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Visiting Professor of Photography - University of the Arts London
This is that new thing, a curated sale. The choice of works is engagingly broad but all the items share two features in common: all were editioned; all of the editions are sold out. This is truly a highly select, definitely blue-chip, sale.
Although each item seems to me exceptionally well-chosen and interesting, I am struck by some general characteristics of this group of works. First, allow me to recall that photography has, for the last 20 years, been described by respected pundits as moribund or already dead. The truth is that photography has never been more lively. Part of the reason is surely that practitioners have been able to use both analogue and digital methods, or draw on both, in the past few years. Photography's most recent decades are symmetrical with its earliest -- the 1840s and 1850s. The first photographers were, as they had to be, drawn from other disciplines -- painting, print-making, architecture and so forth. The latest generation of photographers has also been drawn from a broad range of activities. If one practitioner sums up this breadth it is Simon Norfolk -- philosopher, sociologist, journalist and documentary photographer. His complex work is enriched by the remarkable range of his formative years (lot 6).
My second point is similar. If I look back to the date of the earliest photograph here -- 1983 -- I remember a very different British scene. It was highly tribalised. Among the tribes were documentary photographers, editorial photographers, fashion photographers and the still relatively small number of 'artists who use photography'. I organised two exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Towards a Bigger Picture parts 1 and 2 (1987-88), which were intended both to celebrate the new creative diversity of the time and to bring together divided and opposed factions. The scene now is quite different - inclusive, overlapping and hybridised. The result is an extremely vibrant photographic culture and a fabulously broadened audience.
A fascinating range of approaches, subjects and techniques is on show here. Anderson & Low photographed Battersea Power Station in 1997 in such a way that they simultaneously veiled the subject in mystery -- thus minimising our awareness that this iconic building from 1935 was already without its roof -- and saluted its role in British modernism through the tonal resonance of their print (lot 3). John Davies created one of the outstanding documentary photographs of recent times at Agecroft Power Station in 1983 (lot 9). A year later the nearby colliery was picketed during the Great Miners' Strike. Ten years after that both colliery and power station were gone. With many of the images here, including that by Garry Fabian Miller (lot 4), I have witnessed not only the earliest phases of the photographers' work but seen each series develop -- at once inevitably and surprisingly -- out of the last. Douglas Gordon has, of course, excelled in film -- both his mesmerising slowed-down version of Psycho and his awesome Zidane. His self portrait as a Monster is cinematic but perhaps also embraces the artist's Scottish background, seeming to draw on Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde (lot 2).
I have to admit that I was not sufficiently aware at the time of the brilliant, improvised career of the late great Leigh Bowery (1961-94). This literally larger-than-life Australian was a performance artist, model, actor, pop artist and fashion designer. I am grateful that Fergus Greer captured so much of Bowery in his extraordinary photographs (lot 13). Bowery's own phrase sums up his transgressive talent well: 'the crime de la créme'. Tom Hunter has drawn on the Old Masters from a sharply-contemporary point of view. He re-made a Pre-Raphaelite painting of Ophelia, switching the location to a piece of waste ground in Hackney complete with an aerial mast. The scene was based on a real event involving a friend (lot 1). Neeta Madahar also created a kind of re-enactment in her series Falling. Her series recalled the childhood thrill of seeing sycamore seeds planing down from the trees. Her re-staging of this event brings it into an imaginative space of the plausible versus the implausible, the natural versus the artificial, and, as she has written, 'a liminal condition full of potential' (lot 5).
Simon Norfolk's website has the Latin tag 'Et in Arcadia Ego' -- 'I too am in Arcadia' (the 'I' being death). His Arcadian photograph of an emerald-green glade and track on Ascension Island in the Indian Ocean belies the island's main business today -- as an electronic listening post for the US National Security Agency, a vast modern-day Panopticon (lot 6). David Parker frequents other oceans, oceans of the mind. His 'Sirens' are photographic 'koans', or Buddhist puzzles, targets for inspired contemplation (lot 7). Sarah Pickering is adept at photographing real events, raking them out of context and turning them into smart allegories (lot 10). Nigel Shafran photographs domestic Zen in a bar of soap (lot 8).