London is my private photographer’s Mekka. Every time I go to London I check all the photo exhibitions and soak up the inspiration they provide. I was delighted that my third trip to London this summer coincided with Sarah Dunn’s short show “Wide-Eyed”, and I made that the first port of call after my arrival. The decision to look at her work was not motivated by the desire to see the image of a particular gentleman on the wall but by a genuine interest in checking out Dunn’s work. I had initially discovered her wide-eyed project on her website in May, and was quite intrigued. There were no particulars about the project, just a collection of images, and I only discerned from the images and the project name that it was a wide-angle view behind the scenes. As is often the case, the personal projects of photographers are more interesting than their commercial work, and often give more insight into the respective artists’ way of working, aesthetics and interests than their commissioned work. I liked what I saw – the snapshot feel of it contrasted starkly with the glossy perfection of Dunn’s commercial portraiture. I wanted to see more, but the images were far too small to give much insight. My curiosity was piqued. And then I duly forgot about it again.
Until she announced her show. Incidentally I heard about the show through Dunn’s twitter herself. If anything Mr A’s endorsement put me off,
I’m such a photo snob . With the gallery’s central location it also provided the perfect entertainment on Tuesday morning, post-arrival and pre-meet-ups, and I was delighted when Helen agreed to accompany me to the exhibition. She was a wonderful companion, full of enthusiasm and interest, while allowing me my own time with images, indulging me in a couple of droning lectures of photo stuff, and giving her own honest appraisal of the exhibition. Thanks Helen, I’ll go to photo exhibitions with you any time. You are officially approved 😀
We carefully timed our arrival at the gallery for 12 am as to not appear overly enthusiastic – the show had only opened at 11 am that morning. When we arrived the artist herself was present, chatting to a client or buyer, I think.
She looked very nice and normal, btw *gg*. Helen and I busied ourselves with looking at the exhibition though, and by the time we had re-emerged from the basement, Dunn had left, so no opportunity to comment on her work face-to-face. However, I took the opportunity of addressing the chap who was manning the exhibition with a few technical questions – hardware, how, where, when, what. We chatted for a long time (I’m afraid we must have put off Helen with some of our photo speak. Shutter speed this, available light that bladibla.)
It turned out he was Dunn’s husband, Marcus Doyle, a photographer in his own right, specialising in landscapes. And not only that – he is definitely not a commercial but a fine arts photographer (If you are interested: Very topical – check his “108 project” – images of Scotland shot along the border… day after tomorrow is the big decision!). He told me that he actually gifted his wife with her first Widelux camera. I could rabbit on about him, because I loved what he told me about his work, but I will only repeat what I said to Helen after we left the gallery: He was a case in point for my theory that photographers are just the nicest creatives *ever*. Chatty, open, interested in discussing photography, and everything but secretive about his work or his way of working, sharing insights happily. Seemed to be a great guy.
As for the show itself – I have written a rather lengthy discussion of it in the style of a proper review as I would write it for my photo blog. If you are not interested in photography, exit NOW :-D. Because I have to disappoint you – Mr A was not represented in the show. So here goes…
The exhibition “Wide-Eyed” is Sarah Dunn’s first foray into a less glossy, more fine art-focussed area of photography. Although – that is not entirely true. The well-established portrait photographer with a portfolio of big name stars is represented with 13 photographic works in the National Portrait Gallery of Britain. The focus there, however, is on the sitter and less on the photographer, and aimed at recording and documenting influential people in British public life. Dunn’s exhibition in The Strand Gallery is therefore her first solo show (to my knowledge) in a fine art context. Because glossy this ain’t. Atmospheric is more like it. And confused. But we’ll get to that later.
Atmospheric may also be the word to describe the venue for Dunn’s show. The Strand Gallery is a small private gallery space in central London. It comprises a large, rectangular-shaped room on ground-floor level, illuminated through windows, and a maze of rooms in the downstairs basement. This description already points at one of the drawbacks of this exhibition. The venue was not conducive to fully apprising and appreciating Dunn’s photos. In some rooms of the gallery there was not enough space to stand back and fully take in the impact of her panoramic photos. And panoramic is not an understatement. Dunn’s prints of the Wide Eyed project are a generous 70″/178 cm width (x 30.5″/77.5 cm height). That demands a lot of space to get a full view – and a lot of space to accommodate such a print on the domestic sitting room wall… that’s if you have enough spare change to afford the steep GBP 1000 price tag.
Mind you, the images are not made for a homey still life comprising chintzy couch, wood veneer integrated wall unit and net curtains. They are much too edgy for that, and that is largely due to the camera the images originate from: Using a Widelux camera, the images are shot on 35mm film and enlarged to their max (before they seriously deteriorate in terms of sharpness and clarity). The camera itself is a true speciality – a Japanese-made panoramic camera used mostly for landscape photography, with a pivoting shutter that exposes the film through the fixed lens behind the vertically moving shutter. The result is a panoramic shot that records everything within a 140° field of vision. For comparison: The human eye has a field of vision of nearly 180°, standard lenses range between 40° and 60° – the Widelux therefore records much more than what we are used to seeing in photographs. Unlike our own eyes/minds, however, it distorts what it records, resulting in curved lines. (If you want to see the Widelux in action, check this short little clip that demonstrates the shutter movement. The slowest shutter speed of 1/15 of a second is so slow indeed that you could theoretically place a sitter on the left edge of the frame, release the shutter and make him move to the right edge of the shutter, catching him twice in the same exposure. Check an example of that with Colin Farrell acting as Jeff Bridges’ sitter in such an experiment. )
Dunn is using this unusual camera to capture the feel of a photo shoot – or what is usually not seen in the glossy, polished end product we are presented with in the magazines. “The Widelux is an amazing tool for recording the chaos around the calm”, British Marie Claire quotes Dunn. “I love that this camera records everything around the subject.” Strictly speaking *any* camera could do that – you just take a step back and include more in your frame, but she is right in the sense that the Widelux gives us a much bigger overview at a large depth of field. Plus, in Dunn’s experience it works as a fabulous ice-breaker, because it is such an unusual piece of photographic equipment that it attracts much attention and provides opportunity for a mood-loosening chat.
In Dunn’s case she also uses it to show the viewer the less than glamourous immediate environment around the glitzy poses. What may be a bit boring for anyone familiar with a professional photo shoot, is no doubt fascinating to see for an outsider: There is the mundane protective plastic sheeting on an outdoor location shoot with the begowned Felicity Jones; a glimpse of a wall full of torn out images – for photographic inspiration? or a reminder for the stylist? – in an image of Jeremy Renner, the arrangement of photographic equipment such as flags and fill lights like in this image of Michael Fassbender, how many people are required to stand around at a shoot in the image of Rosamund Pike or how even shooting outdoors requires a whole big set-up like in this shot of Jennifer Hudson.
The shots somewhat dismantle the glamour image of celebrity photography and could even be seen as a commentary on the artificiality of the final image. Or more literally: They put the final shot into context – the context of a deliberately styled and somewhat falsified, over-glamourous quasi-reality. For that reason it might have been interesting to see the corresponding final image from the respective shoots; maybe as a small print beside the panoramic print. However, Dunn carefully avoids that. She wants the images to speak for themselves, and does not even allow the names and identity of the sitters to detract from the impact. The prints were displayed without the names of the famous sitters on a label beside. And the presentation was decidedly unglamourous. No fancy frame or acrylic covering but the simple C-type print, nailed to the wall as it is. It fits the impromptu feel of the behind-the-scenes photos as such and the grainy look of the images, caused by enlarging to the max and grainy high ISO film. Adding to the edgyness of the imagery, the b/w images generally work better than colour images because the composition is the star of the photo, not the colour glare. Maybe Dunn feels the same: Most images do without much colour (although that is also incidental to shooting with available light only in a dark studio environment).
But apart from the subject matter there has to be more in the images to engage the viewer. And Dunn’s imagery works best when the special characteristics of the Widelux can be seen in action. Because frankly – what is the point of using this camera, otherwise? So images like the exhibition poster of Ewan McGregor really bring the wide format to its fullest, drawing the eye of the viewer into the centre of the image, adding amazing depth to the picture and zoning in on the sitter in the centre. ” This was my first, and still my favourite, shot on the Widelux”, says Dunn in Marie Claire and one has to agree: The image is crispy clear, has great lighting due to shooting outdoors and is most aesthetically pleasing thanks to the over-emphasised leading lines. The distortion in the images could be perceived as a distraction – but free your minds, all you conventional photo appreciators, it is an interesting visual device. It emphasises the expanse of the table top in the image of Josh Hartnett, or it creates an interesting round effect in the picture of Liv Tyler in her dressing room that contrasts with and challenges our knowledge of reality.
The set images where the sitters are pictured waiting on their stool and ready in front of the backdrop, however, quickly lose their fascination. That could be due to my overfamiliarity with such set-ups, but the repetitiveness of their symmetrical content – flag, light, backdrop, sitter, backdrop, light, flag – quickly lost their initial appeal. The attention is held much longer by the other shots, some of which could serve as artsy portraits in their own right whereas the studio ones do not so much. They did, however, provide the promised glimpse behind the scenes.
And yet it was not clear to me what this project wanted to be? Was this merely a documentary peek behind the scenes through an artistically obscured lens? Was this an art project? Referencing the public’s ever unsated interest in the celebrity life behind the scenes as well as a desire to capture the “natural character of her subjects”, the artist statement did not really clear this up for me. I wondered over its target audience – fans, photonerds, art appreciators? And my confusion over its intent and purpose was also fed by the fact that it felt jumbled even though united in its use of a particular camera and its uniform presentation. But it did not seem like *one* body of work. It might have been useful to group the images in the exhibition – as in “studio environment”, “outdoor”, “stand-alone portraiture (with no signs of the BTS chaos)” – showing the possibilities of the camera and the versatility of the photographer.
A critical reception of this exhibition is basically missing. There are a couple of articles in Marie Claire and Esquire, as well as the announcement on The Strand Gallery’s blog but these are not reviews but exhibition advertisements. What does that reflect? That engaging in celebrity photography automatically excludes the creator from being taken seriously as an artist in her own right? Surely the use of the Widelux alone should have merited some interest from arts media. Or were potential reviewers as confused as me about the intent and purpose of the exhibition? And would the fact that the show was self-organised and not endorsed by a weighty arts institution also put off reviewers? That would indicate a lot of prejudice because with her years of experience Dunn is hardly an emerging artist and has proven her technical abilities beyond doubt.
Or is it a reflection on the never quite evaporated whiff of commercial compatibility of this exhibition? Avoiding all name dropping in the exhibition itself, the subtitle of the show nonetheless appeared to piggyback on the cult of celebrity, promising “behind-the-scenes images of Hollywood’s biggest names” and thus cashing in on the pull of celebrity. I found this as jumbled as the exhibition itself – it looked like a project that wanted to be taken seriously on its own merits – but then it half-heartedly backtracked by alluding to the big recognisable names that can potentially draw the crowds. It wasn’t purely commercial despite its contradictory (but characteristic) name-dropping, though. The imagery was (deliberately) not polished enough to sustain mainstream, commercial attention .The use of the Widelux and the aesthetic choices indicate an interest in art photography. But it looked confused. Not knowing exactly what it is.
I’ll give Dunn the benefit of the doubt, though. Like all photographers do with their “sanity projects”, she shot this for herself, for her own enjoyment of using the Widelux camera. It’s likely that she had no project in mind when she embarked on it, but seeing the results felt that they were worthy of showing. As a way of providing context, the “big Hollywood names behind-the-scenes” is the lowest common denominator. She is a commercial photographer, a celebrity photographer, after all, and this is a way of marrying her daily job with an attempt at being published in a photo book. A mixture of commercial and art? Upon suggesting the photos ought to be published in book format as the print prices are hardly mass compatible Dunn’s husband Marcus Doyle, a landscape photographer himself, who was manning the exhibition and took his time to chat to us, confirmed my assumption that the exhibition was self-organised, and added that it was intended as a showcase for potential book publishers.
And that answers my questions above – the intended target audience, the mixture of art and documentary, the great big jumble. A photo book. The perfect mixture of commercial and art. With the added benefit for the public of being able to afford a piece of Dunn’s work. Let’s see if it happens. I would definitely be interested because I liked the Widelux format, the gritty aesthetics and the demystifying subject matter. Never mind whether an extended print version of Wide-Eyed might also contain the supreme piece of totty that was otherwise sadly lacking. At least said totty pointed us into the direction of an interesting photo exhibition. Well Dunn!
Sarah Dunn “Wide Eyed”,
The Strand Gallery
2-6 Sept 2014