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Issue 35 June-August 1997 RSS

Saul Fletcher

Anton Kern Gallery, New York, USA

Photography is the new favourite ­ or at least that’s the impression New York galleries were trying to give last winter: Joerg Sasse at Lehmann Maupin, Max Becher and Andrea Robbins at Basilico Fine Arts, Richard Billingham at Luhring Augustine, Collier Schorr at 303… There are good and bad reasons for this. Some good ones can be found in Saul Fletcher’s pictures, so let’s talk about the bad ones: photography is a welcome compromise (to art dealers) between painting and more recent media; photography makes blood transfusions possible between the worlds of pop music, reportage and fashion; and, even when staged, photography promises sensorial authenticity. Bodies and spaces appear in tangible close-up, social or subjective traumas are put into frames ­ desire is on display. Take Richard Billingham’s series of photos of the alcoholic hell of his parental home: invitations, blown up to the size of panel paintings, to ‘cheap holidays in other people’s misery’ (to quote the Sex Pistols).

Saul Fletcher is not related to his subjects, nor was he looking for a cheap holiday when he visited the home of a single mother and her adolescent daughter: he was taken there by a court sentence of six months’ community service. Not that Fletcher has assembled the cycle of work on the basis of this encounter alone. The London-based artist’s first one-man show, a series of 27 colour photographs, includes just one portrait of mother and daughter. At first, the works seem to have only formal qualities in common. A white margin between the image and the mount is the first compelling pictorial impression and screams ‘Polaroid!’, but this is rapidly dissipated by the fact that the 5› x 5› prints are somewhat larger than instant pictures. The subjects of the images are predominantly motionless, and carefully chosen. It is as though the clichés of direct, honest, instant snapshots and carefully planned plate photography have cancelled each other out to produce a third form. The viewfinder’s mobility and the static quality of the photographs play ping-pong with the viewer’s eye.

But it is apparent from the detail that some of the still lives depict objects in the two women’s home (the stoical photograph of a standard-lampshade, for example), and this colours the experience of viewing even the three monolithic head-on views of walls covered with delicate scribbles. They now become something more than stylistic exercises in photographically capturing Twomblyesque textures. Fletcher is trying to do something almost impossible: he wants to produce clear evidence of social isolation, of people being trapped in the cells in which they live, but he wants to do it without increasing this isolation by revealing intimacy. The camera angles slide the voyeuristic gaze straight into a vacuum. Thus in his self-portraits the photographer restricts himself to his anonymously bare, almost transparent arm, or to wearing a strangely misplaced Zorro mask. The moment of discovery is inseparably linked with the reflex of avoidance. Fletcher shies away from frontal, symmetrical views of the people he portrays: the camera seems almost more interested in the beige radiator behind the woman, and its similarity in colour to her pullover; and the camera position, in front but halfway to the right, captures the apathetic pattern on the wallpaper, but only glances at the angry and impotent look of the daughter, who is standing with her hands on her hips, staring downwards. Another picture shows a framed mirror in the shape of Elvis’ head, seamlessly reflecting the brownish-white wallpaper in the room, as though its striped sadness had infected the pop icon, seeping inwards from the edges.

This shyness and avoidance of confrontation could easily be ridiculed: one could say Fletcher just isn’t confident enough to go in, press the shutter and come out again. But if this is a failure then it is a very productive one: his images are neither staged nor real, neither fast-moving nor static, neither intimate nor detached. The subjects of his portraits are not material nor are they icons. Fletcher is not interested in achieving an unambiguous pictorial effect by emphasising habitual distinctions. He prefers to hang a still life (taken in Hong Kong) showing a dreary bouquet of artificial flowers intended to decorate a stairwell alongside a picture of a shabby room with brown carpet, chair, electric heating and a faded landscape on the wall (taken in England), thus making it possible to discern that class-specific ‘taste’ is shaped in similar ways, even at points where ethnic differences are usually identified as crucial factors.

It perhaps doesn’t sound very sexy to point out that Fletcher’s qualities derive from avoiding things, rather than confronting them: even when he did a series for Harper’s Bazaar he restricted himself to photographing men’s shoes as ghostly still lives. Not even the two portraits of the women seem suitable as blueprints for future glamourisation, but that is an achievement in itself at a time when the ‘socially authentic’ portrait has been completely appropriated by Calvin Klein and many others.

Translated by Michael Robinson

Jörg Heiser

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First published in
Issue 35, June-August 1997

by Jörg Heiser

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