Thursday, 27 September 2018

Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive

The Big Valley: Eve II, 2008

There have been various exhibitions devoted to photographers and their art over the last few months in London. I saw the August Sander at Hauser and Wirth (here), but missed the Cindy Sherman at Spr├╝th Magers. I was really glad that I made the effort to catch this double-header of Alex Prager and Tish Murtha at The Photographers Gallery though. Like Gregory Crewdson - who's work I discovered at the same venue (here) - Prager has a very cinematic aesthetic, producing large format prints which appear to draw inspiration from the works of Alfred Hitchcock (The Birds, above), and David Lynch. It is no surprise then, that her work should go on to develop from telling stories through large-scale stills into filmmaking proper. Prager's aesthetic is also built on artifice. All of the situations depicted in her stills are contrived to manipulate a response - either sympathy for the heroine, or to question the narrative contained in the image.

Culver City, 2014

Prager heavily directs and composes her photographs in much the same way a film director does, using a cast of extras because of their physical looks or personal style, and adopting unusual noirish viewpoints when needed to enhance the sense of drama and narrative as in the image above.

Crowd #9 (Sunset Five), 2013

Crowd #7 (Bob Hope Airport), 2013

I particularly enjoyed Prager's Crowd scenes with their casts of extras. The clothes and props were all carefully chosen to evoke a certain atmosphere, and they are so packed with detail. They seem to be full of uniquely American types (stereotypes and caricatures?), and really recalled the works of both legendary American illustrator Norman Rockwell, and the hyperrealist sculptor Duane Hanson (here). The work of Cindy Sherman was also evoked with the wigs and personas that many of the women wear that people Prager's work.

 Norman Rockwell - Christmas at Chicago Union Station, 1944

Duane Hanson - Tourists II, 1988
Crowd #3 (Pelican Beach), 2013

Crowd #1 (Stan Douglas), 2013

Face In The Crowd #5 Washington Square West, 2013

This image made me smile. I wanted to know exactly what the black man seen in the top left-hand window has seen/is looking at, to make him pull that face.

Shopping Plaza #2, 2015

I thought the use of negative space in the image above was quite daring, and told a story in itself with the figures marginalised and removed to the extreme edges of the composition. The way the cracks in the pavement and spaces between the paving stones direct your eye around the image, was another interesting pictorial device in the image.

Eye #2, Boulder, 2012

The tension implicit in these two images from Prager's Eye series is palpable, and the full titles of the pictures in this series ask many questions. Have the people depicted been involved in, and are therefore (dead) victims of accidents? Or are they still alive, and therefore mere observers and onlookers of the dramas in the titles?

Eye #5 Automobile Accident, 2012

There are more questions posed by the following series of images in which the drama is much more explicit. You are unwittingly drawn into the drama whether you want to be or not, and are compelled to want to know exactly what the hell happened here? This series of images are so artfully contrived and composed to curiously good, (and unintentionally humorous), effect.

3:32pm Coldwater Canyon, 2012

3:14pm Pacific Ocean, 2012

4:01pm Sun Valley, 2012

4:01pm Sun Valley has another very strong, emotive narrative. It again evoked the work of another American great - Edward Hopper - who himself was a master of storytelling through an implied narrative in his imagery.

Edward Hopper - Railroad Sunset, 1929

Act III, Scene 2, 2016

Below you can see Despair - Prager's first short film which, given her cinematic influences, was inevitably, the next logical trajectory for her work to take.


In stark opposition to the highly stylised artifice in the images of Alex Prager, on the first floor of the Photographers Gallery you can see the reportage/documentary-style of photography by Tish Murtha (1956-2013) which appears to be the antithesis of Prager's photography. By documenting the harsh realities of Thatcher's Britain of the late 1970s and early 80s Murtha hoped to effect a change for the young, and those marginalised and disadvantaged communities of the North suffering from inequality and deprivation. Murtha's pictures are on a more intimate, manageable scale than the large-scale, glossy images of Prager, recording momentary glimpses of incidents in real-life, which naturally draw the viewer in. Because the subject matter of this work is concerned with the plight of mainly working class subjects, Murtha's photography evokes a sense of empathy, or revulsion I guess, depending on your political viewpoint. The work of both women makes for a really entertaining contrast of styles, and thought-provoking visit to the Photographers Gallery.

Tish Murtha - Ex-Miner, Newport, Wales, 1976-78

Tish Murtha - Youth Unemployment, 1981

Tish Murtha - Elswick Kids, 1978

Tish Murtha - Youth Unemployment, 1980

Tish Murtha - Juvenile Jazz Bands, 1979

Alex Prager: Silver Lake Drive
Tish Murtha: Works 1976-1991
until 14th October 
The Photographers Gallery
16-18 Ramillies Street

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Pearly Kings and Queens Parade

I have long been fascinated by the culture of the Pearly Kings and Queens of London. I love their garb richly decorated with endless varieties of patterns formed by mother of pearl buttons. Last Sunday was the twentieth anniversary of the Pearly Kings and Queens Harvest Festival at the Guildhall in the City of London, so I went along to inspect their pearly clobber first-hand. They were resplendent in their pearly regalia.

I have seen small groups of pearlys around London on many other occasions collecting for various good causes, but this was the first time I have seen such a large gathering of them in one spot. En masse they made for a great sight in all their mother of pearl finery, and how great to the see children there taking up the mantle to become the next generation of pearly's.

This was a contingent of Pearly Kings and Queens who had made the effort to come all the way from Italy. They enthusiastically embraced both colour and the Union Jack flag in their pearly designs, and didn't strictly stick to black clothing as a background for their pearl buttons.

Some pearly pattern design details.

I liked the quirky pearly dangly thing on Pearly King of Mile End - John Scott's cap. Meanwhile butterfly designs proved to be popular with the Pearly Queens and Princesses.

That ardent royalist woman who turns up at all the royal births, deaths and marriages put in an appearance. I don't think it's possible to love Britain or the monarchy more than her.

The crowd were entertained by the sounds of piped organ music before the civic dignitaries, and the great and good of the city assembled and took their seats.

The Sheriff of the City of London was master of ceremonies, and together with the May Queen got all the dignitaries and pearlys up and around the maypole. A right good knees up ensued!

There was more dancing as we were then entertained by a youthful group of Morris dancers, before drumming group Pandemonium - who entertained the world at the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics took to the arena. They gave a rousing performance based on this year being the 100th anniversary of women's suffrage.

An older, but no less agile group of Morris dancers from Chingford then took centre stage and entertained us with their nimble footwork.

Lastly, the Pearly Kings and Queens and Chelsea pensioners took to the arena giving us a parade of their outfits, whilst others took turns on the mic to sing traditional pub songs such as Forever Blowing Bubbles, and The Sun Has Got It's Hat On, etc. as they paraded.

The pearly's then made their way out of the arena, and led a march through the streets to the nearby St Mary Le Bow church where they were met by bagpipers, and piped in for the Harvest service.

St Mary Le Bow

St Martin-In-The-Fields

Whilst the pearly's and dignitaries made their way into St Mary Le Bow, I made my way across town to see the statue of the man with whom it all started. Hidden in a quiet corner of the crypt of St Martin-in-the- Fields stands this statue of Henry Croft (1861-1930), a humble road sweeper who first started wearing clothes decorated with mother of pearl buttons in order to draw attention to himself to raise money for various charities. The statue depicts Croft in one of his "smother" suits, so-called because it is covered in thousands of mother-of-pearl buttons. Croft designed a number of pearly suits for himself with different pearly designs, as well as making pearly clothes for others. He recieved numerous medals and ribbons for his fund-raising efforts, and claimed to be the "original Pearly King in London". This lovely statue was commissioned for, and originally stood at his grave, but after being vandalised on different occasions since, was moved thankfully, to it's present site in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Field for preservation.