Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Series of Disappointments by Stephen Gill

In July of 1955 Walker Evans published an article in Fortune magazine called the Beauties of the Common Tool. As an introduction he wrote, ‘Among low-priced, factory-produced goods, none is so appealing to the senses as the ordinary hand tool. Hence, a hardware store is a kind of off-beat museum show for the man who responds to good, clear “undersigned” forms…Aside from their functions -- each of these tools lures the eye to follow its curves and angles, and invites the hand to test its balance…In fact, almost all the basic small tools stand, aesthetically speaking, for elegance, candor and purity.’

For this series he photographed in black and white and with his 8X10 camera pictures so reductive that his strategy was to have the viewer notice -- as if for the first time -- the beauty of form that can be experienced in everyday items found at a local hardware store..

Art photography today also has turned the corner where the individuality of the “photographer” is not witnessed through their prowess in picture-making but simply through their wit and imagination in drawing your attention to particular objects that they describe in similar plain-stated ways. For Evans it was the common tool. For Stephen Gill, one of England’s more popular young artists, it is collecting and presenting several crumpled and discarded betting slips from horse racing tracks in his book A Series of Disappointments. But before I get to this let me explain the other series of disappointments.

For me Stephen Gill’s books have mostly amounted to illustrating well thought out and somewhat entertaining gimmicks that suit the idea of a book whether it is buying a cheap camera at a flea market and using it to photograph the flea market and surroundings (Hackney Wick) -- burying photographs of Hackney Wick in Hackney Wick and then burying the books too (Buried) -- photographing street workers wearing yellow safety jackets (Invisible) -- or photographing folded toilet paper (Anonymous Origami).

Christoph Schaden called Gill’s strategy ‘form follows technique follows topic.’ For me this naturally leads into the dangerous territory of gimmickry. To pile a lot of backstory about a camera bought for 50p from a man selling items out of his car boot in Hackney and then using that camera to photograph the place somehow makes these images more interesting? As much as Hackney Wick was touted as “one of the most important photo books,” do the owners of that book pull it frequently from their shelves for the actual pictures made with that 50p camera? I don’t know the answer obviously but I suspect that most of the copies need a good dusting.

If there is one aspect to most of his books that cannot be upstaged even by the attention arresting gimmickry is a sense of true affection for this East London area. This is a place that will be cleared to make way for the 2012 Olympic Games and possibly no better objects will recall what was previously there than Gill’s books. I just wish he used his proven talents as a photographer (see A Book of Field Studies) rather than getting bogged down in cleverness and a plastic lens camera. I am not sure what it is adding besides a specific “look” that in the end is entirely superficial.

Hackney Flowers was the first book of Gill’s that I was actually compelled to get and I have enjoyed it over the course of many viewings. This was the project in which Gill laid flowers, plants, seeds and other material from Hackney over his photographs as well as over “found” photos and re-photographed the results. What we get are exquisite combinations of color and form that confuse distinction of scale and depth but most importantly, they are the first images from Gill that have an extended life beyond the conceptual gimmick. ‘Form follows technique follows topic’ that works for me. The affection felt in this body of work amounts to no less than a beautifully constructed love letter.

Gill’s latest book A Series of Disappointments is, as I mentioned before, a collection of folded and discarded betting slips that Gill gathered and photographed against a plain grey background. The title of each photo is of the betting details that are often found after performing unfolding “autopsies” after the photography had been completed.

This book has an appeal of “readymade” art just waiting to be discovered by a witty and imaginative artist but within each twist and turn, fold and tear of the slips, are the emotions contained in the hands that shaped them. One is shredded while another is twisted into a straw. One looks worn due to sweaty palms while another is formed into a curly-cue. Gill draws our attention to these plain-stated objects that sit as fictional guides to the original owners personalities at the moment of loss.

I like this book but after holding it to the same critical standard of some of the others I wonder if it will continue to spur thought. In time I may find my hands twisting the pages with the same frustration of one of the betting slip owners frustrated after losing $75.00 USD.

All of Stephen Gill’s books are wonderfully designed and made and A Series of Disappointments is no exception. This time Gill employs an accordion fold which allows all 36 plates to be displayed at once. The cover (with three different designs and colors) can be removed from the book block and holes at the top of the pages allows for hanging (clever, clever).

A Series of Disappointments was co-published in 3000 copies by Gill’s Nobody press and the Archive of Modern Conflict and judging from the retail price and past success of Gill’s books - once again the house is sure to win.

Buy online at Nobody

Book Available Here (Hackney Flowers)