There are too many photographers. Far, far too many. As the truism goes, these days everyone with a mobile phone is a photographer. Not only that, but everyone who’s been photographed is a celebrity. Current devalued concepts of achievement in the public sphere mean that the ever-increasing number of portrait photographers are faced with a chronic shortage of real, vital personalities worth photographing. (Celebrity chefs, boy bands, soap stars and their ilk – really?)
Major cultural figures are in short supply. Perhaps more to the point, the ones we’ve got don’t occupy the same space that they might have done 30 or even 20 years ago. Artists, writers, and thinkers used to be listened to as public figures; we’ve got no time for that now. For an ambitious portrait photographer, there are forums for the dissemination of photographic portraits as art, but such well-meaning, prize-giving endeavours seem culturally marginal and a more than little academic, when you compare them to the oracular power of a photograph that everyone was going to be looking at, of a person everyone was listening to.
Enter: a portfolio of limpidly beautiful portraits by Dmitri Kasterine, derived from his career as an editorial photographer in London and New York from 1960 to the 1990s. Looking at these pictures now, it is hard not to think, a little bitterly, that Dmitri was fortunate to be working before the internet, the population explosion, and a thousand TV channels splintered our attention forever; but it is also clear that he has the rare ability – it is genuinely rare – to photograph any human being with sovereign insight. His portrayal of everyday English life may be seen in this series of posts we ran in 2011; today, we are showing a selection from his chronicle of London’s intellectual life during the 70s-90s.
Part of Dmitri’s shtick (it almost looks like a shtick, these days) is an unassuming method: unobtrusive lighting, plain backgrounds, tones in the middle register … With simple means and an instinct for the essential, he penetrates his subjects’ defences far beyond the remit of a magazine portrait. Take the portraits of the actors on this page. There is genuine pain in his study of David Niven; Dirk Bogarde was reportedly unhappy with Kasterine’s portrait, its piercing honesty too much for the old matinee idol; and Michael Caine, denied his usual opportunity for Bermondsey charm or gangster menace, is revealed as a shrewd tycoon in ‘70s eyewear. Roald Dahl poses jauntily enough in summer gear, but his reptilian stare flatly contradicts his clothes’ carefree attitude, and forbids the viewer to find anything amusing. Paul Theroux, on the other hand, appears as if playing the part of a novelist: dominated by his accessories, he seems uncomfortable with the costume that wardrobe has assigned him.
Michael Caine, London, 1973. © Dmitri Kasterine.
Dmitri’s portrait of Kingsley and Martin Amis is a forensic document of English letters’ most awkward dynastic double act – Kingsley in his proto-Thatcherite pomp, the broken arm a possible souvenir of a drunken bender, and Martin exhausted by the sheer effort of trying to write better novels than his father. Anthony Powell determinedly maintains his aristocratic poise in the face of encroaching age, but the price is a whiff of camp – by contrast, Francis Bacon defiantly shows us the youthful hustler he once was.
Dmitri moved to America in 1985 and continued his career in New York: his Stateside subjects range from Saul Bellow to Cindy Sherman, Johnny Cash to Jean-Paul Basquiat, Steve Martin to Mick Jagger. Like Irving Penn, he captures his sitters by stealth. Now 80, he lives in Newburgh, New York, where he has been photographing the city and its inhabitants since 1992.
So many photographers are called to the profession with the burning desire to document the world, and that’s a noble thing. The gift is actually to be able to see it.
… for The London Column.
Tennyson Street, Battersea. Photo © David Secombe 1982.
From Hill of Dreams, Arthur Machen, 1907:
It was not till the winter was well advanced that he began at all to explore the region in which he lived. Soon after his arrival in the grey street he had taken one or two vague walks, hardly noticing where he went or what he saw; but for all the summer he had shut himself in his room, beholding nothing but the form and colour of words. [. . .]
Now, however, when the new year was beginning its dull days, he began to diverge occasionally to right and left, sometimes eating his luncheon in odd corners, in the bulging parlours of eighteenth-century taverns, that still fronted the surging sea of modern streets, or perhaps in brand new “publics” on the broken borders of the brickfields, smelling of the clay from which they had swollen. He found waste by-places behind railway embankments where he could smoke his pipe sheltered from the wind; sometimes there was a wooden fence by an old pear-orchard where he sat and gazed at the wet desolation of the market-gardens, munching a few currant biscuits by way of dinner. As he went farther afield a sense of immensity slowly grew upon him; it was as if, from the little island of his room, that one friendly place, he pushed out into the grey unknown, into a city that for him was uninhabited as the desert.
At 11.30 a.m. (UK) today, Thursday 4 July, Radio 4 is broadcasting a documentary about Arthur Machen and his ‘disturbing’ visions of a world beyond our own.
I love my body at the moment…..it’s not that I think it looks good (according to whatever criteria one uses to define a good looking body)……..it’s just that it is all I’ve got but this bloody disease is chipping away at it and I am hanging on to what physicality I still have…….and maybe that is why I do so much photography and filming in the nude………..well, partly why………..I do feel that clothes make statements which is fine but a body is just you, unadorned…….and it says so much more…….no I can’t tell you what more it says for I am a bear of little brain………..
In the luminous glass box of the Guardian Gallery, situated in the foyer of the newspaper’s offices in King’s Cross, I am surrounded by images of one man. This man is not a cultural figure or head of state; he is an ex-solicitor from Surrey who took early retirement following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. The occasion is the private view of Over The Hill: A Photographic Journey, subtitled ‘One man’s confrontation with his own mortality’, an exhibition (sponsored by Parkinson’s UK) featuring the work of 30 out of the 240-odd photographers who have photographed Tim Andrews since 2008. I was invited because the image above was selected – by The Guardian – as one of the exhibits.
Over The Hill is an unusual undertaking inasmuch as it is a form of extended self-portraiture by someone who is not an artist. Tim Andrews expresses himself by making himself available to photographers to photograph. One tries to think of precedents but the only one I can offer is that of a Renaissance prince, a Medici or similar, commissioning many portraits in order to contemplate his corporeal being. The difference between Tim Andrews and your average Medici is that Tim likes to be portrayed in the buff, and foregrounds this preference in discussions with the photographers. As indicated by the quote above, Tim equates nakedness with truthfulness, but this has always been contentious and is even more so when spoken by a subject keen to get his kit off for the camera.
At any rate, a wide range of photographers have been happy to photograph Tim and many have taken him up on his offer to disrobe; yet whilst their sympathy towards their subject is palpable, there are more than a few images wherein he appears as no more than a conceptual prop. The ex-solicitor is asked to represent weighty themes: the ‘identity of the body’, the nature of disability, and, yes, the confrontation with mortality. We see him as a wood nymph, as a saint, as Shiva, etc. Forensic psychological portraiture is at a premium (notable exceptions include Harry Borden and Alex Boyd) and there is also a note of competition, as big names and aspiring art photographers vie with each other to create the most eye-catching image of an increasingly desirable ‘scalp’.
What do we know about Tim Andrews? I can tell you that he is a very nice man who didn’t like being a solicitor – he really wanted to be an actor – who is one of the 127,000 people in the UK who suffer from Parkinson’s. I don’t know if Over The Hill tells us anything we didn’t already know about the condition – a difficult disease to depict in a still image – but it reveals something about Tim Andrews, and quite a lot about the nature of modern fame. His journey from frustrated provincial solicitor to art world pin-up has all the key ingredients of an Arts & Lifestyle feature: mid-life crisis, sudden illness, confessional memoir, nudity, and the glamour of association with celebrity (the distant connection between Tim Andrews and the famous subjects of the better-known photographers involved). I don’t doubt that Tim Andrews is anything less than utterly sincere, but it is hard to overlook the compulsive exhibitionism – masochism, even – of the project. And despite the accomplishment of much of the work in it, Over The Hill has the feeling of a scrapbook: Tim gives the pictures titles and adds a whimsical, inward-looking commentary that tends to smother them. No image is allowed to speak on its own terms. There is a lot going on here, but it needs someone other than the subject of the photos to unpack it.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the project is the oblique insight it affords us into the mystery of portraiture. Some of the most memorable faces on the planet are people famous only for their appearance in a great image: August Sander’s farmers, Paul Strand’s blind woman, Brassai’s drinker, Don McCullin’s shell-shocked marine, Diane Arbus’s boy in curlers, Eve Arnold’s Chinese lady, etc. We know nothing about the histories of these people but the images are indelible. On the other hand, we have the Great photographed by the Great; so here’s Francis Bacon by Bill Brandt, Truman Capote by Irving Penn, Ezra Pound by Richard Avedon, Camus by Cartier-Bresson – and, for that matter, Graham Greene by Dmitri Kasterine. Such portraits have myth-making capacity. By contrast, the subject of Over The Hill is both anonymous and celebrated; an ordinary man made extraordinary by the elaborate attention paid to him. It’s a cute story but, inevitably, the law of diminishing returns applies. The endless repetition of Tim’s body, with and without clothes, becomes a hall of mirrors: the more distorted the reflection, the less we apprehend the person in the frame. What the viewer sees is Tim looking at the photographers looking at him looking at them.
But none of these caveats really matter. It is clear that being seen is Tim’s overriding concern, the images themselves are of secondary importance. His story is redolent of an Edwardian bohemian fantasy, and if he’d lived in an earlier era he might have inspired a novel by Arnold Bennett or Somerset Maugham. He is The Man Who Lived Again; and he has used his failing body to proclaim his existence.
Over The Hill runs at the Guardian Gallery, King’s Place, London N1, until 21st June. A selection from the project is also on show at the Farley Farm House gallery, Sussex, during June and July.
Stanley Kubrick on the set of A Clockwork Orange. © Dmitri Kasterine 1969.
From A Clockwork Orange, dir.: Stanley Kubrick, 1971:
………………………………One thing I could never stand was to see a filthy, dirty old drunkie,
………………………………howling away at the filthy songs of his fathers and going blurp
………………………………blurp in between as it might be a filthy old orchestra in his stinking,
………………………………rotten guts. I could never stand to see anyone like that, whatever his
………………………………age might be, but more especially when he was real old like this one
(… and with that, Alex and his three droogs start attacking an old tramp lying in the underpass shown below.)
This week’s offering on The London Column is a short series on Stanley Kubrick’s use of London as a giant prop basket. Dmitri Kasterine’s portrait shows the director in his pomp: extravagantly booted, Arriflex to the ready, the world-conquering auteur of 1969. Only 41, he already has The Killing, Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and 2001: A Space Odyssey behind him, an amazing achievement – which might explain why he looks a little weary. But his tiny camera and huge boots suggest the nature of his new project, a film far removed from the 70mm, Cinerama world of 2001. SK’s new one is set much nearer home.
Kubrick’s withdrawal of A Clockwork Orange in the UK - a ban that lasted from the late ’70s until his death - lent the film a mystique for all those British film fans unable to see it. I bought a pirated VHS tape of it (£15 in 1991) from a stall in Greenwich market and was, inevitably, hugely disappointed. A friend who watched it with me commented ‘Whatever I expected, this isn’t it.’ It is prescient in many ways, especially in its depiction of the dissemination of sexualised imagery (even if it exhibits some old-world sexism in the process), but time has not been kind to the Kubrick/Burgess brand; Kubrick’s other films of the ’60s and ’70s stand up much better. But it remains a terrific showcase for 1960s architecture.
Kubrick shot A Clockwork Orange quickly and cheaply in found locations within easy reach of his Hertfordshire lair. Carefully chosen new builds in Wandsworth, Uxbridge, Sydenham, West Norwood, Borehamwood and, most famously, Thamesmead, served as ready-made cycloramas for the director’s realisation of Burgess. The film’s opening atrocity is committed by Alex and co. in an underpass beneath Wandsworth roundabout. Like the Westway and the approaches to the Blackwall Tunnel, the roundabout and its environs constitute a sort of Birmingham in London: an imposing 1960s circulatory system just south of Wandsworth Bridge, complete with truncated and pointless autostrada carrying traffic to and from Wandsworth Common, where the motorway peters out in despair. (Wandsworth roundabout’s other claim to cultural distinction is the Sunday in 1973 when, during a furious row with his wife Jill Bennett, John Osborne drove his Mercedes into it.)
The pedestrianised centre of the roundabout is an assemblage of geometric concrete forms, served by brooding, permanently shadowed underpasses: ideal for Kubrick’s purposes and, subsequently, anyone else seeking to create representations of urban anomie. In fact, the association of Brutalist buildings with urban hopelessness has become such a cliché that it is worth noting that A Clockwork Orange pioneered the look. Francois Truffaut had shot Fahrenheit 451 in similar fashion a couple of years earlier, using Roehampton’s Alton Estate as a setting for a future society where the printed word is forbidden; but the dreamy, otherworldly mood of his film is worlds away from Kubrick’s visceral scenario. In seeking a cinematic equivalent for Burgess, Kubrick used Brutalism to create a visual shorthand for future awfulness. One can only imagine the dismay of early seventies architects and civic engineers seeing the finished film, which simultaneously treasures and trashes the well-meaning buildings on show, and explicitly links massed concrete with looming dread.
If Kubrick were making the film now, one wonders what visual cues he would employ. The social idealism of Brutalism has been supplanted now by an aggressively ingratiating public architecture based on consumerism, a landscape pithily described by Owen Hatherley as ‘the post-1979 England of business parks, Barratt homes, riverside ‘stunning developments’, out-of-town shopping and distribution centres.’ Which locations would Kubrick use today? Bromley? Woking, maybe? Corporate faux-vernacular would offer the right look. Saturday night in a modern British provincial town offers ample scope for rape and pillage, the pedestrianised shopping precinct the perfect setting for a spot of ultra-violence. Hell is the walkway between Nando’s and Asda.
Southern underpass, Wandsworth Roundabout. © David Secombe 2012.
… for The London Column.