BY Bruce Hainley in Frieze | 06 MAY 00
Featured in
Issue 52

Blow Up

Looking at contemporary photography

BY Bruce Hainley in Frieze | 06 MAY 00

Consider for a moment, for I can't be the only one feeling this way, why, despite being an obsessive photophile (daily photo delectation required), when having to look at photographs in galleries, I do so drearily. It's especially dreary when you've already encountered many of them in magazines - what have they accrued in this contextual migration? Usually, my response is to wonder why the hell am I am being asked to look at this. It's a photograph, tedious, banal, doing not much whatsoever, and I just couldn't care less. Countless photography shows are reviewed every month, but almost no one will pony up and admit that the most interesting photographs aren't appearing in a gallery or museum, they're appearing in magazines - sometimes in the editorial spreads, but even more often in ad campaigns. Few involved or interested in the production or consumption of 'new photography' (or critical thinking about it), embrace expanding the parameters of where photography might appear, by considering it as it occurs in magazines or wherever else.

I'm looking at a photograph right now, a portrait by Catherine Opie of some of the women responsible for a soi-disant 'next wave' of photography: a two-page editorial spread in the February 2000 issue of the American Harper's Bazaar. All but one of the women were participants in 'Another Girl, Another Planet', a show produced by Gregory Crewdson and Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn which caused a rather unusual amount of synergistic buzz in New York last spring. It was a Gwyneth Paltrow of art events: inadequate and bland, yet it doesn't go away and, somehow, wins an Oscar. How fitting that gracing the cover of the Harper's Bazaar contextualising this brave new girl world of photography, only Nikki S. Lee's sunglasses and painted nails disrupting the Stepford Wives-ness of it all, is Gwyneth herself. Let me skip over what Opie brings to the picture (a perfumed atomisation of lesbian difference?); skip over the fact that, in a show whose title announced not just mere alterity but otherworldliness, the photographs produced neither; skip over examining how, although defined as a 'neither feminist or postfeminist' but 'girl is' posture, the work is a dumbed-down, homogenised sublimation and defanging of riot grrrrl aesthetic. Consider instead that Nan Goldin and Cindy Sherman - the two photographers who, despite their contradictory practices, are always invoked as precedence for this new wave - both achieved glamour as well as a commentary on and representation of glamour by the cheapest means. The do-it-yourself snapshot or faked film-still exposed the reality of artifice and the artifices employed in constructing reality: issues apposite to an understanding of the construction of femininity, and which were analysed long ago in Joan Riviere's frequently cited 'Womanliness as a Masquerade' (1929) as well as in the photographs of her uncanny contemporary, Claude Cahun. These girl photographers are not commenting on or 'using' the look of fashion photography in ways Goldin and Sherman certainly did.

Like so much other 'art' photography which supposedly 'constructs reality' (but don't most photographs record the world both as it is and as the photographer constructs and imagines it?) the girls of '...Another Planet' produce photos derivative of, but not as careful as, anything by Corinne Day and Inez van Lamsweerde - two photographers who deserve credit as much as, if not more than, Sherman or Goldin - or a run-of-the-mill spread in i-D or W or Surface. Study the new Prada ads (shot by Robert Wyatt): the erotic bumps of the new purses, particularly one in carmine satin which sits on the floor, as compact and weird as one of Sherman's prop vaginas, just out of reach of the girl about to disrobe. Revisit van Lamsweerde's astonishing work for Vivienne Westwood or the amazing British Vogue sequence in which Corinne Day rigorously reconsidered and refigured - via the specificity of black and white film, an ominous eroticism and a heartbreaking identification - the work of Larry Clark. Day turned her camera on Kate Moss, who was styled by not being styled, and was both directed and allowed to perform by just being the point-blank actuality - tender, delicate, joyous, ferocious (she twirls, she bleeds) - of girlhood.

Photography can still shock and enthral - not only because of its subject matter but also because of its materiality. Often it enthralls most when it is returned, somehow, to one of the almost obsolescent sites of its inception (as document), thwarting and indicting so many of the problems, the gimmickry, which too many contemporary photographers manage never to consider - a return that connects it, backwards, both to the 'amateurism' of photoconceptualism as well as the cultural uncanny found in Atget. In Atget's Seven Albums (1992), certainly the most crucial study of Atget's archivising 'documents' as well as one of the most trenchant meditations on photography, Molly Nesbit writes of Atget's difference from the younger photographers who tried to recontextualise his documents for artier purposes, their failure to see his work for what it was: 'the document functioned in a part of visual culture that had few aspirations to greatness or avant-garde revolution; it issued from the depths of bourgeois culture; it was the aesthetic Other'. Aesthetic Otherness, or something hauntingly like it, appeared in an astounding archive of documents - candids, studio shots, fan pictures - of Michael Jackson, presented in two brilliant, hit-and-run exhibitions in Los Angeles (at an alternative space, Overhere) and in New York (at The Fifth International, a salon run by artist Chivas Clem).

The King of Pop on the streets of Rio in a vest and jeans surrounded by cameras and people in costume; MJ on a sound stage smiling at a large man in a Frankenstein mask as two winsome boys look on, one wearing sunglasses and porkpie hat; MJ shouting at fake (?) police during the making of a video; MJ kissing a rabbi, or someone costumed as a rabbi, with African tribal dancers in the background; getting off a plane, MJ is handed flowers by a handsome steward; MJ in large mirrored glasses, plastic nose and chin covered by an antiseptic doctor's mask that contrasts starkly with his dark kohl permanent eyeliner, hugging a dowdy fan; MJ with an ersatz Olsen twin in a photo that almost looks as if it were shot at Sears; MJ surrounded by comehither pre-adolescent boys; MJ embracing more boys, special security passes dangling from some of their necks, parents smiling behind them; Janet Jackson with her specialest brother, both with Afros, sans make-up, sans unreconstructed faciality, in what looks to be their childhood home's front or backyard; MJ in a fancy, faux military, red jacket posing in a studio with a pimply fan holding his pen and ink drawing of MJ doing the Moonwalk.

The breadth and strangeness of the archive disorganises any idea of what photography can do by demonstrating just how safe and lazy most current 'art' photography is. The architects of this extraordinary event were David Leonard, Rob Deppe and Douglas Armour. When asked what was behind their 'carpet-bagging' the photos from Los Angeles to New York and to 'any other city which would host the show', they freely admitted: 'we want to meet Michael Jackson'. They got weirdly close to a realising this wish: within a day of the photos being shown in Los Angeles, attorneys for Jackson tried to get an injunction on their further display, threatened their confiscation and further legal action. Representatives for Rupert Murdoch's tabloid News of the World then offered Leonard and his cohorts $50,000 for the entire collection. But Leonard, Deppe and Armour's intention was celebration; the collection has never been for sale. 'Found in a dumpster in Bel Air' and hung unframed, the photos span the entirety of Jackson's solo career. In LA, a DJ played an evening's worth of Jackson's brilliant grooves; in New York, along with a staged 'bust' by a cop who turned out to be a male stripper, the photos were shown with Jonathan Horowitz's The Body Song (1997), a brilliant derangement of a Jackson music video, which, run backwards, summons Satan, who in turn channels Jackson into a vortex of destruction. While the 'finding' of the photos may raise an eyebrow in disbelief, their referential impact certainly does not. They present a photo-documentary schizoanalysis of the American dream/nightmare of fame, superstardom, race, gender and desire. They recall Atget in that they return photography to the scene of a crime, to evidence - but evidence only of an ominous unverifiability which is in mimetic relation to the discombobulating effect of contemporary culture. Faciality was altered, but who knows exactly how much or why? Little boys accumulate like moths to Jackson's incandescence, but there is nothing approaching the diary entries of Jordie Chandler, the boy-love who sued Jackson. Not quite proof of a conversation between Jackson and Jordie's father is recorded in the riveting tell-all, Michael Jackson was my Lover: The Secret Diaries of Jordie Chandler (1995), by 'investigative journalist' Victor M. Gutierrez:

'Michael, are you fucking Jordie?

'I never use that word,' Jackson said giggling.

'Excuse me Michael, but what exactly isthe nature of your relationship?'

'It's cosmic! I don't understand it myself' said Jackson. 'I just know we were meant to be together.' 2

There is no picture of the following 'official document', written on a napkin by Jordie: 'Michael is circumcised. He has short pubic hair. His testicles are marked with pink and brown marks. Like a cow, not white but pink colour. His body oil stink. He has brown patches on ass, on his left glut.' 3 Instead there is a picture of a 'constructed reality': Jackson surrounded by three teenaged dancers from one of his videos. They're fresh meat, sinewy and handsome, while Jackson looks morbidly grey and tired, and who knows what he is thinking, about the boys or their bodies near him, or about anything else.

In a recent profile, Elizabeth Taylor, Jackson's best friend, is in a helicopter circling Neverland; Wendy flying in to console Peter Pan, perhaps about the Lost Boys. A journalist keeps pointing out rides and buildings on the property, asking what they are. Taylor keeps saying, over and over, 'those are for the sick children'. The sick children, the sick children. She means, I suppose, the many children stricken with illnesses who are invited to spend time at the Neverland zoo and amusement park, but signification skids out of her control - the words at once refer to many different kinds of kids, as well as to Jackson and to herself - into its own Never Neverland. The astounding archive displays what signification skidding out of control looks like.

Unlike that photography which displays only the uninteresting 'constructed reality' of everything outside the photograph signifying the image as being 'art', the Jackson archive delivers the 'constructed reality' of and within the photograph - that which allows any aesthetic Otherness to operate. Like Atget documenting the demolition of old Paris before it vanished altogether, what is seen in these photos of Jackson is the body and the idea of a body as a site of demolition, the creation of what being for Michael Jackson means: something monstrous or faked, as when he stands next to a Frankenstein or a wax dummy - a continuous abandonment of self and the delusion of self, scraped off as if in a process of dermabrasion. Something goes through an attenuated breakdown, a body somehow deranging - physically, technologically, mechanically, through an unfathomable collapsing of media - itself and the dreams (things called sexuality, ageing, race) that come to make it up. Someone - probably many people, men and women - took these photographs; for what purpose, beyond documenting an event staging itself under the name of Michael Jackson, it is difficult to surmise. Not taken for the purpose or context of art, are they art anyway? I don't know - but the questions they require anyone to ask about photography are dire, and, if ignored, whatever it is that the word 'art' in the context of photography means is in peril. What the photographs show is how shattering, boy or girl, the romantic longing for the 'teenaged' can be; how the muse of fashion operates; how something looks - something which many would like to consider as being from another planet, except for the fact that the Neverland where it exists is where we're living.

Bruce Hainley lives in Los Angeles, USA. His book, Foul Mouth (2006), is published by 2nd Cannons, Los Angeles.