Adair, Gilbert

Cover photograph: The Douglas Brothers

The Post Modernist Always Rings Twice, Reflections on culture in the 90s

Adair, G. (1992) The Post Modernist Always Rings Twice. London: Fourth Estate


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Quotes

In a London bookshop two or three months ago I bought, as an unbirthday gift to myself, a sumptuously published album of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. Although the copy I picked off the display table was cellophane-sealed, I was fully aware of its contents and thus a trifle put out when the sales assistant, on the point of wrapping it up, felt compelled to offer me, in a tone of strangulated diffidence, this unexpected and quite unnecessary forewarning: ‘Um … you do realise that these are only his portraits?’ There was plainly a latent message being imparted which, maybe paranoically, I interpreted as: Please don’t come asking for your money back once you discover that the book contains no images of hunky, tattooed male nudes with their genitalia wreathed in chains.

Photography remains a curious, hybrid, paradoxical form (Cecil Beaton once said that photography was not in itself an art but that a photographer could certainly be an artist), a form difficult to practise precisely because it impresses the layman as almost fraudulently easy. For its cluster of authentic creators- as distinct from its legion of amateurs, most of whom, if favoured by circumstance, are perfectly capable of taking a fortuitously good photograph from time to time – the difficulty resides in striving to transcend that inherent facility (what is easiest to do badly is hardest to do well) and attain such a force and intensity of expression that the camera becomes the agent not merely of a perception but of a vision. Even if this is successfully achieved, however, as my little prefatory anecdote bears out, the photographer still risks having his sensibility trammelled by what might be called ‘the tyranny of the subject’. It would be wholly unthinkable for the purchaser of an album of Rubens’s portraits to be similarly advised on its dearth of fleshy nudes. By contrast, and no matter how dewily (David Hamilton) or abstractly (Bill Brandt) or hallucinatorily (Mapplethorpe) sensitised by the cameraman’s eye, photographed nudity is fated to retain much of the unnervingly rude starkness of nudity seen, so to speak, in the flesh.

By its very essence, then, the photographer’s relationship to the objective world will always be far less mediated, far less transparent in representational terms, than that enjoyed by virtually any other type of artist. Or, to simplify, it is at least for the general public a question of the pecking order of by and about: London Fields is a novel by Martin Amis about the London of the nineteen-nineties; whereas a snapshot of the Queen Mother is first and foremost about the Queen Mother and only secondarily by Cecil Beaton.

This, its hard, incorruptible core of ‘documentariness’, is photography’s weakness but equally the source of its peculiar strength …

pp35-6


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