Escape – Essay by Matthias Harder – Director of the Helmut Newton Foundation

Essay in the book Escape

Matthias Harder – Director of the Helmut Newton Foundation

Historically, and before the use of digital technologies, a professional photographer used the Polaroid camera on behalf of agencies or magazines to immediately see a picture of the situation he or she had created. It enabled the artist to check the composition, light and the general balance of the image. The Polaroid’s immediacy gave the photographer a reasonable estimation of the tableaux in front of a non-instant format camera before he or she committed to film. Helmut Newton, Steven Shore, Ralph Gibson and Chris von Wangenheim are examples of artists that belonged to this category during the 1970s and 1980s. In their understanding, the Polaroid itself was not dissimilar to a sketch of an idea. However, some photographers also used this special photographic technique autonomously and experimentally as an end in itself. This still happens in contemporary terms, even though the “real” instant Polaroid films were discontinued in the early 2000’s. Charles Johnstone is an artist who understands the value of the Polaroid as an end result, and considers its function as a work of art that is worthy of praise.

Johnstone is interested in photographing people with his Polaroid camera. His sensitive eye and his inclination towards the human body provide the small and intimate 10x10cm frame with an aura not unlike a jewel or a gem. The uniqueness of the Polaroid photograph in its instant and non-reproducible form gives the impression of being overly authentic, as it cannot exist in multiples. The subjects, whether nudes, still life or portraits from Johnstone’s camera become charged with this matchless quality, which also offers a timeless significance. When assembled in book form, the inestimable nature of Johnstone’s Polaroids provides a treasury of a rarity and gilded form. His publications, often in very small editions, become collectible tomes of intimate photography.

Charles Johnstone works in a serial manner with his titles. He tends to consider the format of the trilogy perfect for his conceptual rigor. In considering this seriality, he has worked on several different bodies of work with the same arch-theme present — that of the muse and the collaboration. “The Girl in the Fifth Floor Walkup” is one of Johnstone’s books in which he has collaborated with his muse, friend and co-conspirator Heather Malesson. The duo play with the omni-present questions concerning the camera, the author and the subject and draw parallels between what is considered voyeuristic and what is considered permissive between the two roles that produce and govern the dialogue of the photographic images they create.

In their new book, ESCAPE, the artist duo continue their journey of making images creating a plausible world in which the discovery of a non-linear and fantasy-driven story of an upstate New York foray, plays out as an act between the two characters in which the parables of invention and revelation of who is controlling the camera become the central dialogue. The images present themselves as anachronistic and seem to be from a different time, suggesting that the way in which we “read” time in photography can also be re-calibrated, manipulated and exchanged for the purposes of challenging the viewer as to their understanding of photography itself. Malesson creates an enigma of persona that reminds us of Cindy

Sherman and her notorious Film Stills. She is provocative, insular and exhibits a gift of self-imposed autonomy over each delicate frame. We do not see her as a subject, but rather as the dominant presence over that of Johnstone’s position as operator of the camera. She commands his eye, his gestures and his motivation. This is a reversal of roles for the photographer who is usually accustomed to capturing the subjects before his lens. In creating this world driven by the subject, we are able, through provocation and the sensuous delivery of terms, to consider Malesson as more than a muse. Thus her role as chief instigator is cemented in the form of these instantaneous photographs while Johnstone lends his unerring eye to the drama unfolding. Together, they are performing the perfect symbiosis, as both characters are necessary in order to interrogate the power dynamic.

In choosing the Polaroid, the pair has entered into a larger dialogue with the world of its functionality that hovers between fashion, glamour, nude, and the playful and tacitly explicit form of the instant gratification found in Polaroid film from which they shot with three different types. The duo tracked down outdated and illusive boxes of the film that have been sequestered in refrigerators around the world. The manufacturing of Polaroid film was discontinued over a decade ago making the photographs and this book something of a bygone and rare treasure. It is a product of an age that, like the film itself, has expired. It asks the viewer to respond to its expiration and its timeless quality by invoking certain nostalgia that one cannot place easily, which in turn crafts the larger product into an artful and opaque enigma. Here the medium of photography is liberated from its realistic representative quality. Charles Johnstone and Heather Malesson confront us in ESCAPE with an immediacy and intensity of representation that we cannot resist nor forget.

Matthias Harder
Director of the Helmut Newton Foundation

5th Floor Productions

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