Curator John Szarkowski once assembled an exhibition of photographs which he divided into either ‘mirrors’ or ‘windows’ – depending on the extent to which the photographer’s sensibility, or the world ‘out there,’ appeared to form the primary subject of the picture. Either way though, photographs were unmistakably transparent. Or as photography historian Geoffrey Batchen put it (albeit in a different context) ‘All of us tend to look at photographs as if we are simply gazing through a two-dimensional window onto some outside world. This is almost a perceptual necessity; in order to see what a photograph is of, we must first repress our consciousness of what the photograph is.’
©Thomas Ruff jpegs (book cover)
But in recent years a growing number of artists and photographers have sought to frustrate our habitual viewing habits and assert the presence of the photograph’s surface; in doing so, their work – at one level – constitutes an investigative balancing act:an enquiry into whether the necessary result is the wholesale destruction of the photograph. Thomas Ruff’s jpegs, in which low resolution digital files are enlarged to disclose mosaics of pixellated colour blocks, are a case in point. Stephen Gill’s unearthed and distressed Buried Hackney prints, and the collaged Hackney Flowers, make explicit reference to the pictures’ surface. As do, for example, John Stezaker’s spliced Film Portraits, Gerhard Richter’s Overpainted Photographs, and Abigail Reynolds’ cut and folded book plates.
From the series Cast © Dryden Goodwin
The work of Dryden Goodwin can be read as a exploration of similar concerns. In the recently published Cast, for example, two sets of pictures from 2008 feature series of images upon which he has superimposed a layer of subsequent markings. So, in Caul a skein of reddish lines, blots and swirls is placed over the faces of individuals who have been photographed – unawares – from street level while they sit upstairs on night buses. Goodwin’s markings vary: some photographed subjects are obscured by fine, detailed, intricate and dense webs; while others are smeared by broader translucent brush-like strokes (but not brush-strokes – his marks are made using a digital pen and graphics tablet).
From the series Cast © Dryden Goodwin
The second series – Cradle – is the same, but different. Again he uses night-time photographs of individuals who seem isolated in the most public of spaces – this time, pedestrians in London’s West End. Unlike Caul, though, they are photographed in black and white; and the photographs’ surface is ruptured, not digitally, but by hand-made scratched webs (made with an etching needle) that cut into the prints’ emulsion. In both series the major part of each image is left intact – only the relatively small area of the subjects’ heads is modified. But of course, given that the faces are the focus of the compositions, the effect punches above its weight, as it were.
From the series Cradle © Dryden Goodwin
Cast’s hybrid pictures are a precarious enterprise, and in an interview included in the book Goodwin expresses reservations about his own acts of drawing: ‘I’m intrigued by the contradictions within the works, as drawing often destroys the thing that you think you are pursuing and want to identify. It eclipses or hijacks it, something else is often created and takes it place.’ Perhaps their efficacy as photographs is due in no small part to his refusal to allow the drawing and scoring to dominate; perhaps their efficacy is attributable to how convincingly they work as examples of street photography; perhaps it is because, as Jean-Luc Godard once put it, ‘even scratched to death a simple rectangle of thirty-five millimetres saves the honour of all of the real.’
Cast – Dryden Goodwin
Essays by Steven Bode, Camilla Brown, David Chandler
Publ. Photoworks / Steidl. £20