BY Chris Chang in Reviews | 01 JAN 01
Featured in
Issue 56

Other Pictures

BY Chris Chang in Reviews | 01 JAN 01

There's a moment in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner (1982) that baffles Decker (Harrison Ford). In a recently vacated hotel room he rifles through a few meagre possessions and is startled to find a collection of photographs. 'Why would a replicant keep photographs?' he wonders. The answer, of course, is for the same reason anyone else does: time is fleeting; memory serves.

Snapshots are ubiquitous. They fill albums and shoeboxes in every home, and as the owners pass into history, the photos remain the only indicators of forgotten lives. Thomas Walther, an ingenious connoisseur of the ephemeral, is an astute collector of discarded images and has promised his archive as a gift to the Met. For 'Other Pictures' - and an exquisite limited edition book of the same name - he displayed his fetish to the world.

The title is significant. 'Other Pictures', by definition, calls attention to what has been excluded: the official canon of photographic history. Walther's project toys with concepts such as the cult of genius, the significance of the signature, and the rarefied atmosphere of unique artistic production. Not only has everyman become an artist, the accidental and anonymous act is now fit for institutional inclusion (and I'm not talking asylum in the Outsider Art sense). Glancing at the museum walls, or flipping through the pages of the book, it became obvious how quickly 'amateur' photography can rise to a high level of aesthetic interest.

There were echoes of masterpieces everywhere: Walker Evans, Paul Strand, Cartier-Bresson, Lartigue, Minor White, and other major names would have looked at home here. But no. These photographs are simply, but by no means simple, found images. The paradox, of course, is that we're not dealing with random shots left behind by a replicant whose aims and intentions have long since left the building. The show was as much about Walther's eye as that of the unknown photographers. But his canny curatorial skill was ultimately outdistanced by the work itself. The photos, by virtue of their unknown origin, seal themselves in an effervescent hermeticism.

To address specific examples is not in keeping with the egalitarian doctrine the collection inspires. To paraphrase Walther, anyone who can see is an artist. That said, here are a few favourites: a group of men stand together in an exterior shot on the barren outskirts of a small town. Everything is wrong. The telephone posts that give striking verticality to the composition are all bent askew in improbable configurations. One man's face is bandaged. Another man's tie has gone awry. The entire scene resembles the aftermath of disaster, but the photograph, at this point in time, is the only survivor.

In another image, we see a slightly asymmetrical shot of a women's head, whose hairstyle marks the period as the 1930s. The wallpaper in the background gives the entire print a cohesive pattern and design. Why is it remarkable? Because the photographer isn't shooting a standard portrait; he or she has chosen to shoot the back of the subject's head. Is it an early precursor to post-Modern irony, or a reference point for a hairdresser with a following? We will never know. A man in a white suit stands in front of a few large shrubs. Because of some technical altercation in either camera or printing, his body glows like a firefly. An accident has turned emblematic. It is a startling, quasi-spiritual, and completely indecipherable moment.

One of the great concepts in Blade Runner is that a technology might rise to a level of awareness at which it cares more about its own life than the 'true' life that created it. In that, and with the advent of 'Other Pictures', is an allegory that places the so-called pedestrian on a pedestal formerly designated for artists only. Are you ready to join the club? Call it Anonymouses Anonymous.