The Saatchi Gallery is a large exhibition space and the Out of Focus survey of contemporary photography is a large exhibition, possibly too large to absorb in one go. But that is what twenty six of us set out to do on Saturday. It would be pointless to try to summarise the day, so here are some personal thoughts on just a small sample of the work.
The first room hits you with twenty prints by Katy Grannan from her Boulevard series and student reaction was mixed and vociferous. For Grannan, images such as this ‘represent the range of prideful individuality among human beings, and their common fate, symbolised by that ubiquitous white wall. Or at least that’s what the Gallery guide says the images mean for Katy Grannan. It is very clear that this is not just straight documentary photography, but is clearly referencing Avedon’s In the American West and although the light is described as ‘the blinding glare of the Californian sun’ there is a sense that that sun has been carefully supplemented (with reflectors, soft boxes?) to create images which are no less controlled than those of Phillip Lorca DiCorcia.
Reactions were mixed from the study group members. Personally I felt the initial impact as a visceral shock and it is very easy to be repulsed. What is Grannan trying to do with images such as this? The more I looked, the more I came to appreciate the work however. This image, which had been chosen for the exhibition catalogue cover, speaks to me of resilience. The woman who may well be damaged by excessive exposure to the Californian sun is not a helpless old lady held up for ridicule, but someone who despite no longer meeting the exacting standards of ‘Because You’re Worth It’ culture, still matches her fuschia coat, blouse and lipstick before facing the world. [One of the great features of the Saatchi website is that it has really good galleries of the work on exhibition - so while other students who did not come to the study visit will not get the same physical experience, it is possible to form a view of the work by clicking through the images here]
David Benjamin Sherry‘s work also occupied a whole room. Not sure why.
Continuing round, it was good to see a wall of images from JH Engström’s early Trying to Dance collection and relate it to his interview in which he describes how he came to be a photographer. Equally, it was puzzling to see only one image by Elina Brotherus and multiple images by Pinar Yolacan which struck me as simplistic to the point of irritating – we are what we eat? Never thought of that before.
If I had to live the rest of my life confined to one room, it would be Gallery 10. The huge triptych by Mat Collishaw (Corona in the centre with Eighth Day on the left and Madonna on the right) paired with Noémie Goudal‘s haunting Les Amants images felt like the work that would be on the walls in Neil Young’s After the Goldrush moment.
Over coffee a member of the study group told me he felt the work had little to do with photography and was art. I am not sure the categorisation matters. A lot of the work was created to be photographed, but there were glimpses (and more than glimpses) of the potential of the medium. Yes it was a messy sprawling show as Sean O’Hagan said in the Guardian and although it is now closed, the catalogue is a must buy, if only for the essay by William A Ewing