Exhibition: ? The Image as Question

Michael Hoppen Gallery, London. 28th September – 26th November 2016.

This engrossing (but mildly frustrating – more on that later) exhibition is built around an eclectic collection of photographs that all have in common that they are, in some form or another, evidence of something. As the official blurb puts it:

“Many of the images were originally taken to provide empirical evidence of a theory or record of an event. Dislocated from their original context and distanced by time, they do not so much provide an answer, rather question the viewer afresh.” (Michael Hoppen Gallery 2016)

It works as a set of diverse and often fascinatingly unusual images, though the ‘evidence’ thread can be a little tenuous at times. A lot of the work was evidential in the literal police sense: lots of mugshots, crime scenes and forensics, and this covered similar ground to the Burden of Proof exhibition I saw at The Photographers’ Gallery last year and was therefore less inherently novel or interesting.

The remaining images range from frivolous to deadly serious. By far the most affecting image, and one that has stayed with me ever since seeing it, is Simon Norfolk’s photograph of a staircase at Auschwitz. The light picks out the wavy steps, worn down by hundreds of thousands of footsteps. It’s the particular pattern of wear – made by people walking two abreast – accompanied by the text explaining that this is the route to the gas chambers that make this image so unexpectedly chilling, once you see it.

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Auschwitz: Staircase in a prison block, 1998 by Simon Norfolk

At the other end of the emotive spectrum there are images that just make the viewer smile, such as this fantastic photo of a Russian girl who cheated in an exam by writing notes on her thighs.

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-16-55-43
Cribs, the faculty of journalism of Moscow State University, 1984 by Valery Khristoforov

There are a few images in the show that knowingly subvert the basic premise of the photograph as evidential. A Guy Bourdin image presented as a murder scene is in fact a constructed set for a shoe advert; a surreal Weegee shot of onlookers staring at a mannequin where you’d expect to see a body is actually a composite image; and Richard Avedon’s Mike Nichols Suzy Parker Rock Europe (1962) is a pastiche of, not an example of, paparazzi photography.

The presentation of the exhibition was however a real game of two halves. One aspect of it pleased me hugely while another infuriated me.

Presentation: the good

The catalogue accompanying the exhibition is in the form of a numbered edition document folder, an ‘evidence file’, with good quality prints of the majority of the images loosely bound. It’s a conceit for sure, but it works very well. I bought it anyway, so it must have impressed me.

Presentation: the not so good

While the presentation of what the visitor can purchase as an aide memoire is exemplary, the display in the gallery itself is bewilderingly odd. The pictures on display carry no captions, no details of artist, title or year – nothing but a tiny numbered pin, presumably for cataloguing purposes. The only reference material is a desk-bound hardback book in each of the two gallery rooms. This features information on each of the 80-odd images in the show, but it isn’t in any particular order! It doesn’t follow either the physical sequencing per room, or the numbering system, In fact the reference guide doesn’t even use the numbering on the wall…!

So working out what each picture was of or about required a trip from the wall to the table, and a flick backwards and forwards through the reference guide until you stumbled upon the picture in question. Quite the oddest and least user-friendly viewing experience I’ve had. I was however too polite to mention it…

Sources

? The Image as Question http://www.michaelhoppengallery.com/exhibitions/139/overview/ (accessed 30/09/2016)

Seeing is Believing https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/sep/28/photography-and-meaning-in-the-digital-age-from-911-to-fake-crime-scenes (accessed 27/09/2016)

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