Esther Windsor

Catalogue Essay - Elizabeth Janus

It is quite apparent, and has been for a fairly long time now, that photography is no longer what it used to be. Within the context of art, the medium has been quietly revolutionised over the past twenty years by artists who no longer balk at the technical expertise once imposed on them, who use photography as one tool among many within the context of a larger artistic production and in doing so have opened up our understanding of its importance and its potential. While in the past, it was painting that largely determined the aesthetic model that photographers followed, today one can safely say that the tables have turned and photography along with film and television have become the primary influences for a growing number of artists. For photography has and always will rely on the literalness of what it represents and this quality to harness the undisputed power of images (for who can resist looking at pictures?) makes it an incontestable artistic force.

Artists like Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richterand Ed Ruschawere pioneers in reversing the ways in which we comprehend both painting and photography, helping to blur the boundaries that distinguished them by trying to evacuate any sense of subjectivity, signature personality or style — all hallmarks of artistic authorship. Likewise, those artists associated with conceptualism and performance art, such as Vito Acconci, Bernd & Hilla Becher, Dan Graham, Martha Rosier, Victor Burgin, and Gilbert & George, took photography's documentary potential and expanded the technical and formal criteria that defined a photograph as art. Apart from this conceptual radicalisation of the medium, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus had earlier given birth to the 'confessional' strain that is epitomised by the works of Larry dark, Nan Goldin and Richard Billingham, among others. Now, the necessity that photographs be solely aesthetically satisfying or that they make the spectator gaze in awe at that quirky moment frozen in time, has been challenged by a type of art photography that privileges what variously has been called an 'aesthetics of disappointment' or a photography of 'the anti-sublime'; in other words, a form that often embraces formerly taboo subject matter (transgressive sexuality, violence, dysfunctional families, etc.) and may no longer follow established formal precepts of photographic 'correctness'.

Given our media-saturated world, as well as the availability of a multitude of new image-enhancing technologies, the public's general visual literacy has become so sophisticated that it is no longer possible to look at or make photographs as in the past. The definition of the medium itself has been stretched so far that images pulled off the Internet and those generated or manipulated by computers are shown side by side with enlarged film and video stills, all under the misnomer of 'Photography'. Surprisingly, though, it is only recently that the critical community has begun to take stock of these changes, letting the artists, once again, lead the way in dealing with the consequences of progress and invention.

This year's short list for The Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize is representative of the range of current photographic practice: from a seasoned artist grounded in minimalism and conceptual art (James Casebere), to those whose interest and active engagement in film and narrative have coloured their photographic work (Anna Gaskell, Tracey Moffatt), from one artist working with an expanded definition of photographic technique (Tim Macmillan) to another who produces a more classically-inspired documentary-style portrait and landscape photography (Jitka Hanzlova).

James Casebere's photographs of stark, mysteriously-lit interiors emerged in the early 1980s when, riding the wave of interest in other so-called postmodern photographers like Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, and Laurie Simmons, his work first attracted attention. Formed as an artist during the 1970s, when photography was being used to document more ephemeral works like performances and site-specific installations, Casebere originally turned to the medium as a means of condensing his interest in the social connotations of architectural space into single, two-dimensional images. Like an architect who sidelines as a stage set designer, Casebere carefully constructs small-scale interiors that are inspired by the socially-charged public spaces and institutions that we inhabit, such as prisons, courtrooms, asylums, and churches. His imaginary, mostly empty spaces are at the same time specific and generic and he bathes them in a dramatic light that is mysterious and starkly beautiful before photographing them. While Casebere admits an indebtedness to such quintessentially American painters as Edward Hopper, whose evocation of the solitude, loneliness but also expansiveness of the American urban landscape is unequivocal, one can also find in his pictures a hint of the romantic visions of nature and architecture by Ansel Adams and Frederick Evans. Lately, Casebere has begun to delve into the murky subterranean spaces of Roman baths, sewers and places of passages, for example Tunnel with Dark Hole or Flooded Hallway (both from 1998), that are sometimes filled with both water and with light to create enigmatic, almost abstract, details of undefined, larger structural wholes.

Tracey Moffatt, as much a filmmaker as a photographer, creates emotionally and psychologically charged images that variously call up issues of colonialism, race, gender, and the complexity of interpersonal relationships. Using a discontinuous, fragmented narrative style, her photographs are isolated moments from a greater story that remains open-ended and unresolved. In a recent group of photographs, titled Laudanum (1999), Moffatt balances her interest in film with a stylistic return to the beginnings of photography itself. In this series of nineteen black and white photogravures, Moffatt turns to the same process that William Henry Fox Talbot invented, and was later used by Peter Henry Emerson to produce the misty visions that epitomised late 19th-century pictorialism, scratching and hand-tinting them in order to simulate the appearance of photography's earliest prints. This stylistic conceit not only gives the, photographs an aura of historical authenticity but heightens the impact of the images themselves, which are individually isolated fragments from a story about a woman and her coloured servant, who, in Victorian dress, act out a sexually charged and often violent drama. Resembling stills taken from a silent film, the pictures that make up Laudanum are clearly staged and this quality, as in another of Moffatt's series Guapa (Good Looking) (1998) — a carefully cast and choreographed 'ballet' of women rollerbladers —walks a fine line between artifice and reality, producing in the viewer that moment of 'suspension of disbelief so common in film and theatre.

Less overtly theatrical but similarly using a mix of the fictional and the real, Moffatt's Scarred For Life II (1999) is the second part of a series begun in 1994, in which magazine reportage-style photographs of image and text (each titled and variously dated from the 1950s through to the 1980s) present specific instances of the emotional traumas that parents can inflict on their children. For example, in one a young boy is shown tied to a washing-line in the backyard and in another, an adolescent girl is called a 'pig' by her mother as she prepares for a school dance. Powerfully real in that one instantly identifies with the situations and their irrevocable psychological consequences, the pictures also can be seen as a combination of actual situations and the memories of certain events read or heard about, which Moffatt then presents in a pseudo-documentary form as a potent reminder of the crucial relationship between photography and memory. The strong narrative content of Moffatt's photographs is representative of a general trend in recent years that has seen a flourishing of art based on recounting lived experience (one need only think of the work of Gillian Wearing or the more confessionally narcissistic art ofTracey Emin). Now as always, there is a certain pleasure in narrative, since stories and story-telling are so closely tied to the formation and recognition of the Self; or, to paraphrase the mythologist Joseph Campbell, they give us the knowledge of that transcendent source out of which the mystery of life arises into the present and then dissolves back into some greater consciousness. As such, the narrative impulse, or that need to articulate and organise 'facts' without necessarily being anchored in the facts themselves (like the childhood fables, folk and fairy tales that present 'basic truths' in archetypal and symbolic forms), is fed by a wish to belong to a collectivity. And, to a large extent, this collective body is held together today by a common knowledge that is dominated by the gestures, images, lighting effects and characters emanating from television, movie and even computer screens.

Like Tracey Moffatt's Scarred For Life II, Anna Gaskell's photographs are anchored in a particular vision of childhood, or rather 'girlhood', which is mediated through the artist's experience of film and television as well as her interest in drawing on specific narrative sources. Rather than visually transcribe these stories, however, Gaskell re-creates her own versions by directing and then photographing young women and girls acting them out (a process similar to that used by Vanessa Beecroft, whose performances are made up of young women selected and dressed by the artist and then asked to take on a given persona or to just 'be' throughout a determined period of time).

In the past, Gaskell has used the adventures recounted in Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland as the basis for two photographic series in which she made twin girls simulate specific moments from the story, often those in which Alice loses control of her size. For her most recent series of photographs, titled by proxy (1999), Gaskell has turned to another equally fantastic source: Terry Gilliam's 1989 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which is based on an 1 Sth-century German nobleman who was notorious for fabricating wild and fabulous stories. Gaskell's title itself is a nod to the psychological disorder named after the infamous liar, Munchausen Syndrome by proxy, in which an adult's imagined ailment is projected onto another person, usually a child. The medical implications of this choice are reinforced by the pictures themselves, as Gaskeil's models —young women and girls dressed in white — often sport nurses' caps, thus recalling one of the film's main characters, the young girl Sally Salt, who is herself loosely based on a paediatric nurse from Texas who was convicted in the 1980s of murdering several children in her charge.

If there is a certain Freudian undercurrent in Gaskell's procedure — role-playing as the passage from a passive acceptance of a 'given' to its active re-enactment — her primary motive seems to be the production of singular, highly stylised and tightly constructed images. Strangely enigmatic, the pictures are shot to look like film stills but at odd angles or cropped in ways that the bod ies are rarely shown whole and are dramatically lit to contrast the innocence and purit" of her models with an edg'y undercurrent of barely palpable violence. For example, in one, a hand juts into the frame to forcefully grab the cheeks of a small girl whose face remains in shadow as the rest of her body is flooded with a hot, white light. In another, a girl wearing a nurse's cap is shot from below against a backdrop of trees, her rigid upper body and face hidden behind a mass of long brown hair.

Tim Macmillan's floor to ceiling video projection Dead Horse differs markedly from the works by the other shortlisted artists in that it is as much about pushing the idea of photographic technique as it is about the way the medium lends itself to sensationalism. For the piece, Macmillan has used the Time-Slice Camera that he invented, a technique that allows for a succession of separate views of a single moment in time — in this case, the precise instant when a rifle's bullet enters the brain of a horse — to be shown as a sequence of images. In splicing together the individual shots and transferring them onto video, they are then projected in an arc-like movement onto the wall. As such, Dead Horse successfully plays on the notion of real time by imposing a cinematic sense of continuous progression onto photography's fixture of a single instant, therefore suspending the image forever between the act of violence and its consequences.

Technical effects aside, however, the installation's subject matter reminds one of the fascination that human beings have, and have had throughout history, with animals, from Aristotle's History of Animals to the exposes in the National Geographic magazine. It is also indicative of the ways that their representation in art has been tied, at least since the 19th century, to their mastery by Man. In his essay 'Why Look At Animals?', John Berger perceptively noted the evolution of our relationship to animals, particularly how it switched from being one of identification with a substitute or parallel being that, like humans, are sentient and mortal, to their use as metaphors for a long lost natural state or, through their domination, indices by which Man confirms his place in the world. As a result, the popularity of animals as the subjects of photographs, something also noted by Berger, is undeniably the final confirmation of their status as objects of consumption.

Lastly, Jitka Hanzlovatakesa more traditional documentary approach, albeit coloured by a certain subjectivity, in her series Ftokytnfk in which she has photographed the people, interiors and landscape of the Czech town she !eft during the mid-1980s when she emigrated to Germany. In these, she uses a mix of straight and pictorial photographic styles to delve into the ordinary lives of the people living in this seemingly typical rural community, presenting them against deep horizons and backdrops of crisply enunciated fields, woods and small village structures. With an eye that seems to fight against her own memories of the place, Hanzlova has given the photographs an almost anthropological coldness, mixing highly aestheticized details, such as the yellow glow of light illuminating the barn where a freshly-killed sow has been laid out or the brightly coloured clothing of a boy standing in a muddy puddle, with a straight-forward, classical framing and a tightly composed pictorial structure.

Within the larger context of contemporary art, the five artists shortlisted for The Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize are exemplary in that each has demonstrated the ways in which photography continues to be at the forefront of dealing with current artistic preoccupations. Not only has the medium been a driving force behind some of the most important art historical advances, those that have forced us to question such fundamental issues as the relationship between art and representation, but it has proven, and continues to , prove, its capacity to visualise — and therefore help us get to grips with — the complexities and contradictions of the world around us. This, by any definition, is what only the best art can do.

Elizabeth Janus