Saturday, January 29, 2011

Outside In by Stephen Gill

For years Photoworks has been commissioning photographers to explore areas of the South East of England, the results of those projects often wind up as exhibitions or, more importantly in my opinion, book projects. Last year Photoworks invited a few artists to explore Brighton and three new books have been published; one by Stephen Gill, one by Rinko Kawauchi and one by Alec Soth's daughter Carmen. My favorite of the bunch is Stephen Gill's Outside In.

With his ever present good humor and desire to think outside the box with his photography, Stephen decided to introduce material found in Brighton into the body of his cheap plastic lens camera. Thus seaweed, insects, broken glass, and garbage get in the way of his already hazy palette creating instant forms of collage.

Now those familiar with my past opinions of Stephen's books will know that I have a way of loving the way the books look and feel but find the actual photography not as interesting. Hackney Flowers is my personal favorite, Hackney Wick I still don't understand the fascination people seem to have with that title. Ok, so it wasn't my cup of tea.

My enjoyment of Outside In is curious to me because what I can see through all of the silhouetted objects in these pictures, the actual photographs aren't brilliant by themselves. Nor is the interplay between the objects and the image as strong as on display in Hackney Flowers, yet I am captivated by this little book. I think partly because in addition to the beauty of some of the images it provides for me fascinating puzzles of the optical properties of photography.

How, for example, does there seem to be a piece of electronic (?) equipment inside the camera rendered as if it was itself photographed in natural light (see fifth image in comp above)? Also, I imagine that if one introduced a lot of three dimensional objects into a camera such as this, when the camera was held up to make an image, most of it would slosh down to the bottom of the camera (which would actually be the top of the frame) yet in Gill's images much of it seems to be defying gravity and evenly disbursed. I am not doubting Gill's claims of process - just aspects in some of the images confound me, albeit in pleasurable ways.

Gill makes the analogy in his brief afterword in Outside In that these photos are like the "regurgitated contents of a giant vacuum cleaner bag." I like the thought of that. Photography already holds the potential for producing the illusion of literal and almost infinite description in "straight" practice. Gill's images seem to have physically sucked up parts of the world, shook them around unpredictably, and spilled the contents onto pieces of paper - a new order that is as messy and confounding as the world itself.

Outside In was published by Photoworks and the Archive of Modern Conflict.