Monday, June 02, 2008

Three From Britain show, Rose Gallery, Santa Monica

This is from an email I wrote to my friend Ian Macdonald, a very fine photographer, about a show of photographs by three British photographers, Graham Smith, Chris Killip and Martin Parr. Ian knows Graham, and kindly got me an invitation.

My invitation finally came this week, and the show closed yesterday, so I went down and had a look. I couldn't afford any of the pictures, the Killip pictures were priced at $4500, but I bought a couple of books: Graham's photo essay of pictures by him and his father in Granta, and Killip's 55. I recognized Martin Parr's work very quickly, from New Brighton, and from the books he has out I think he's had a lot of commercial success and doesn't need me to buy anything.

I was down there at 10 AM when the gallery opened. Because I had an invitation in my hand, I got a personal tour from the only gallery assistant who'd turned up on time. She was wide-eyed, blonde, informed but not very knowledgable, and deferential: for example, there's a picture of The Commercial pub which has a billboard with a poster advertising paint. Henry Cooper is holding a paint can and a roller, and smiling. The slogan for the paint is something like "step back and admire the view", and Graham takes Henry at his word: a grey morning, foggy, damp, people in motion, all the windows dark. The assistant didn't know who Henry Cooper was, so I explained. There's a boxer here who's retired and sells stuff, George Foreman, he has five sons all called George, and he sells a grill, like a grilled sandwich grill, but at an angle, so that you can grill a hamburger and the fat all drains out.

I like Graham's pictures a lot. They're very clean, visually he doesn't seem to intrude, but the stories which go with the pictures show a deep intimacy with his subjects. He's funny, too, "I thought I saw Liz Taylor and Bob Mitchum in the Back Room of the Commercial" is hilarious. They also remind me of Camden Town in the '60's, when there were still Peabody Buildings at the end of the street, and the rag and bone man came with his horse and cart once a month. The first one I looked at was of a lock-in at the Commercial, with three decades of fashion - a '60's Rocker singing, '70's shaggy haircut on the guitar, and an '80's New Romantic with a pint in her hand. A bare lightbulb, peeling paint, and lino tiled floor. Brilliant. The maintained surfaces are on the people, more or less.

His pictures of prostitutes show similarities with Brassai, though his prostitutes don't have the security of a brothel, and they don't have the same standard of living that Brassai's Parisian prostitutes did. He's also strongly social realist.

Chris Killip, on the other hand, is very hard scrabble. His politics is completely overt in the seacoal pictures. Graham was a gentleman about it, but Chris rubs my nose in my smug bourgeois comfort. Beautifully, too. It's hard to believe that seacoal could still be a way of life, but there it is. Graham's working class could buy a pint in a pub; Chris' sniffs glue on the beach. Graham's pictures are mostly open to friendship; Chris has people's backs to the frame, in one case, looking at a wall. The clearest political statement, though, is the Alcan fence, keeping the seacoal pickers from a beach owned by Alcan: here is a corporation stiffing the little man, again.

Martin Parr, then: all his pictures in the show were from 1988. Chris and Graham's pictures ranged from the mid-'70's to the mid-'80's. So almost all the show was from the Thatcher years. Parr's pictures were mostly of the south west, the middle class, and the tories. Looking at his pictures is like looking at Durer: there's something cautionary about them, I think he looks for naked Emperors and points at them, laughing.

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