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  Rod McNICOL

As the title suggests, these pictures were made over a decade ago – way back in the twentieth century. Since then, for a variety of reasons, I have been obliged to quietly sideline this work. To have the opportunity to present it at Place Gallery, some ten or twelve years after it was made, has a warm, personal resonance for me.

Initially it was Bruce Pollard at Pinacotheca Gallery in the late 1990’s who first offered to show these images. When he came to view the work at my studio back then I held out little hope, as I knew that, in principle, Bruce did not show work by photographers. (Although he had exhibited photographic work by some of his artists, Robert Rooney and Bashir Baraki come to mind immediately.) So when Bruce agreed to show my work I was delighted, although in giving me the nod, he added with his endearing, wry smile that in saying yes to me he was now going to be inundated by a sea of other eager photographers. As it turned out, neither of these things was to happen. Circumstances in my life and a changing paradigm within photographic technology at the time meant that I was never quite ready to take up Bruce’s offer. Now, in finally being able to exhibit this work a decade later, it seems appropriate it should be at Place Gallery, a venue that has a direct connection historically to Bruce and Pinacotheca.

Now to the work itself – made during 1998 and 1999, this series of portraits served a two-fold purpose for me at the time. First and foremost, it was my way of returning to my practice after quite a long self-imposed exile. And it was inevitable that I should return to the central theme of my earlier work – i.e. full-frontal portraiture with an engaged, direct look back to the camera. It could well be said that the genesis of this particular genre of portraiture dates from the very beginning of photography itself. That self-conscious stare into the camera in early nineteenth century photography, no doubt intensified by the very slow exposure times required back then, has always held fascination for me.

It seems to me that this fascination of mine could well indicate that I am, perhaps, a sort of historical throwback. I don’t doubt that most of those subjects in early photographic portraits would have been quite shocked by this devastatingly accurate image of themselves – by this veracious look at themselves as other. The reflexive self-awareness invoked by our human consciousness – that which separates us from most other sentient creatures – would have been stirred, even shocked by these images of oneself from the outside. To see oneself as other, arrested so accurately in time, would also have given rise to a haunting presentiment of one’s own mortality. The theorists readily acknowledge this spectre that exists in photography: all photographs are memento mori said Susan Sontag. Roland Barthes, in describing a photograph taken in 1865 of a young man condemned to be hanged the following day, reflects on the fact that this image, showing a handsome young man looking back at us from time passed and who is soon to die, emphasises a catastrophe that is inherent in all photographs.

How quickly civilization absorbs such things. We are now hyper-saturated with photography. In contemporary life such sentiments are no longer evoked by a photograph, or if they are at all, it is merely as a fleeting discomfort as one looks at a photograph of oneself. I must be a throwback, still haunted as I am by this direct and open gaze. I have an illustrious companion in this. In his book Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, written not long before his death, Barthes expresses a similar attitude to the direct look back –

For the Photograph has this power – which it is increasingly losing, the frontal pose being most often considered archaic nowadays – of looking me straight in the eye.1

Later he continues –

Now the Look, if it insists (all the more, if it lasts, if it traverses, with the photograph, Time) – the Look is always potentially crazy: it is at once the effect of truth and the effect of madness.2

Although the work I present here dates from near the end of the twentieth century, it was made in circumstances that more closely paralleled the photography of the nineteenth century. Taken in the beautiful diffused daylight available in my old warehouse studio with its high clerestory windows and skylights, these photographs, like those in the nineteenth century, required a slow exposure time (not quite as slow as back then to be sure, but slow nonetheless). One thing that a slow exposure time dictates is stillness, and for me stillness is a blessing. Although stillness virtually eradicates spontaneity, it does heighten engagement. It allows me to encourage my sitters, not to project themselves, but to quietly be themselves.3

I mentioned earlier a second purpose to this project, and that was to allow myself to explore colour. Until the time that I started on this series I had worked almost exclusively in black and white. Although I had long admired the simplicity and tonal elegance of black and white photography, in my day-to-day life I had always had an inherent love of colour and I was keen to try to bring this to my photographic work. As it turned out, the subjects that I was to seek out in making these portraits were to provide me with a wonderful opportunity to do so, especially the girls, these beautiful feral princesses I was to find so close at hand to my studio.

Sometimes, in one’s practice as an artist, one is forced by circumstance to accept certain constraints. I have already mentioned that, for a variety of reasons, I have had to sideline this particular work for a prolonged period of time. One learns, however, that what initially may seem to be a negative imposition can turn out to be something quite positive. It has taken me ten years to get this work to exhibition, yet this passage of time may in itself be of interest. Although it is out of favour at the moment to acknowledge the fact, photography is still an evidential trace sliced from time, and the fact that these images were made a decade ago – these faces staring back at us are a decade older – means the work is already history. In a climate where the fetish for newness still holds much sway, it could well be an interesting, if somewhat challenging exercise, to present work for the first time when it is already historic. So I give you my – Portraits from last century.

1. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Great Britain, Vintage, 2000, 111
2. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Great Britain, Vintage, 2000, 113
3. I owe this phrase to Beatrice Faust, Deconstructing the Mugshot, Island Magazine, Spring Issue, 1988

Rod McNicol
April 2009