Matthew Booth's Instances
by David Campany
In 1928 the German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch published the book Die Welt ist Schön (The World is Beautiful), one hundred photographs ranging across everything from plants, animals and trees to fabrics, architecture and industrial machinery. Renger-Patzsch was a versatile photographer of great technical ability, equally at ease with an advertising still life or reportage. Although a bestseller at the time, The World is Beautiful has a slightly dubious reputation because some notable critics disapproved. In particular, Walter Benjamin felt this was photography at its most conservative and complicit. The voracious and indiscriminate camera is permitted to eat up anything and everything, only to spit it out as aestheticized mush to be reconsumed by equally voracious and indiscriminate viewers. For Benjamin: “The creative in photography is its capitulation to fashion. The world is beautiful— that is its watchword. Therein is unmasked the posture of a photography that can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists, even where most far-fetched subjects are more concerned with saleability than with insight.”
How different it might have been had the publisher not insisted upon that title. Renger-Patzsch wanted to call his book Die Dinge. Things. No ‘world’, no ‘beautiful’, just ‘things’... seen in and as photographs. The publisher hoped to sew the world together; the photographer wanted to pull it apart and stare at it. And how differently we might view the movement with which Renger-Patzsch is associated. Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity doesn’t really get at the strange delirium that comes from trying to be new and soberly objective. Images won’t carry meanings the way trucks carry coal.
While Matthew Booth does not exactly take up Renger-Patzsch’s cause, his work is exemplary of a renewed tendency in photographic art towards range, motivated by a fascination with the thingliness of the world and its depictions. The subject matter, the techniques, the genres and the frames of reference are almost bewilderingly diverse. Each photograph is made on its own terms with its own aesthetic goals and challenges. Booth makes no series, sets or suites of images, preferring the Haiku-like qualities of the photograph as discrete depiction or proposition. And then the careful choreography for the wall of these separate specimens puts forward a mosaic impression. A straight documentary picture rubs shoulders with an arch scene of overt contrivance. A scientific looking document is placed in relation to a still life. Booth’s presentations are clusters of non-sequiturs that ask to be seen as a partial map of the photographic universe.
Photography became modern in the 1920s through this dialectic between the one and the many. It was a medium that had penetrated every corner of life and this was to be accepted as its condition. Whatever status photography would have in art would be connected with its status outside of art. So the gallery became a space to look from the sidelines at the general field of the photographic, to engage directly or indirectly with a commentary upon the image world at large.
Art has thus come to function either as an operating table to which the different forms of the photographic are brought for creative reflection, or as a set upon which they can be can be reworked and restaged. These two metaphors—operating table and set—map the two key impulses of photographic art: the forensic interest in detail and the theatrical interest in mise-en-scène, or staging. All photography as art is somehow obliged to enter into a dialogue either with its potentials as evidence and artifice. So whatever the richness of photography’s artistic project, its status is not autonomous but heteronomous and will not resolve. This is the source of its renewal and its productive ambiguity.
Matthew Booth’s varied photographic practice accepts this predicament and uses its energy. He is a thoroughly reflexive image-maker, equally aware of the myriad ways his medium is able to hint at its own condition. For example, a snow-white still life- cum-landscape of ambiguous dimension shows the crumbly, undulating surface of diatomaceous earth, one of those naturally occurring substances with countless industrial applications. You find it in plastics, rubbers, toothpaste, insecticide and as a matting agent in the manufacture of photographic paper. Titled simply Diatomaceous Earth (2010) the image plays with photography’s love of surface while underscoring its own industrial sheen. Meanwhile Studio surfaces (2011) is Booth’s take on the empty space of creativity. On a mottled grey floor, a square marble tile (or is it plastic?) rests against a mirror (or it is a photograph?) propped against a shabby white wall. Planes and spaces multiply out of next to nothing. Finishing Room (2012) shows blue rubber gloves on a polishing machine, on which is a safety notice: ‘Always Use Approved Eye Protection When Using Any Hand or Power Tool’. Linhof Master Technika 2000 (2012) shows the body of the eponymous camera without its lens, placed on a mid-grey backdrop as an impromptu meta-still life. In Fluorescent tubes, New Haven, CT (2011), the white tubes lay on white snow lit by an unknown artificial source. Shadows of saplings fall across the tubes. It’s a deft and incongruous riff on photography’s age-old attraction to light. Other works hint at the slippery place of photography in our era of technological convergence. Two images, both titled August 8, 2009 (2010 and 2011) give us different versions of a fatal mid- air collision of a helicopter and light airplane over the Hudson River, which was originally caught by an amateur photographer on a Circle Line Cruise. In Santos Party House (2010) youthful hands converge on an iPhone, picked out from the gloom by flashlight that makes it look like an advertising shoot from some ill-defined era.
Whatever these images may suggest about the medium they do so in relation to the variety of environments in which cameras are found and bound. When photography is only photography it isn’t even photography. The medium’s dependence on subject matter throws even the most hermetic image out of itself and into other things.
For much of the history of the medium the word ‘instant’ has been associated with matters of time. Shutters clicking, flashes flashing, motion arrested for contemplation or close inspection. No doubt these associations are with us still although in art at least they have become rather convoluted. But then there is the photograph as ‘instance’, less dramatic perhaps but with just as much bearing on our understanding of photography. Instance as ‘example’. ‘For instance’. ‘Consider this’. ‘May I draw your attention to?’ Photography points out and presents the world as a sign of itself. ‘Look. Behold.’ This simple act of ostension, or pointing out, can be disarming. Have you ever seen close-up magic, where you sit at a table opposite someone who proceeds to fox you in the name of entertainment? Cards tricks performed slowly. Cups and balls. Metal rings. The more the magician plays it like an instructional demonstration, the more perplexing it is. Only in photography is the act of laying bare a source of profound inscrutability.