I am not looking at photographs, I’m looking at people looking at photographs of people (and writing this). I’m at Only in England a collection of the works of photographers Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr at the Walker Gallery.
Which is considering it’s a damp Tuesday is quite busy. People gather around images of other people, people caught in a moment. Can’t put my finger on it but there’s a strange voyeuristic feeling about the process. As if each photo is a window onto a private section of a life.
I quickly notice that many people are approaching the photographs and pointing calling attention to a certain detail or aspect of the image. Often this action is connected with a memory or nostalgia, responses to the images include “Do you remember?” or “..on Thrusdays you could get tea and cake..”
It begs the question, what are people seeing when they look at these photographs? Is it more than the deadpan recording of light on chemically treated paper. Or a number of moments, deemed important by the photographers’ eye. A selected fraction of a second of a life caught for ongoing examination. Again where back to voyeurism.
Due the photographs themselves act as a mirror in which the viewer can see a reflection of themselves. Not the whole self but fractions which allow aspects of memory and expectation to be released.
As the viewer’s more from image to image, there reflections form some can of judgement or conclusion on the figures which inhabit that two dimensional plain. Look at their faces, their dresses, their behaviour. Perhaps a strange disconnect occurs between the present and the past, or in this case a captured past.
Regarding the photographs as a captured past, brings me to consider that these photographs somehow provide us with an eternal present. The places, people within the photographs are free from time and have no past, present or future.
Of course this offers the viewer the opportunity to look, to stare, to gawp, to really lean in. In ways that is usually socially unacceptable. The people in the photographs aren’t here, like were here in the gallery space and therefore the social rules do not apply.
All part of the cameras ability to create a distance between subject and viewer. The distance is compounded by the fact the photographs are in black and white and seem to be produced by analogue means. This plus the subject matter cement these images into a collective idea of the past, they mark an undefinable difference between then and now.
This idea of the difference between a then and a now leads me to what maybe an obvious question. How do these images relate to the current proliferation of photographs throughout the likes of the internet?
What are we attempting when we snap and post that image of something strange, funny, a cat? Are we somehow attempting a freeze a moment? To disconnect and remove ourselves from that moment in order that we can look externally upon that moment and spark the sensations and motivations which created the image in the first place.
Within the act of snapping a photo is this idea of spontaneity of capturing a moment, though that is often untrue. Even though that idea has attached itself indelibly to photography no matter who is controlling the lens.
Equally the photograph is shorthand for the past. As I said they become a collective memory of the past. Yet the physically photograph becomes no more immune to the passing of time, no more than we are. For once the photographs in this exhibition whereas achingly modern as any selfie.
Only the people and places that once reflected light that shone on treated film remain untouched by time.