Mary Macpherson

The photographs of Mary Macpherson – with a dash of poetry

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Bent images showing at Photospace

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One of the images from Bent currently showing at Photospace gallery, Wellington

Norfolk Pine shadow, Foxton, New Zealand

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Written by Mary Macpherson

13/08/2017 at 1:40 pm

Posted in Books, Photography

The second cousin in the dance – Teju Cole’s Blindspot

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Pairing writing with photographic images is a delicate act. It’s like putting clearly defined meaning up against a medium that speaks another language, and through the pairing suggesting what’s meant to be thought about an image.

The extremes range from a photojournalistic or gallery approach, which sees every image captioned, plus explanatory text, least you foolishly miss the subject’s point of view or what an image is meant to be illustrating.

At the other end of the scale  is the typical Mack photobook where you’re lucky to find the title and the photographer of the work. Any text is usually an oasis on the last page where a few acknowledgements, or line about when or where the work was done, may be offered. That’s when the photographs do the heavy lifting of conveying vision and meaning. Clues and interpretation come from online commentaries, interviews and reviews, but even with this information, meaning is conveyed visually – a kind of pre-language state of paying attention.

In between these extremes, there are essays at the front or back of books – to be ignored or read afterwards – notes to the photographs (think Alec Soth) or captions that pinpoint some critical element that shifts the frame around an image. At the recent William Eggleston Portraits show (see my recent post) I was struck the curator’s pleasure at persuading the photographer to name the subjects or tell the backstory to iconic images that had previously soared in their own mysteries. While the information was interesting, I was glad I’d first experienced the images in my imagination and could love them for their own account. I was interested when, in my project Bent, I captioned the works with the names of trees and added notes at the back of the book about human manipulation of the tree landscape, something about our ruthless cultivation of natural resources popped into focus. The subtle presence of words felt necessary.

Teju Cole’s Blindspot is a true hybrid of text and photographs.(Cole credits the text and photograph pairings from John Szarkowski’s book on Atget as inspiration). Cole’s photographs from his much traveled existence are paired with short meditative texts. Although the pairing is titled with the name of the place, presumably where the image was made, the texts often don’t relate specifically to the image, or stage a tangential take off from a detail. Cole is a master of poetic and philosophic thinking and the pieces are mini gem-like essays that seem at one with his latest book of essays Known and Strange Things. They also form a line back to Open City where his narrator Julius wanders the New York and gives us his insights into a broad range of subjects.

A sequence from Blindspot

Notably, the photographs are not whole views of any part of the world. Rather they’re extractions of sidewalk, construction and building details, featuring juxtaposition and careful composition, along with windows, screens and tarps, which seem to point to illusion, or the fractured nature of our perception. In their fragmentary state it’s easy to see the images as adjuncts to the accompanying thoughts, in the way a whole landscape or person might not be. In a recent interview on the Magic Hour , Cole says he wanted the photographs to be the quieter partner in the text/image pairing, and he’s achieved that.

While Blindspot is interesting reading, the photographs suffer in the dance between text and image. The texts come first on the left hand page, images on the right. In his Magic Hour interview Cole says he wanted to suggest there was more to the photograph than you’ll see by viewing. Even with tangential texts and little direct commentary on the image, I found it hard to respond to these quite cerebral images that were clearly second cousins to the main event, intent on taking you somewhere you were sure to miss if you’d been allowed your own thoughts about the image.

The texts,however, are often quite wonderful – you can read them for their sequences or as references to the blindspots in our reading of the world, or dip in and out of the book, enjoying the morsels. What I couldn’t do was look at the photographs and enjoy them, their language having been set straight by words.

Listen to Teju Cole on The Magic Hour http://www.magichourpodcast.org/

 

Written by Mary Macpherson

05/08/2017 at 3:43 pm

Going back to White Thread

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I’ve been going to back to my film work from the 1990s and getting scans of the negatives (thanks Sam from Goodsheet). The White Thread series explored things people could fear or desire, using the medium of white clothes and text. Like most of my work from that era it involved me staging scenarios and then photographing them.

White Thread

Humour, from the White Thread series, 1994.  (Image, copyright Mary Macpherson)

Written by Mary Macpherson

20/06/2017 at 9:22 pm

Being little geekish about Eggleston

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This will sound like a geek’s ‘Guide’ to Eggleston, but one of the things that most interested us about the William Eggleston Portraits show at the NGV in Melbourne was the printing. Of course, of course, the images were important (she says hastily) – the glorious Devoe Money on the flowered seat and many other famous, and less well known portraits – but it was the printing and its relationship to images in various books, and contemporary versus historic processes that we are still discussing.

In New Zealand, significant international work is usually encountered in books. Although trips overseas sometimes bring first-hand encounters (I still remember being shown some famous Eggleston images at the Frankel Gallery in the ’90s) but the reproduction in the book remains the prime source. As famous books are re-issued, new and better reproductions replace the images printed in the 70s and 80s.

In the Portraits show where they’d gone to lengths to source vintage prints, some surprises were in store. The much talked about dye transfer prints for example – well, quite often they weren’t that pleasant as exhibition prints. If the image had been taken in the shade or dim lighting, the pervading sense was of a print that was too dark. The reproductions of these images in books are often better to dwell on. There were exceptions, of course, such as the boy at the grocery store beautifully lit by the afternoon sun, but this was an exception rather than the rule.

Another ‘verdict’ we came to was that images printed as contemporary archival pigment prints were much superior and quite often gorgeous, for example the riveting, uneasy ‘Artist’s uncle Adyn Schuyler Senior with assistant Jasper Staples’, which sang as an ultra large contemporary print.

And there were other printing surprises too. The recent book of Eggleston’s Portraits which accompanies the exhibition, starts with early black and white work, sized to fill the page. In the book I found myself appreciating these in a rather distant way, impatient to get to the colour work. In the exhibition, the small vintage black and white prints were beautiful and all at once, the spirit of the images snapped into place.  The one C-type print in the show was of a romantic image of the artist’s children with flowers. As a small negative print it was full of delicacy and wonder. Enlarged in the book, the singing quality is gone.

All this fretting over relative merits of reproduction and sizes, has I think at the bottom a sense of unease about how relative significant photographic images are – today, they can be online, in a show, a book, a magazine, on your computer, in your phone or camera. If the images are those that are hardwired into the brain, it’s like your childhood memories unearthed and thrown up into the air to come down in thousands of different forms. But I also take pleasure in one of my favourite thoughts about the past from American poet Mark Doty explaining our understanding of our personal histories as: climbing the internal staircase of a lighthouse, spiralling around an experience, one’s perspective always changing and developing.

Phillip Prodger talking about the William Eggleston show

Head of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, London, Phillip Prodger giving a curator’s tour of the show at the NGV.

Exhibition: ‘William Eggleston Portraits’ at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Written by Mary Macpherson

08/04/2017 at 5:16 pm

Showing at the Melbourne Art Book Fair

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Excited to say I’ll be at the Melbourne Art Book Fair, 17 to 19 March, with my photobooks. I’ll be sharing a space with Peter Black and Rim Books.

See you there!

To preview our publications:

Mary Macpherson

Peter Black

  • Peter’s publications include The Shops, which was a finalist in the New Zealand Photobook of the Year Awards.
  • Follow Peter on Instagram

Rim Books

Melbourne Art Book Fair

Written by Mary Macpherson

27/02/2017 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Books, Photography

Landslides – the work of Gregory Halpern and Alice Oswald

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Gregory Halpern’s Paris Photo award-winning ZZYZX and Alice Oswald’s shortlisted for the Forward Prize Falling Awake, hardly need reviews from me. But perhaps no one has yet put them together in a commentary.

To plunge right in, which is what these works do, both smash through received wisdom in their respective mediums (photography and poetry), reminding one to take the hallucinatory or psychedelic seriously and believe in the raging guitar of musicians like Jimi Hendrix.

Halpern’s ZZYZX’s 6 x 7 negative photographs travel from the southern California desert, through Los Angeles to the sea, on a journey so subjective it functions like fiction – and like the best fiction it takes one to a place of emotional truth. Beautiful, thrusting, ambiguous portraits of down-and-out people loom in his wide verticals, as do rocks, birds, buildings, a rabbit and shattered glass. Running through it all is sunlight and dryness, with the book opening with an image of fire (something to fear in the land of drought). When we reach the sea at the edge of the dream, it’s not a wide blue welcoming expanse, but something rough and lurid that splashes against the lens.

Superb sequencing of related, yet wildly contrasting images, also hold the book together along with repeating references to hands and eyes and the primacy of sun on skin. This portrait of a land and its people, with it’s odd, beautiful thrusting images is music for our times, and sweeps aside desire for large/medium format, composed, soulful land and city scapes – begone endless documentary work it says. Begone endless work shot on overcast days. Work like this, done this well, has all the bite you’ll need.

 

The photobook ZZYZX and the poetry book Falling Awake

ZZYZX and Falling Awake

 

Despite loving gardening and the outdoors, nature poetry normally isn’t something I normally seek out. But acclaimed UK poet Alice Oswald put us face down in the dirt,  reminding that nature is about death, competition, disintegrating bodies and strange snuffling creatures – human, animals, insects and mythological figures. Her work opens with one of several vertigo inducing poems, this one about rain, and moves to flies, rotting swans and the severed head of  Orpheus floating downstream.

But it isn’t just radical subject matter that makes the poems rock. Oswald has the ability to twist a perspective or an experience, moving her lens up and down so it’s close up and personal.

Here’s the opening of Body, which plays with the finding of a badger’s body:

” This is what happened

the dead were setting in under their mud roof

and something was shuffling overhead

it was a badger treading on the thin partition ..”

and here’s the swan looking down at her own decomposing body in Swan

and leaving her life and all its tools

with their rusty juices trickling back to the river

she is taking last look …”

What makes these poems stand out isn’t only the viewpoint, it’s also the dense earthy language and a swinging gasping syntax that sweeps the reader with it, like a landslide of mud and stones. It seems as if the desire to see the world differently has, like Halpern’s work, found a perfect radical voice.

***

Here’s Gregory Halpern taking a well considered swipe at documentary work and academics:

http://www.americansuburbx.com/2013/05/asx-interview-gregory-halpern-on-documentary-ethics-2013.html

and a piece by Sean O’Hagen in The Guardian:

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/oct/15/gregory-halpern-zzyzx-photography-book-california-los-angeles

and an interview with Alice Oswald about her collection:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/22/alice-oswald-interview-falling-awake

Written by Mary Macpherson

27/12/2016 at 3:19 pm

Peter Ireland reviews ‘The Shops’ on Eye Contact

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Really thoughtful review by Peter Ireland of Steve Braunias and Peter Black’s The Shops on Eye Contact.

Written by Mary Macpherson

21/12/2016 at 10:36 am

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