If you were a private eye tracking the movements of an estranged spouse or a criminal suspect, where would you hide? You'd need a special kind of vantage point, a place that would allow you to get close - close enough to eavesdrop on a conversation, or to identify a cologne, or to steal a wallet - yet remain unnoticed. You'd want to make yourself inconspicuous, you'd want to blend in and become imperceptible. You would seek the cover of a crowd.
'Common', the title of Don Suggs' series of composite photographs, refers to the sort of public place in which these crowds form. His panoramic compositions (some of them over 11 feet long) document the movements of people in groups, but there is nothing at all sinister in what you see. Shot in sunny parks and playgrounds, they show innocent scenes of friends playing basketball, or travellers gathered to take holiday snapshots or to ogle some natural wonder. What is sinister is the position in which Suggs places you as the viewer. He makes you part of the group being depicted - just another one of the onlookers - but isolates you at the same time, so that your motives end up appearing no less covert than if you were a detective tailing a suspect in that crowd, or a suspect about to bump off that detective.
The cops call it a 'stake-out', while crooks talk about 'casing the joint', but both mean sitting still for a long time and studying the habits and rhythms of people in a given locale. Suggs gets us to do exactly the same thing. The scene in any one of his compositions has been photographed and re-photographed over an extended period of time so that the artist can capture a shifting corps of people milling around a fixed background. These images are fragmented and printed onto five-inch squares of pre-cut photo paper, then pieced back together to re-create the original scene.
In the resulting collage, the stationary landscape always falls neatly into place, but since the human element was constantly moving and changing while the photos were being taken, all sorts of anomalies make their way into the bodies of the figures. The Physics of Light (1996) shows a group of visitors to a national park seated on benches and staring at a geyser in the distance. It's an innocuous image, until you notice that the head of one person is spliced to the trunk of someone else who had sat in the same spot, or that the pair of legs dangling under a bench has no owner. With the same time-lapse logic, a basketball player in Dance (1997) sprouts the arms of several other players who had attempted the same shot from the same position. It seems miraculous that these unposed figures would cohere with such accuracy. What one would otherwise call serendipity seems to become more than that: the various combinations emphasise the amazing degree to which these haphazard situations are regulated by invisible systems of control.
One such system is expressed in the artist's working method. If you position yourself to catch the glare bouncing off the surface of one of his pieces, you discover that all those individual squares are laid down in a geometrically precise pattern on a hexagonal grid - which is why Suggs refers to them as 'hexane' photographs. The overlapping edges of the component units emboss hexagons, six pointed stars and rhomboids into the surface of each image with crystalline regularity.
But the rationalism of this system is also misleading. It seems to remove the artist from his own work, as though the finished image were mathematically inevitable. That isn't true. Suggs does manipulate the end product, sometimes in very subtle ways, and at other times blatantly; as when he segregates one crowd by gender in the companion pieces Women and Men (1994). Of course, it's any artist's prerogative to control the product of his or her labour, but Suggs makes the process feel somehow tainted or clandestine. If there is an element of surveillance to this work, what makes it compelling isn't what is produced as evidence, but the fact that someone has tampered with that evidence.