Stephen Gill is changing the way I take photos, the way I see photos. The echoes of the exhibition I visited recently continue to resonate through me. Everything I see now is part of a potential series. The idea of placing parameters as a compositional device is hardly new – see much modern music composition for instance – but the grace and lack of pretension with which Gill executes his ideas is quietly inspirational.
Regarding the (now-finished) exhibition at the Architectural Association, Design Week (28.04.05) carried a small piece on Gill. Vanessa Norwood, the AA’s exhibition organiser, suggests that:
“Stephen’s photographs are so human, so chaotic and ordinary that they are the perfect antidote to pristine architectural photography. Rather than focusing on the glossy facades of completed projects, Gill revels in the chaos of roadworks, the clutter of abandoned lots and the forgotten spaces between buildings. I really admire the way Stephen observes parts of the city that are so familiar we take them for granted: the back of billboards, omnipresent roadworks and so on. He’s there, at ground level, quietly people-watching as we move through space.”
Quite so. Gill suggests he’s doing no more than “looking at things that we know very well, but rarely have the chance to stop and stare at.” But that’s it, exactly, and it takes a peculiar kind of brilliance – for instance, to realise that there are few more invisible in the city than those who keep it ticking – the army of workmen and women undertaking maintenance work – street-cleaning, traffic-directing, phone line-repairing etc – every day, everywhere, all over the city. In his series ‘Invisible’, the subjects are united only by their fluorescent orange workwear; the irony being that jackets specifically designed to be highly visible seem to only underline the invisibility of those who wear them. It’s interesting that Gill often wears such a jacket to take his pictures – it apparently guarantees him the anonymity that street photographers need. It’s a gentle but rich irony that seems to infuse much of Gill’s work. Jon Ronson, who often writes about Gill, notes that his photos are “mercifully lacking in malevolence, … wise and modern and beautifully laden with tiny, understated details about the way we live today. There is a wonderful, often inadvertent, eccentricity to them.”
Again, that touch of the haphazard everyday was evident in the way Gill, or someone, had scrawled the titles underneath the photos, in pencil direct on to the gallery wall. See here, the title to his “Welcome to Marlboro Country. Smoking When Pregnant Harms Your Baby” – part of the brilliant ‘Billboards’ series, in which the back side of billboards are photographs, surreally juxtaposing the unreality of the advertising message – only by hinting at the advert, as the billboard has its back to us, with the copy only present in the title of the work – with the reality of the locale the billboard actually resides in.
Again, check out his site for many more examples of his work, divided up into these compelling series. For example, his ‘Day Return’ series is quietly lovely – photos taken on the same train between London and Southend, the countryside blurring past the windows lending them a dreamlike quality, everyone’s eyes drawn outside the window almost longingly. And I love Audio Portraits for obvious reasons.
If Gill continues to trace these hidden routes through the city so well, I really think we might be looking back on some of his work and placing it up there with the likes of William Klein, Garry Winogrand, Robert Frank et al. Whilst Gill’s work is rather more genteel, reserved, apolitical – more English – than these dazzling, fiercely-charged innovators, it may come to represent a particular time in a particular set of cities just as effectively.
Addendum, perhaps related: In The Economist this week, an article on Ed Ruscha, whose work will be shown in the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy, London, from June 7th-August 15th and Venice Biennale from June 12th-November 6th.
“California’s biggest urban sprawl is often described as a city of movement rather than monuments, one defined by car culture rather than great architecture or beauty, but Edward Ruscha has found it a source of inspiration for more than 40 years. “Monet had the Seine, I had Route 66,” he says of the interstate highway that led him west from an Oklahoma boyhood to art school in Los Angeles in the late 1950s and whose roadside imagery appears in much of his work … He photographed 26 petrol stations he passed along Route 66 on his way to LA, every building on the Sunset Strip, and many swimming pools, palm trees and car parks. In these books of photographs and other work, he catalogues an American material culture that is so pervasive as to be almost invisible … Mr Ruscha is not reacting to anything tangible, rather he is is picking up fragments of meaning from the ether, treating words like a jazz player riffing on a common melody, revealing the rich tonality of something we thought we knew.”
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