Review: The naked eyes

By Adrian Hamilton

Three big names in American culture redefined photography, writes Adrian Hamilton

Burroughs is pictured in the Hotel Villa Mouniria Garden, Tangier. Photo / AP, courtesy of the William S. Burroughs Estate, supplied by the Photographers' Gallery, London.
Burroughs is pictured in the Hotel Villa Mouniria Garden, Tangier. Photo / AP, courtesy of the William S. Burroughs Estate, supplied by the Photographers' Gallery, London.

We have grown used to gallery curators digging into the photographic efforts of painters to search out their experiments and inspirations.

Now the Photographers' Gallery in London has gone one step further with a show of the snapshots of three writers and film directors. Not just any literary or cinematic figures, mind you, but three of the biggest names in postwar American culture: William Burroughs, David Lynch and Andy Warhol, all of them obsessive snappers in their own way, who have taken pictures throughout much of their careers in other fields.

Whether that makes them good photographers is another question. It's also the wrong one. Each in his own way has taken up the camera as a means of exploring his obsessions, memories and beliefs in his own art. None of them, with the possible exception of Lynch, set out to be photographers as such. It was a means to an end.

Of the three, the most interesting is the writer William Burroughs of Naked Lunch fame.

It is 100 years since his birth (he died in 1997) and this is claimed to be the first show devoted to his photographic work. Yet he took snaps nearly all his life with a variety of cameras, having them processed in the local pharmacy before playing around with collage, juxtaposition. You can see the attraction. For a man who believed in taking words and mixing them up, fragmenting grammar and context so as better to capture sensation and time in verbal form, photographs were the clearest way to achieving the same with visual images.

There's a fascinating series of photos he took of a street accident that happened just below his New York apartment. He takes shots of the crowd that gathers, the van that has presumably caused it and the damaged car, using the camera to capture the multiple viewpoints: what has happened, what is developing and what might lie in the future. The point is to make the camera your eyes and take what your eyes are scanning out of the larger picture, he wrote, compelled, as so many artists were, by the way that images in the modern world were mediated and partly predetermined by the photographs in newspapers and on television.

By the same token, Burroughs was quick to turn to collage as a means of giving the photograph a new life by juxtaposing, overlaying and cutting out details. He called them cut-ups and fold-ins, developing the technique with artist Brion Gysin, whom he met in Morocco, and the mathematician Ian Sommerville, who had evolved the concept of photo-reduction in which whole collections of photographs could be montaged and the resulting montage montaged with others until the entire lot was reduced to a single photographic frame.

Ever concerned with time and the manner in which an object or an occasion could contain both the past and the future, he applied this both to portraits of friends and to shots of locations in which he himself appears, but only as a shadow or implied presence.

In another series he photographs a bed before and after sex, the sheets rumpled then stained before the red cover is put back on and the bed restored to tidy anonymity. As time goes on the lure of the composed shot becomes stronger, the pictures more composed and the collages more deliberately arty. He creates montages of his own life and childhood, the edges overdrawn with fierce ink swirls.

Andy Warhol was an artist already. But from 1976, when he bought a pocket Minox camera, he became a compulsive snapper. It was part of his obsessive diary-keeping of moments, recorded on tape recorder and dictated daily, but also an expression of his belief in the reproducible image as the core of contemporary visual language. He had used Polaroids and enlarged photographs in his prints but now, with a compact instrument of endless versatility in his pocket, he went out to shoot anything and everything he came across.

Like Burroughs, Warhol was fascinated by photomontage. Where Burroughs was interested in the juxtaposition, Warhol was more intrigued by repetition. He would send four or more successive shots of the same object to a seamstress to be stitched together like a cloth. The minute differences in the framing of the repeated picture created a sense of movement and life. He tried the same with different light exposures in a theatrical series of Jerry Hall Reclining on Couch taken in 1976.

His prolific photographic output, however, was largely directed at a form of photojournalism as he shot copious pictures and then assembled them into series on market, street scenes, gay rights demonstrations and still lifes. The oddity is his eye. Although people frequently appear in them, and some are of his friends and those he meets, there is a quality of stillness in the shots that makes them peculiarly inanimate. A man in white shorts sleeps face down in one of his People in the Street series as wooden as the struts of the bench on which he lies. A series of photographs of buildings are marked less by what they say than the precision of the composition and the sense of space around. They may have been meant as diurnal records of place but, chosen and printed, they appear as the product of a visual eye increasingly trained by experience.

You could say the same about David Lynch's pictures. Throughout Lynch's career he has sought out and taken black-and-white pictures of empty and derelict industrial sites in Europe and America. Displayed here for the first time in Europe, they reflect an eye used to the camera and a mind attracted, as one might expect from the director of such films as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, to eerie places of decay and soullessness. Pulling back, the camera catches the clear lines and brute presence of industrial structures. Moving in, it frames the open door, the dusty window and the broken pipe. Far more than Warhol or Burroughs, Lynch's eye catches the detail and embraces the texture of wall, weed and metal. His works are both expressive and monumental, without the presence of man but a product of him.

Industrial landscapes have been the subject of innumerable photographic essays over the past half century and more. What makes these different is the sense of the mind behind.

Most professional photographers use pictures to tell of place and time, keeping themselves at a distance from the subject. Lynch's pictures tell of a viewer seeking out what connects with the person behind the lens.

Mood is as important as composition.

Andy Warhol: Photographs 1976-1987, Taking Shots: the Photography of William S. Burroughs, David Lynch: the Factory Photographs, The Photographers' Gallery, London, to March 30

- Independent

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