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>> Catherine Yass: Dream Shifts
>> The Human Clay
>> Six Photographers: A View from London
>> Susan Derges: "The whole night became my dark room ..."

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Six Photographers: A View from London

Deutsche Bank numbers among its extensive collections a good representation of the younger photographers practising today. Aside from such art world reporters as Johnnie Shand Kydd, who memorializes casual moments in the nocturnal lifestyle of art stars like Jay Jopling and Gary Hume, several distinct threads emerge from looking at the range of photographic work on show, and crystallize into specific interests and types of subject matter. One of these might be termed ‘living history’, or the past’s continuing effect on the present.

As Richard Benson has pointed out (in A Maritime Album, Yale University Press 1997), ‘photography’s most basic reality is that it shows us the past’. True, but these artists go beyond the basics and transport us into theoretical futures, showing us - often through humour and satire - the kind of world we are making. Here are issues of scale and lack of narrative and vague but modish concepts of psycho-geography. These are artists who deal in appropriation or reinterpretation (there’s nothing new under the sun), strategies which throw the weight squarely onto the context in which previously-existing images may be newly located. The work is as much to do with illusion as with illumination, and focuses on the interface of science and nature, culture and place, engagement and passivity. At the same time it exists in an aesthetic dimension, with a very particular and decisive identity.

Hannah Collins: True stories 8, 2000
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Tate Gallery, London

In True Stories 8 (2000) Hannah Collins (born 1956) shows us St Paul’s cathedral rising out of various building sites, and surrounded by cranes. From the Deutsche Bank room in which Collins’ photograph is hung in the city of London, the viewer can actually see St Paul’s (admittedly from a slightly different angle than that depicted in the photograph) and so is able to compare and contrast reality with record. But is Collins’ photograph a straightforward record? Certainly not in the dramatic way she artificially tints the skies in her images. The sky above Barcelona (in an adjoining print in the same meeting room) becomes a wonderful egg-yolk yellow, while the London sky over St Paul’s is shaded a luscious Irish green. Are these colours to be taken as indicators of industrial pollution? Is the suggestion of a gaudy chemical reaction in a fume cupboard intended to be a comment on modern urban life and its expansionist building programme? Collins suggests her own stance, but we are allowed to make our own interpretations.

Two earlier black and white photographs by Collins from 1989 (also hanging in the same London room) depict circular restaurant tables muffled with table cloths - dishes of food perhaps emerging from beneath the coverings. These are mysterious in a more deliberate way, cryptic in the sense of employing imagery which is intent on hiding its meaning. The city images are also undeniably mysterious, but in a more open and declarative way, bringing an organic hue to an essentially urban subject and thus making us question the relationship of natural to man-made in our supposedly environment-conscious society.

Another view of London forms the back-drop for a brilliant modern re-working of the great Christian image of the Pieta - the sorrowing Madonna with the body of the dead Christ lying across her knees. Instead of St Paul’s, this time we are shown the Post Office Tower and the Millennium Wheel. The image, by Siobhan Hapaska (born 1963), is entitled Robot and depicts a young man in checked shirt and draped lap with a somewhat flayed and dismantled robot (an ex-robot, as it were), lying in the traditional Pieta position across him. Has this rather old-fashioned-looking robot been sacrificed so that we might live? It seems unlikely. Yet the image is surprisingly compassionate as well as witty, and seems to suggest a wake for the death of the machine. (No such luck in this technologically-governed era.)

Another reinterpretation of an iconic image is offered by Anya Gallaccio (born 1963) in a melancholy view of death and decay entitled Now the Leaves are Falling Fast. The reference is to the Pre-Raphaelite classic Ophelia (1851-2) by John Everett Millais, in which the body of Hamlet’s rejected lover is depicted floating downriver after her suicide by drowning. Gallaccio herself poses for this re-enactment in a bizarre form of self-portrait, photographed in a weed-covered pond or backwater somewhere in the south of England. It looks a little like a still from the film of a murder mystery, suggestive of violent death at the hands of an outsider rather than planned self-destruction. The rural setting only contributes to the incredible pathos of the image. Do we take responsibility for each other or solely for ourselves?

David Hiscock: Stroke (Grass), 1997, Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© David Hiscock, London

David Hiscock (born 1956) is an immensely versatile photographer, equally capable of producing vividly coloured and inventive abstract images as he is of extending an already long exposure and moving a camera with great precision and care across and around a chosen subject. Thus he has invented a form of photographic Cubism which captures the essence of a thing from rather more sides and viewpoints than usual. Indeed the grass seems to be moving: Hiscock’s images Stroke - Grass look like liquid wire undulating in some timeless dance. Here is another take on the natural world: the grass bends and bows in waves, like water threshed by a swimmer, yet we have actually progressed into the still heart of the subject, into the microscopic, where nothing is what it seems.

The brothers Maik and Dirk Lobbert (born 1958) work as a team to destabilize the certainty of our perceptions of the world around us. Their work is subversive, confrontational, but abidingly playful; danger is thus more often than not modulated into humour. However, the disquieting image of a railway tunnel, its yawning aperture enlarged into a circle by the addition of a black semi-circle - like a newly perfected reflection - brings to mind Charles Dickens’ chilling ghost story The Signalman. There is something unrelievedly bleak about this photograph, a beyond-nature strangeness that is not easily assimilated.

Maik und Dirk Löbbert: San Gimignano II, 1996
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Maik und Dirk Löbbert, Köln

The Löbberts also make images of classical architectural settings - perhaps a quiet Italian piazza, or a roofscape of the towers of San Gimignano - which also contain brightly-coloured geometrical interventions. Actually, it often looks as if a naughty child has coloured in a high-quality black-and-white image in a precious book, out of sheer devilment. In one case, a red outline rectangle is imposed vertically on a cityscape, in another, a courtyard becomes a lurid blue chequerboard. Moving to the countryside, the Lobberts introduce what might be a bright red plank into the forks of two large adjacent trees by a river. The wit is obvious, the social comment more obscure. Part of their intention, no doubt, is to keep us guessing. Not a bad thing in an age of unresolved pluralism and seemingly endless choice.

Andrew Lambirth