Shoot! Existential Photography
The Photographers’ Gallery
12 October 2012 - 6 January 2013
Review by Joanna Cresswell
‘Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy-machines whose use is addictive. However, despite the extravagances of ordinary language and advertising, they are not lethal… The camera/gun does not kill, so the ominous metaphor seems to be all bluff… Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder - a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.’ - Susan Sontag, ‘On Photography (1977)’
There is a black and white photograph. Jean-Paul Sartre looks on as Simone de Beauvoir takes a shot with a rifle - eyes closed, poised, concentrating. The trigger is pulled, the target is hit and a photograph of the moment is captured forever. This is the nature of the popular photo shooting galleries found across Europe in the period following World War I, and this is one of the defining images of The Photographers’ Gallery’s current exhibition ‘Shoot! Existential Photography’. Exploring the shared lexicon of the gun and the camera - aim, point, load, trigger, shoot, fire - the exhibition traces the theoretical relationship between the two.
Along with Sartre and de Beauvoir, a whole host of artists, intellectuals and thinkers lined up to take their shot, including Jean Cocteau, Man Ray, Lee Miller and Robert Frank. Opening with a selection of vintage photographs and a slideshow named ‘Celebrity Cabinet (1929-1955)’ by Clément Chéroux, the show pinpoints early signs of how this curious sideshow attraction came to fascinate and inspire countless artists’ work. Through central philosophical themes of mortality, deconstruction of the ego and reflections on the self, ‘Shoot!’ highlights the unfaltering presence of gun and camera in art right up to the present day, with a rich selection of artists to illustrate.
The work of Sylvia Ballhause comes in the form of a multi-media installation. First there is ‘Shooting himself (2008)’ - a set of found shooting portraits of an unknown man arranged sporadically across the wall. Then there is ‘Shooting myself (2008)’, in which we see a constructed photograph of a woman in the act of shooting a photographic target. Finally there is ‘Shooting rig [active/passive] (2007)’ - two photographs of a photographic shooting gallery set-up. The three separate pieces (from a larger body of work named simply ‘Shootings’), though perhaps not as powerful individually, work incredibly well as one complete entity, and are actually something of a good reference point for the core ideas in the show.
Following on seamlessly from Ballhause’s found shooting portraits, is Erik Kessel’s ‘In Almost Every Picture #7(2008)’. The project documents the life of Ria van Dijk who, as a young girl, took her first photo-shooting portrait on 5 September 1936, and then every year (save for wartime) until the present day. Not only do the pictures trace the life of van Dijk - ageing, changes in fashion and friendships - but also the transition of the photographs from sepia and black and white into colour as it became more widely available. Set in an array of multi-coloured frames, the photographs are visually stunning and are arguably one of the strongest aspects of the show. In the same room, Emilie Pitoiset’s reprints of photo-shooting gallery portraits onto silver paper in ‘Just Because (2010)’ are quiet and beautiful works. In cutting up the pictures to create the hypothetical consequence of a bullet hole, she has created delicate pieces that echo images of shattered glass.
A number of artists use the gun and the camera simultaneously to create their work. For three in particular the camera itself serves as the gun’s target. Jean-François Lecourt created ‘Shot into the camera (1987)’ by shooting the camera to generate an image and creating a photograph pierced with bullet holes; Steven Pippin presents ‘35mm Pentax camera shot in the side (2010)’, alongside a sculptural piece examining the camera post-shot; and Rudolf Steiner built a pinhole camera in ‘Pictures of me, shooting myself into a picture (1997)’ at which he fired a shot. Pierced by the bullet, a ray of light enters to capture an image, but simultaneously the photograph itself is torn, the bullet having pierced straight through the image of Steiner’s head. Paired with the philosophical reflection that arose early in the exhibition, these projects start to build a pattern of symbolic suicide - the notion of a ‘creative killing’ in which the artists shoot themselves at the exact moment of creating their work. This same idea is echoed in Niki de Saint Phalle’s piece ‘Fire at Will (1972)’, in which she recorded herself firing a rifle at paint-filled balloons to explode them across canvases, and Agnès Geoffray’s ‘The Female Shooter’ (2005) - a single photograph wherein the lady subject looks down the barrel of a gun, echoing how one would squint to focus a photograph.
The real epicentre of the exhibition is surely Christian Marclay’s spectacular large-scale, multisensory video installation ‘Crossfire (2007)’. For a total of 8 minutes and 27 seconds, a room inside the exhibition becomes a physical, charged space as an explosive montage of moments from Hollywood films plays out. More precisely, the moments of cinematic technique devised to heighten suspense in which characters - in westerns and war movies, gangster films and action flicks - raise their gun to the camera, aim at the audience and take fire. Standing in the middle of the room, with firearms all pointing inwards, the viewer is able to experience being under fire, considering the dual experience of being the viewer and the viewed, observing the shooter while simultaneously becoming the target. Covering all four walls and playing with our spatial perception, the piece is an immersive experience in which the metrical, pulsating rhythm of the guns echoes that of a sort of symphony, or a choreographed attack.
The final spectacle is a real photographic shooting gallery, built and staged by the artist Martin Becka, in which for a small price visitors can try their luck at shooting their own photograph. Though this interactive aspect enables visitors to engage with the sheer delight and thrill of the pastime, the exhibition on the whole expertly transports viewers to the peripheries of perception and on a rather remarkable journey through a much darker, more philosophical vein. In photograph after photograph, the gun and the camera mirror each other entirely, and either way the spectator is left in the line of fire. By the end of the exhibition, one will feel a long way from the funfair.