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.
Jeremy Ramsden in his darkroom at Labyrinth, Bethnal Green. © David Secombe 2011.
One of the things that is being lost in our back-lit, screen-bound digital world is the texture associated with older forms of image-making. As someone who became a photographer because I liked the idea of making something, of leaving something tangible behind me, I mourn the gradual passing of the physical photograph: the transparency, the negative and the print.
Traditionally, the relationship between photographers and their printers was not always easy; not every photographer could print their images like Eugene Smith or Don McCullin, and even if they could, they couldn’t always spend hours in the darkroom when they were busy shooting. Some printers would – justifiably – resent having to fix their clients mistakes or deal with photographers who didn’t really know what they wanted their prints to look like. But others took a more lenient view of photographers’ foibles and would, where necessary, give them an informal technical training to go with their prints. And from the mid-1980s,advances in reproduction technology and an increasing acceptance of colour negative film as a serious format for serious photography ushered in a new era of image-making. Professionals were liberated from the unforgiving tyranny of the transparency – more room for manoeuvre after the shoot, more latitude of exposure and expression, a level of freedom previously available only to those who shot black and white. It was in this arena that colour printers like Brian Dowling and Jeremy Ramsden reigned supreme.
Jeremy Ramsden, who died last week, was one of the finest colour printers of his generation. Jeremy could take a frame of anyone’s film and turn it into a work of art on paper. The quality of Jeremy’s work is only partially discernible on a website, because the sheer physical beauty of his prints, their intensity and almost holographic clarity, can only be experienced by personal appointment. Jeremy’s fanatical attention to detail was apparent in the way he would, as a matter of course, produce a variety of prints from the same frame, with each print having its own distinct mood and character. Variations on a theme, if you like, the creation of totally different images from a single piece of film. And when you got your negatives back, you’d see his meticulous notes written on little strips of masking tape affixed to the protective sheets. Jeremy went to these lengths because he cared, because he was an enthusiast for photography. And when you consider the names on his client list – which included the likes of Tim Walker, Elaine Constantine, Harry Borden, Brian Griffin – the breadth of his achievement becomes clear.
Jeremy was Australian (not for nothing was his erstwhile lab in Shoreditch called Outback) and he arrived in London as a merchant sailor in the early 1970s. He knocked around London’s photo scene in a variety of capacities – studio assistant to the likes of Brian Duffy and Angus Forbes, freelancing as a photojournalist (he was a very fine photographer in his own right) and mastering all aspects of the arcane art of colour printmaking. His experiences of the glory days of Soho in the advertising boom of the 1970s and 80s would have made a very interesting book. Jeremy had a stereotypical Ozzie enthusiasm for travel, people and a good story – but, above all, he liked sharing his enthusiasm for the world and how we see it. He was generous with his time and, like our friend John Driscoll, who died last year, he was a champion of photographers. Having Jeremy or Brian or John in your corner was like having a secret weapon; if you had the nod from them, you could breathe a little easier. They knew the score. I always thought it was important to earn the respect of the people who handled my pictures, and I think most photographers would agree – although there were some ‘celebrated’ photographers who relied a little too heavily on the expertise of darkroom staff to produce their meisterwerks. But Jeremy spoke of his clients very warmly, and this was because he was reluctant to print for anyone he didn’t respect; so an unsolicited compliment from Jeremy was worth far more than one from almost any picture editor.
It is hard to write a piece like this without sounding nostalgic or merely old; but it seems to me that apart from the loss of the tactile aspect, the ubiquity of digital imaging has led to the erosion of a social element within photography. I’m not the only one who misses that. It is hard to think of Jeremy not being there to work his magic on a print, to offer his take on it, see the potential of a negative fully realised – and then discuss the competition and swap stories over a pint. A couple of years ago, Jeremy co-founded Labyrinth, a darkroom in the East End which has become a mecca for new and established photographers. Jeremy was full of excitement for the young talents who were bringing their pictures to him, the brave ones who had chosen to render their images on film rather than as pixels on a chip. He was rejuvenated by the challenge and, apart from anything else, it is a tragedy that he will not see his fledglings develop and mature.
He gave a great deal and asked for very little in return. Personally, I owe him a huge amount – and the shock of his sudden passing still hasn’t sunk in. I can’t quite believe it. The industry will feel a lot colder without him. The world will too.
… for The London Column.