BY David Barrett in Reviews | 06 MAY 97
Featured in
Issue 34

David Griffiths

BY David Barrett in Reviews | 06 MAY 97

A man stands in the centre of the frame, facing forward, eyes downcast. Only his head and shoulders have been picked out by the light. All around, there are half-seen figures; only he is brightly lit. The lamp has been covered with a bag for protection - an amorphous blob over its head. Against the darkness, we can make out the legs of a tripod, and perhaps the iron railings of a fence. The faces seem disembodied. This man, heavy and clear, deserves the phrase 'captured by the camera'. He appears resigned to his fate... which would be what? His expression suggests martyrdom. Spiritual connotations abound, so strong are the references to religious painting. This is No.10 (1995) in the series 'I Spy Stranger'.

'I spy stranger' is a traditional term in Parliamentary debates. If an MP calls this to the Speaker, a discussion must be held as to whether the public gallery should be cleared. This takes 15 minutes and is, in effect, a delaying tactic. Opposite the Palace of Westminster there is a small grassed area, known as College Green. This garden's most notable feature is the fact that, due to its proximity to the Houses of Parliament, it is used as an outside broadcast location by news teams. Here they interview politicians, or simply present updates on the day's proceedings. Over the last three years, however, another photographer has joined the congregation. At night, David Griffiths has been visiting the green, setting up his camera and photographing the scene. This show presents 13 black and white images from the resulting series. In No.4 (1994) a female presenter stands alone. She is distant. She holds a script. In the sheer blackness of the background three windows can be seen. The black gives way to a grey sky. We can just make out a crucifix perched upon the silhouette of a building, almost cropped by the frame. It is directly over her head.

The images could be described as theatrical, but that would miss the point. They may appear to use similar techniques to the theatre, but the question is, why does the theatre employ these techniques? It does so to distinguish between the audience and the stage, and to focus upon the trials of particular characters. Highlighting a lone figure in a world of darkness is a form of melodrama, and deep chiaroscuro is a clichéd, but still powerful, metaphor. This technique is by no means limited to the theatre - the most intense horror films are mostly shadow; we can't see the background, but we know it's there and imaginatively fill it in. No.7 (1994) depicts the face of a bespectacled man. His tie fades to black as it runs out of the light. His collar seems tight, strangling him, hanging him. A vertical railing behind reinforces the gallows allusion. Again, he looks resigned. A sound-boom hovers close by. Figures fade away.

But to consider these images as staged is wrong: all that is staged can be found in the tiny cones of vision that extend from the lenses of the TV cameras. So Griffiths' work lies somewhere between the documentary and portraiture - documenting the portraitists. None of the staginess is Griffiths', just the usual choreography of team workers displayed with his particular economy of logic: a typical presenter - suit, tie, glasses, balding - you can just make out the poppy he wears; a technician standing in a mac, stretching out a yawn, eyes to the sky. To the left, a hand rests on the camera.

A presenter peers 'off-screen' into the dark. What can he see? Or is it what he can't see that disturbs him? And what does this say of a political democracy, that its heart should be so shrouded, even as the media throws its light upon it? But then doesn't this light merely cause more shadows, distorting the tip of the iceberg, editing the stories that it thinks we should see?

There are four lights, one of which lollipops into a lens flare. Two vague outlines are just visible in the foreground. A single female presenter stands illuminated in the centre, looking left. She appears horrified: her mouth is hanging open, aghast. A man kneels before her proffering a sound-boom. The camera is to the left. The grass is pooled in light. It is covered in litter. This is No.17 (1996).