My occasional visits to ffotogallery, are occasional because of the psychological barrier that makes me think it’s further away than it is. The train journey that is usual pretty simple and quick (although this time landslides and biblical levels of rain created some transport difficulties.) is just enough to encourage some doubt and laziness within me and keep me firmly rooted at home. Why I let this happen I can never understand because when I do arrive at the gallery I always receive unusual interesting and often beautiful stimulus.
This time the Photos are provided by an African artist Pieter Hugo. The photos are all portraits in a figurative and recognisable way, each series focusing on a different group of people of people from Africa. Downstairs a series of striking portrait photos (a standard simple form of a large head facing the camera in centre of the frame) show albino people. The formed faces stare out of the frame with engaging eyes. Looking back at them the tone is uncomfortable but not unpleasant. There is a confrontational edge at times but mostly there is nothing either positive or negative in the eye contact. Far from empty though, the photos seem genuinely touching. There is a sense of brutal honesty, an exposed vulnerability that happens between you and the photo (within your self and (apparently) the subject). Brutal honesty might start to explain the way that all the photo’s in the exhibition can be related. Upstairs, characters are photographed with pets although the pets (at least to us) seem unusual in that they are apes and hyenas, animals that we very readily place in a stereotypical bracket of ‘wild animal’. The pictures are clearly posed, in one a man wrenches open the jaws of his hyena, but this posing (and this scene in particular) fits the bravado and present strength of the animals. This seems to explain something about the person-pet relationship that exists here which is far from any kind of twee or playful man-animal unity. The animals are kept on scrap yard chains and seemed to display (or fail to hide) a distinct tension between them and their owner, there is a scent of violence hanging on them. Finally Three Judges sit in dark serene images that punctuate the exhibition. The Photos have a clarity and cleanness that doesn’t sit at ease with you. There is a sombre intelligence that acts as a barrier between you and the subjects. Far from the open awkwardness of the albino portraits, there is a sadness that happens here, a feeling like they are lost in some void, ripped out of natruality and normality. T
he exhibition gives you a strong sense that you have experienced something. The photos lead you to engage with them naturally. It’s as if the photos require your presence, like they are really trying to tell you something, and in a sense they can’t. But they engage with your feelings and your human response to that story or message that can’t quite arrive. This is the beguiling and fruitful relationship that get’s the photos stuck in your head, that won’t quite let you leave them.