Monday, August 3, 2009

Anna Fox: Photographs 1983-2007

The work of Anna Fox may be off your radar but she is an important figure in British color photography that arose from the West Surrey College of Art and Design in the mid 1980s. Her highly charged photographs, lit by flash, are a mix of social observation and personal diaristic projects which placed her apart from the male crowd of Paul Reas Martin Parr, and Paul Graham who were forming the 'second wave' of color photography. A recent mid-career retrospective book Anna Fox: Photographs 1983-2007 published from Photoworks covers 25 years of her work.

Her earlier projects - Work Stations (1986-88), Friendly Fire (1988-91) and The Village (1991-93) - are concerned with rural places and cultures, gatherings of people and the physical dramas which are played out in each situation. In Work Stations she describes the work spaces and offices of mid-80s Britian with a flare for agitation. Her photographs and the accompanying captions taken from articles in business magazines reveal (or create) a sense of an internal warzone where worker comraderie is left to the weak and the corporate climb is a matter of survival of the fittest. Quotes such as, "Should a competitor threaten to kill a sale, the modem would provide a lifeline back to base computer" and "Fortunes are being made that are in line with the dreams of avarice" sit under images of workers seemingly absorbed in newly adopted attitudes inspired by Thatcher's free market policies.

It is fitting that Fox follows this project with Friendly Fire, a series where she plays 'war photographer' among corporate sales teams as they foster team spirit by blasting away at one another with paint-ball guns in abandoned army bases and on de-commissioned farmland. Their macho role playing is overlooked in one image by a blood-splattered cardboard cutout of Margaret Thatcher, flashing a friendly and encouraging smile on a job well done - perhaps mistaking the corporate workplace with the Falklands.

The Village, the third in this trilogy, explores a picture postcard English village. The underlying violence behind its creation alluded to in the adopted values of the business market in the first two bodies of work, extends into this series with its attitude of privilege and goals obtained. Shot both in black and white and color the pictures have the frenzy of the the former but her camera moves in for claustrophobic details which reveal anything but delicate nature and sophistication of its citizens. A chatting elderly couple seem to be attacking one another, while at a social event, a young woman's hand-turned-claw is grasped and highlighted by Fox's moody flash.

A switch in her work towards ideas of 'home' comes with the series Afterwards in which she photographed the aftermath of rave parties in rural Hampshire, her hometown. Amongst the detritus of broken bottles, cigarette buts and trash, ravers sleep off the previous night's event in a series of pictures which create a portrait of broken home life and make-shift families. After the splurge of immediate gratification, the country sleeps off its hangover.

In 41 Hewitt Road, Fox turns her camera on her own domestic scene which, considering the chaos and run down atmosphere of this North London flat, seems to be an extension of the Afterwards party pictures. Children's scribbles on the peeled paint walls and the grim of dirty hands evident on every surface presents a crumbled foundation for family. A dead mouse on a stretch of green carpet, a dead worm on a tile floor, a note penciled onto a door-jam that 'Martin Parr Called' and a violently scratched out child's drawing on the wall, point to a reality that violently undermines the national values and bourgeois spirit of the upper class. It seems to be a household where the children have taken over and all rules have been thrown to the wind resulting in a cross between a drug den and an artistic playground.

One of my personal favorite series came from Fox in 1999 with an artist book called My Mother's Cupboard and My Father's Words which interrogates family relationships through text and photos. She introduces the series with, 'My father was ill for many years and as his illness developed, his frustrations grew. I kept a notebook recording his outbursts, mainly directed at the women in the family, and at the same time photographed my mother's incredibly ordered cupboards.' Next to an image of a cupboard full of wine glasses sits the caption, 'She's bloody rattling again. Can you stop your bloody fucking rattling.' Next to a stack of plates, 'I'm going to tear your mother to shreds with an oyster knife.' And opposite a pink decorative plate and crystal, 'Bloody bitches. Filthy cows.' Though deeply disturbing, these pairings of 14 photographs with 14 outbursts, have an underlying twist of humor through the extreme violence of his wordings in the face of the defiance perceived from the order of the mostly fragile objects.

A large part of Fox's work comes in the way of confrontational portraiture. Her Zwarte Piet series which are straight forward portraits of Dutch citizens painted in blackface and dressed as the assistant to Sinterklaas. Neither descriptive of the larger tradition as a whole nor an endorsement of this complicated masquerade with its racial overtones, Fox opens the dialogue to a host of questions concerning gender and race, values and perceptions, and cultural change. Photographically these portrait works hold less power for me than the aforementioned series on work places and village life. Certainly they are subjects worthy of notice and loaded with content but formally the individual photographs suppress my full attention for her concerns.

A few of her other portrait series - In Pursuit (1989), Back to the Village (1999- ) - explore the festivities, cultural events and customs woven into the fabric of the surrounding villages in Hampshire. Theatrical and overtly absurd she often photographs children as they dress for Halloween or as participants in nativity scenes continuing ritual and acting out arcane activities. Macabre in tenor, she portrays both the old and young as citizens in a community lost in their own performance and spectacle.

Featuring tastes of all of her projects to date, including many not mentioned here, Anna Fox: Photographs 1983-2007 is a fine volume which has me asking how work this interesting hasn't found its way to my shelves before. At almost 400 pages and with essays from Val Williams, Jason Evans, David Chandler and Micke Bal, this full evaluation of Fox's oeuvre is a pleasant discovery which demands an immediate searching out of her previous books that somehow slipped my attention. Might I suggest you do the same.

1 comment:

mrs. deane said...

Type alert, delete after alteration: Zwarte Peit = Zwarte Piet. It means Black Peter. Originally, Black Peter had nothing to do with the Moors, as which the people dress up. In Hungary you have an equivalent tradition where people masquerade with black faces as ördög, it means devil. The racial overtones are clearly a later addition, probably ment as mitigation. As a kid it didn't seem so bad to be taken in a bag to Spain, but it would have been terrible to end up in hell.