Philip Jones Griffiths, National Conservation Centre, & David Goldblatt, Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool
By Gabriel Gee
On Saturday the seventh of February, talks were held around two photography exhibitions in Liverpool. In the morning, Dr Julian Stallabrass from the Courtauld Institute toured a rather large party through the exhibits of Magnum photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, while Paul Lowe from the London College of Communication gave a lively afternoon presentation of the work of South-African photographer David Goldblatt.
The National Conservation centre exhibition came as a retrospective following the death of P.J. Griffiths last year. It was accompanied by a publication, ‘Recollections’, which features a selection of pictures the photographer had been working on in the past few years, as well as an introduction by the speaker. Pictures at the Conservation centre were grouped in series, exploring the work in and around Great Britain of a photographer best known for his coverage of the Vietnam war. Street pictures of Liverpool in the 1960s – a city the Welshman captured in its then declining path with noticeable affection (paddies market 1966) – alerted the visitor to its whereabouts (if need be), followed by shots of the city’s vibrant 1960s art scene: the Beatles naturally, but also burlesque happenings, a portrait of poet and painter Adrian Henri with his painting The Entry of Christ into Liverpool – (Adrian Henri before his most famous painting 1966); pictures of art events, exhibitions and concerts also formed part of the wider photojournalist’s selection (a Jean Jacques Lebel performance in 1964, the Berlin Jazz festival in 1961), while the second part of the exhibition dealt with political coverage. The attention to individuals’ narratives unfolding themselves in a still image took here a decisively humorous nature. One could mention the portrait of Harold MacMillan and wife at the conservative party conference, looming slightly apart on a balcony underneath which four women delegate sat knitting studiously, protected from the sun by the Birmingham Post advertised nearby; a harmless picture of the couple but for the long-lasting and well known affair Lady Dorothy had been having with Robert Boothby (1956); however more chilling, a Funeral Procession in Derry (1972) came with a footnote in the caption which read “the Northern Ireland Tourist board, with mindless verve, ran an advertisement: ‘for generations, a wide ranging of shooting in Northern Ireland has provided all sections of the population with a pastime’”, while the portrait of Jeremy Thorpe MP (1974) did genially ask for hilarity, capturing a smiling party of constituents surrounding the good humoured MP and liberal Party leader, knees bent towards a large dog a melancholic and saddened face turned towards the camera. As the caption reminded the viewer, Jeremy Thorpe’s career was shortly after brought to an end by a scandal which had him charged of hiring a hitman to kill his (supposed) lover who had been blackmailing him (supposedly). Norman Scott was walking a Great Dane answering to the name of raka, when the hitman appeared, shot the dog, and then either balked or had a problem with the pistol; in any event , only the dog died, as was somehow known with utter certainty by his sad looking sibling in the picture.
The conclusive discussion at the end of the tour brought Julian Stallabrass to reflect on the quarrels that ignited Magnum in the 1990s, as Martin Parr only just made the cut to join the prestigious agency. Some of the old school, of which P. J. Griffiths was an illustrious member, fervently opposed the entrance of the New Brighton series man, condemning his work as cheap voyeurism unsuitable for the professionally humanistic principles of the photographers’ association. However, as it was pertinently mentioned, the two photographers have more in common than Griffiths antagonism might suggest. The way they both capture the human theatre in action through small carefully staged narratives deeply permeable to mirth, brings their work closer together in spirit than might be thought at first.
The second talk was given at short notice by Paul Lowe at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool’s consistent photography gallery, on an exhibition entitled Intersections intersected. It was made up a selection of twenty pairs of photographs by David Goldblatt. These pairs, as the Open Eye director Patrick Henry explained, were chosen by the gallery to exhibit from a much wider body of work and combined images on which the photographer who is known for his careful book editing is currently working. The pairs consist of a small framed photography in black and white, and a large colour photography, unframed and loosely (in appearance) pinned to the wall. All the black and white pictures were taken before 1984 and the upheaval of the black community in South Africa, while the colour pictures were taken recently, in the post-apartheid era. They share the photographers’ interest for representing the social and political context and issues in his country through landscape and architectural perspectives, as well as ordinary life scenes stressing the flow of social problematics in South-African society. If each picture presents an intersection of perspectives, currents, and oppositional elements in a country where social unrest has been so strongly present in the course of history, the combined pictures propose an intersection of these historically fixed comments. For instance, a series of rapidly erected tombs on the side of a road (as confirmed by the dates on the tombs and the date at which the photograph was taken), the brutal document of political and ethnic violence under the apartheid regime, is doubled by a contemporary memorial of this violence, oddly polished and caged in a barren landscape. The representation of the black community’s frail living conditions is paired with an evocation of its current distress in the time of aids; a tiny hut selling various goods on a sunny setting has the word ‘surf’ resonate to its counterpart high vantage point vision of a shining and isolated beach. The combination of pictures, carefully but not blatantly juxtaposed, articulates further even than they might already do on their own, a clear historical discourse, through a specific artistic medium, one we might want to scrutinise with attention in the future.
David Goldblatt, At Kevin Kwaneles Takwaito Barber. Lansdowne Road, Khayelitsha, Cape Town in the time of AIDS. 16 May 2007
Digital print on cotton rag paper using pigment inks of high archival quality
Paper size: 92 x 111cm
Image size: 81 x 105cm
Edition of 10
David Goldblatt, The Cross Roads Peoples Park. Oukasie, Brits, North West. 22 November 1986
Silver gelatin print on fibre paper
44.5 x 56cm