pancho

Ana Doris Garcia

Naa Teki Lebar

Héloise Bergman

The title of the exhibition, Beginnings, was chosen to celebrate the bright future of The Cass’s uniquely talented artists.

See a gallery of the fine art students’ images here.