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13 October 2010

Wendy McGowan discovers new meanings behind our interpretation of everyday photographs in The House of Vernacular

photo of two young boys from Martin Parr collection

Photo Paintings from North East Brazil, © Collection Titus Riedl. Courtesy of Nazraeli Press

Fabrica Gallery in Brighton have created a tableau-setting in which to exhibit seven collections of vernacular photography selected by Martin Parr, as part of the Brighton Photo Biennial. I was curious to see how it would come together after my visit during the installation. Moving through the rooms of the exhibition, has the feel of a fairground attraction, with that same sense of fascination and foreboding.

The entrance to the exhibition is a shop-like setting, that is, the kind of shop where the owners might live on-site and may be just 'out-the-back'. This leaves the customer-viewer a bit anxious about what is being sold - a few hats, china, domestic objects, a cine camera? Perhaps the objects are being sold on? This gives us a clue to the exhibition. It is about selling and about the past.

The visitor is soon invited into the bosom of the household to explore the complexities of the family of vernacular photography. What we witness in each room is a conjunction of more intimate truths with the politics of everyday life. This is at once painful, difficult, frightening, funny and inevitable. What the exhibition demonstrates is the success and failure of the strategy of vernacular photography itself.

The first room features a series of painted portrait photographs and simulates a Brazilian home where any of the images might have originally been displayed. The individual and family portraits; of the young, the old and the deceased have been coloured and re-touched. Hair has been tidied - with a paint brush. Lively colours and smart clothes have been added and family members 'arranged' in unity, to show their best face to the world.

photo of elderly couple kissing

The Corinthians (couple kissing) featuring amateur American family snapshots, 1947 to 1974 © Archive of Modern Conflict

The photographer/painter becomes like a sideshow 'trickster' offering the power of transformation, creating a deception, which is supported by the collective imagination. The photographs are staged to discourage the viewer to question their presentation. You get the feeling that it would have been impolite to do so, especially in the intimacy of someone's home. The viewer is inevitably reminded of their own family, of how and where, it has been observed by strangers. As with many family photographs they fail in their intention to obscure the pain, the fear of poverty, rifts and bereavements that threaten it.

The second room again creates a simulation of a domestic room, this time drawn from a series of snapshots of American family life from 1947 - 1974. The snapshots at first seem random out of their original context and here have lost their intimacy, revealing instead something of the overall culture within which they were taken.

Even, the ‘daring’ photographs of semi-nude women taken within the home, become just one more image of what people do. There is an irony in the subject matter and the way subjects exaggerate and display themselves. Photographs of men with guns and flags whose aim was to appear proud and patriotic just seem vulnerable in their humanity.

The third room contains a series of photographs of litter-bins, displayed in what simulates a concrete urban space where the bins might have been installed. Each image reveals the ingenuity of design, and the lengths to which designers have gone, to convince us of what we should do with litter. In one, a well-dressed man, shows us what we should do, to be like him. However it is clear that to be human is to subvert such pressure. We might not want to be like him, or to be persuaded. A "No Ball Games" sign printed on the wall further hints at our resistance.

image of the inside of a luxurious aeroplane

Dictators Aeroplanes © Nick Gleis, Aeroplane Interior, Archive of Modern Conflict

The next room moves to a more overt form of 'political' vernacular photography. Images are projected onto a screen and are reflected in a pool within a huge square black box that the viewer stands inside. In the darkness it is at first like being in the cinema, but the message of the images are so blatant and repeated that, as each timed image drops down it becomes a sort of hypnosis.

This well-resourced, state sanctioned imagery attempts to convince a post war German population that all is well. The family is safe and housed, there is food in the shops and aeroplanes are now for holidays. The viewer must put aside what they might know of the recent losses and division, tragedy and devastation of their country. However, the skill and perfection of these images only serves to assure the viewer, that reality must be therefore, too fearful to contemplate.

The following room that houses ‘Dictator's Jets of the 60's and 70's’ is designed to implicate the viewer in the opulence of the aeroplane interiors shown. The room is shaped like the inside of the body of such an aeroplane, and the 'luxury' carpet, lighting and shiny mirror add to this effect.

We might reflect in that curved mirror on what we are doing here at all, allowing ourselves to be fascinated and amazed by the images of these glitzy bathrooms and the spacious double bedrooms. How can so much fit in to these spaces? Wealth and power can demand such magic, to show its command of the world, but suddenly as the telescope collapses it might occur to us that this castle could fall out of the sky.

image of a man on a street wearing a suit, hat and dark glasses

Jose Emilio Fornaris, Men in Hats, © Archive of Modern Conflict

The next series is a collection of photographs of children and infants all taken at a studio in Amsterdam. This is a world of pride and high hopes that are hopelessly unfulfilled. What a parent might want to show is clearly not fulfilled here as the babies ‘sitting’ for their portraits, keel over as they cannot sit, and mainly fail to smile, as they are confused by what is going on.

However even though the propaganda fails it is probably still counter-balanced by a collective taboo against any other view than that babies are always beautiful and appealing.

The final room is a slideshow projection of almost life-size images of men in hats on the streets of Bogata. We are confronted by them, as if we are in the street ourselves observing and being observed, and it reveals how these men stage themselves "street style" using their hats to articulate their image. Funny, cheeky, too big, too small, jaunty - the choice of hats is both revealing of character and concealing. Does the man accommodate the hat, or the hat the man?

My journey through the 'House of Vernacular' is finished, and I come out, loaded with new feelings, thoughts and images. It is difficult to describe a world of illusion once you are out of it. I am back in the 'shop' where I started but something has changed. I stop to consider what strange creatures we are. We not only want to escape from reality, but we must take others with us.

The House of Vernacular is on show at Fabrica Gallery, Brighton until 28 November 2010.

To see a filmed interview with Fabrica Co-Director Matthew Miller go to DAOs profile section

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