Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Vivian Maier's Garage

Grandfather and Granddaughter, 2012 © Richard Ansett 2020
I regret that I have discarded thousands of what I thought then were embarrassing original transparencies from my early career as a commercial photographer. My wonton destruction of what might now be a valuable resource was before the rise of the 'found photography' movement that evolved from the post-modern insecurities that 'photography was dead'. If only I had at least scattered these images anonymously to the winds to be discovered or better still, had not thrown them away at all.

Digital allows me to explore the same concept but beyond the nostalgia for analogue and I can investigate themes just by entering references into the search bar, new threads appear across multiple hard drives that respond to my current state of mind as I disappear down the rabbit hole. As a consequence of such a large body of work, many images that relate to the same file number can appear in a sort of Jungian synchronistic curation, which has become part of the 'Film is Dead' process. Its a form of basic algorithm stripping away human influence and leaving the universe to evaluate content. This can be applied beyond the personal archive into the swirling mass of imagery on the web by entering the # and the 4 digit file number of your original work. I.e. the file number of this attached work (see below). Try it on Instagram.

Recycling and re-evaluating my surviving digitised and growing contemporary archive is an important part of my practice as a discussion of photography existentially now. A distance is required from the source of creation and much of my work feels more valuable having existed 'in a draw' often for years to separate it from its original purpose. But further, the more significant the work feels the greater my instinct is not share it, like precious jewels.

My ego (only equal to my insecurity) puts an onus on legacy. I can reassure myself that any failure of my work to make an impression on this zeitgeist might stand a better chance in another. (A bit like Vivian Maier's garage). Images that have felt valueless or weak, can take on significant meaning in another reality; some new knowledge, a fundamental change in society (cough) or a new artistic voice free of introjection and all of sudden previously irrelevant images are liberated through that new lens.

My re-evaluation of the archive is often relative to my own personal progress but the influence of Coronavirus is so powerful that it forces all of us to re-examine our relationship to everything created BV. This monumental perhaps temporary rift has forced a response in the 'way of seeing' and judging work created in a world that feels so different to our current present. Images of hugging and touching, footage of club nights, thousands of sweaty naked bodies writhing, all feel like the curation of some post-virus (PV) exhibition.

A friend has asked me to work with him to find an image from my archive for his new track ’Selbstisolation’. As I scour the hard drives in an attempt to find the agreed file, I have come across this image I have always loved but it feels more valuable now ‘Granddaughter and Grandfather, 2012 (File #7250).’

All limited edition enquiries DM me. Thanks and Stay Safe.

Monday, 2 March 2020

Friend of Derek

Richard Ansett with Otto Dix at Prospect Cottage, 2015. Photo: Paul Robinson Webster

Saving Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage might be more of an esoteric campaign than many of us might wish but we who recognise this little humble building as representative of British art, culture and LGBTQ history also recognise how easily it could disappear rather than be preserved as a treasure for the nation.

Attending the private view of Friends of Derek at Lucy Bell Gallery was a pilgrimage for me to reconnect to my own relationship to Jarman whose kind, handsome persona and passions defined an important part of homosexual cultural identity at a time when prejudice protected by law drove many of us into ghettos of fear and low self-esteem. Jarman's art represented by this house and landscape is a beautiful reminder of the power of art and creativity to change the world if we ever start to doubt it.

The gallery walls are covered with photographic documentation of Jarman and his crew filming in the Dungerness landscape, most powerfully represented by color digital scans of the few surviving prints by the production designer of Jarman's The Garden, Derek Brown (the negatives are lost). These prints have a second generational feel and the details are blurred now like our memories, the fragility of their existence in parallel to the risk to the nation’s cultural history if we allow the cottage to slip away.

I recognise the transformative nature of time to the meaning of a photograph and Brown's documentations are salvaged like the rusting beach ephemera in Jarman's extraordinary and celebrated garden. Everything has become so much more than its original intended purpose. 

I shock a fellow guest by daring to imply that if it wasn't for the threat of loosing Prospect Cottage we would not have been stirred from our pragmatic and self-satisfied slumber to the reality that we must be vigilant in the protection of hard won rights. This fight for Prospect Cottage feels like a defining moment recognising a 'handing over' of the baton to a new form of post-modern activism ‘Wokeness’. For all its new empowerment of the young it has a radical Talibanistic relationship to the totems of the past and the new generation might easily forget that a lot of ground work on the path to change has been prepared by their brave exciting predecessors represented by this otherwise insignificant shack.

Jarman's relationship to his sexuality identity and openness about his illness was courageous in the face of shameful laws that undermined the humanity of all of us and Jarman contributed to my own courage in accepting myself. It's hard to imagine it perhaps if you haven't had the privilege of living through it and surviving it. Perhaps my generation still suffers from a collective PTSD. 

So this little house sits unchanged as the world changes around it and once again is at the centre of things; a line in the pebbles to remind us of art on the frontline but further, to the power of the eccentric British creative spirit.

In the existential poem by John Donne on the side of the cottage Dunne lays with his lover, free of the worries of the world, they are in that moment at the very centre of things too. A simple act of pleasure taken for granted by many is the more precious to those who have not been afforded that same right.

From The Sunne Rising

'To warme the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.'


Friends of Derek at Lucy Bell Gallery, St Leonard’s, Kent until 31st March https://www.lucy-bell.com/exhibition/friends-of-derek-fod

Saturday, 4 January 2020

The Colonial Gaze


Camels, Tunisia © Richard Ansett 1992 - 2019
'..the vast territory her gaze had discovered...on the dry earth of this measureless land scraped to the bone, a few men ceaselessly made their way, possessing nothing but serving no one, the destitute and free lords of a strange kingdom.'

Reading Albert Camus' The Adulterous Wife transports me back to the Tunisian desert as a younger version of me when photography was merely a gateway to seeing and understanding the world. Perhaps the sharpness of the light in North Africa encourages the focus on existential detail or perhaps there is something in the cultural meme that Camus personifies. I am seeing the camel train approaching, the slow effortlessness of the movement of the dromedaries belies the speed at which they approach. I had a youthful beauty then, as the camels approached I had to run at full speed in the fine desert sand to keep up just to capture a cliche silhouette. Eventually I stopped and watched this paradox slowly swiftly move away. A man, the owner I assumed, with a dark leather face gestured to me to come with them and in that moment I had to decide to leave the life I knew or stay on this side of the camera. I still feel the disappointment at my choice. I remain, observing the world relative to my own instead of participating in it; the cowardice in that moment and an opportunity lost. It was an early marker. my photographs are a constant arbiter and document of my courage and cowardice and risk is always rewarded.

I am now in Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges , I walk past a homeless beggar and safely past him I watch him. He is so weak that a dog growls and snarls at him sensing his weakness, it moves closer with each breath, the beggar can barely muster the strength to raise his stick to keep it at bay. I stayed and watched hopelessly as the delicate and terrifying balance was maintained and I did nothing, to photograph it felt like the worst betrayal, to capitalise on this suffering without any tangible concern for my subject. Even knowing that at some point the man would loose the battle I walked away. My hopelessness and guilt in that moment seemed to define my relationship to travelling the world and observing the daily terrors of my fellow humans played out for my colonial gaze. India is so all consuming in its beauty and ugliness one learns quickly to compartmentalise the daily normalised acts of depravity.

To feel helpless in the face of existential suffering has to be addressed, I feel that perhaps only I have seen these things because I have had to act to address the guilt in my life now. I seek to address my past failures through redemption (proof positive that there is no such things as a selfless act), I find it difficult to imagine life without this balance and to live life without this correction is ultimately self harming. There is a consequence to ignoring the suffering of others it is an infection of character each time we do it and it is part of the attrition that forms the adult personality for better or worse. We are not conscious of the monsters we are becoming, we only think the best of ourselves.

At the top of my list of many of the greatest photographs I never took was in a circus tent in Kerala, I recall the site as being beyond what was possible to capture in a mere photograph or perhaps not worthy of the medium. In truth and in hyndesight, the latter but it was and remains a perfect metaphor for my thoughts of India at the time. I had walked into the circus area in the early morning whilst the performers were waking, documenting their routines on a rare b/w positive 35mm (now discontinued). On entering the main tent as my eyes adjusted to the relative darkness I photographed a boy in charge of the elephants and glanced up at the old worn out canvas. It had become so rotten that thousands of holes allowed the light to break through creating a constellation, it was perfectly beautiful and taught me in that moment that great beauty and understanding can come from even the most impoverished landscapes. I did not even try to photograph it, I wanted it just for myself perhaps but also mere two dimensional documentation was not worthy. Somethings are only for the mind's eye.

Boy in Circus Tent, Kerala © Richard Ansett 1992 - 2019
There are often sections of literature that accidentally reflect my view of photography and Camus inevitably captures it's existential significance in 'The Adulterous Wife'.

'She only knew that this kingdom has been promised to her from time immemorial and that it would ever be hers, never again, except perhaps in that fleeting moment when she opened her eyes once more on the suddenly still sky and its streams of fixed light, as the voices rising from the Arab town fell suddenly quiet. It seemed to her that the turning earth had simply stopped and that from now on would ever grow old or die. Everywhere, henceforth, life was suspended, except in her, where at that very moment someone was weeping with pain and wonder.'

I rarely reminisce perhaps it's the inevitability of age, perhaps I am beginning to disassociate from the present. There is no excuse actually and I avoid this as much as possible but reading Camus again forces introspection and I have a talk approaching that demands retrospection. My concern is how to communicate to a younger me, the information that might be of value when we only seem to really learn from our own experience.

Thursday, 31 October 2019

Extended Caption

I have been asked by the National Portrait Gallery London for an extended caption that might bring some insights in the creation of 'Grayson Perry, Starr Auditorium, Tate Modern, 2013' for the upcoming exhibition at Chelmsford Museum, Spring 2020.

Submitted Draft

'It would not be original to describe the Starr Auditorium at Tate Modern as ‘womb-like’, the deep red envelopes you and like a foetus I was looking for the exit when I found this corner. It challenges reality just enough for it to lend a hand in examining this unique and complex subject. This portrait is a record of the first time I met Grayson Perry.

I consider my most successful portraits to be when I am able to document the literal first meeting with my subjects, they are invited in front of the lens without any conventional niceties and often in silence. In a portrait of the famous the resulting awkwardness and vulnerability can feel like iconoclasm but not in a negative sense, I am accidentally de-constructing the myths of celebrity because my main interest is in examining the human condition it masks. I enjoy photographing artists but there is a particular challenge in photographing Grayson Perry, who can present an alternative, equally valid persona ‘Claire’. Claire’s appearance is so radical as to parody the very notion of persona and in this first opportunity to represent her I was determined not to be seduced by the vivid character that protects him. Her otherwise infectious demeanour was met by a deliberate ambivalence that inspired this briefest glimpse that now represents the serious and powerful figure of the contemporary art world, influencer and commentator on the British national character…in a dress.

Perry has spoken to me since about the experience of being the subject of a photograph as ‘observing the photographer with equal fascination’ and this has remained with me since as the closest thing I can share about what he is like. It is the very definition of empathy, to step out of one’s ego in the true exploration of the reality of another person's life. Perry is the poster girl for an empathy with a more complex idea of what Britishness is, it is closer to a lot of people’s reality, not in any narrow definition of gender or sexuality, but existentially. This is his most generous aspect, like any artist the extremes of vulnerability and ego exist within him but he allows us to form our own relationship to him, projecting our own thoughts and feelings onto Claire and she loves the attention.'

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Searching for Cindy


Untitled #540, 2010/12. All rights Cindy Sherman

In 1992 a 26 year old me came across a giant psychosexual masterpiece Untitled, #257 by Cindy Sherman in the window of a Soho gallery. A dripping jewel of cum illuminated in the darkness; held in suspense by gravity and photography as it hovered above a gaping manaquin's mouth. It blew me away and infected me with one of my most treasured and complex memes. It was a £1000 then, a price that felt out of reach but also I was not brave enough even to own it. 'Owning' a Sherman in a feminist context is a fascinating prospect but it is a constant regret that I do not and now cannot possess even a bit of her.

The recent private view of an almost complete retrospective in London (the image described above is absent) gave me the opportunity to reconnect to the exquisite pain of that regret and brush up against her genius and courage in the hope that a little more might rub off.

The majority of the evening was spent searching for the actual Cindy Sherman in the multiple rooms of the National Portrait Gallery and although surrounded by monumental self portraits I was still not entirely sure whether I would recognise her. At one point all the women of a certain age could have been her. Eventually though I found a diminutive and humble human in a dress which could have been made from the same fabric as the wicked witch's ruby slippers.

Sherman's early introvert documentation are iconic tropes for any contemporary adolescent obsessively seeking understanding through the selfie. Hers have evolved over decades of dogmatic repetition into a thorough examination of persona, from the 'protector' of the young through experiments in cultural stereotype to an eventual realisation that all persona is a barrier to progress towards any real understanding of self. This theme builds through the exhibition as the work becomes increasingly surreal and less defined by anything as tangible as gender. 

The final rooms are potentially most baffling and I met two curators struggling with the enormity of defining Sherman's practice for upcoming presentations. My solution is to surrender to the lack of understanding and in so doing be free from the conventions of narrative and rationalisation. Through this filter I can see that Sherman has handed over the contents of her dressing-up box to the randomness of the universe, inserting these new personas into the primordial landscapes that hint at the Jungian ooze that we are formed from and ultimately return.

The exhibition but especially the discussion chaired by Bonnie Greer 'Imitations of Life' re-inspires the quest for knowledge in the hope that somehow it will assist in the alchemy that is the successful synergy of 'self' and work. Sherman is the mistress and poster girl for us all in our attempts to be free of persona as glass ceiling and her intimate explorations are the canvas onto which we project the different stages of our own anxiety. Adoption is my unique USP, my disability and superpower. My own relationship to the existential lack of certainty is my nature and allows for a confluence with other's, it is a useful skill in a photographer seeking understanding of self through the exploration of the lives of others. I am however less comfortable turning that objective gaze onto myself, that takes a different kind of courage. A self-portrait is like hearing my own voice played back, I do not recognise it and I struggle to like it.

Greer disrespects photography by suggesting Sherman transcends the medium. This is often said of any artist who manages to work successfully with it. Photography is such a difficult tool to work with to create original work as it is the most present of mediums. Results are compared and defined by the aesthetic rules of contemporary capitalist culture. Sherman like any artist has chosen her medium and is masterful in its use and she is undoubtedly a photographer. She is after all part of the generation that discovered photography as an art form in the 70's so eloquently defined by writers like Sontag. Each new generation since has re-discovered these lessons and possesses them as if they are new truths. Similarly with gender and sexual politics, Sherman reminds us that all we need to do is look back to recent history to find the same complex questions we are asking now. How amazing and courageous these artists were to feel the new power of the medium for the first time and dare to use it. I can only be in awe.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

Collective Alienation

Warren Family from series Darvell Bruderhof Community, UK © Richard Ansett 2019
Happiness is not a relative concept; we should not rely on a perceived lack of contentment of others to reinforce our own sense of wellbeing. If this is a foundation, we are are not on safe ground.

I am spending time with people who I may not immediately seem to have a natural affinity. On the contrary, firstly I always feel like an outsider and my adopted psychology seeks out anyone who shares my sense of dislocation regardless of any sense of otherness. Here I find an empathy with a need to withdraw to form a safe new universe in microcosm. This community, who has literally attempted to isolate itself, is representative of my view that we create worlds within worlds as a subconscious strategy to manage contemporary, complex reality. Of course the irony is that fear and contempt for Sodom are feelings we all share.

Here the word of God forms the firm boundary within which to explore the human experience. The Bruderhof boundary, based on the teachings of Jesus Christ, feels much closer to the lived experience than the limits imposed by the secular state. Rules are an attractive alternative to chaos when we struggle to find our place in, what I define as, 'a relatively free society'. The modern state no longer offers nostalgic cultural norms that we can feel part of (or alienated from). Even punks feel the need to belong to a movement, a collective alienation and we are denied even this right to feel 'other' now. The state has found a way to attempt to manage our rage through a strategy of inclusion. If queer is a welcome section of society it is in its very nature no longer queer.

We are not yet taught in schools to cope with the now inevitable associated existential anxiety that pervades society. Millennials must sometimes crave something less multi-dimensional that will quickly answer the open questions that have led to a 'mental health epidemic'. Cast adrift to form our own unique relationships to society we, instead of embracing the complexity and extraordinary gift of freedom of thought, withdraw to form more controllable worlds. We should however resist the desire for order and instead examine inwardly for solutions to why we aren't coping.

To refer to a biblical allegory I am very much involved with; can we say with certainty that if we fall down we will be helped up again by another member of our society that is so huge in comparison to the 300 members of Bruderhof, we call each other stranger? I believe so actually. 

Prayer seems an ineffective remedy for the suffering of others, I see it as an entirely delusional and self-serving act that subjugates responsibility.  It is at best a placebo defined as 'a measure designed to humour or placate', but there is an element of deceit in convincing the patient that what they are offered has any power to heal. There is huge value in being given some time and genuine care however it must be freely given to be most effective and not linked to a promise of heavenly timeshare.

The Bruderhof community will say I am missing the point and I agree that all my rational, atheistic objections fail in the face of 'faith'. I am doomed to never benefit from the power of God ifI do not believe and continue to stubbornly deny his existence. I am doomed to a life without answers, a constant searching for truth through one painful life experience after another and then the risk of eternal purgatory. How wonderful it would be to subjugate responsibility and be held in the strong and comforting arms of the great patriarch.

The Buderhof community in their isolation and withdrawal are no different to us, they are inescapably part of our community too. None of us can exist in isolation, we are entirely reliant on each other for our existence whether we have realised it or not. Our society allows for those that chose not to recognise that they are part of it.

Monday, 3 June 2019

The Kuenssberg Letter

Laura Kuenssberg, House of Westminster, London © Richard Ansett 2019
The portrait of Laura Kuenssberg was called in for a curatorial meeting of the National Portrait Gallery and initially not accepted into the permanent collection. It was called in again unusually for a second view but with a request to see other frames from the shoot. See below my response*. The email was read to the committee.

I am very grateful that the curatorial committee is considering my portrait of Laura Kuenssberg at Parliament. I am always honoured that my work is regarded worthy of even a conversation at such a level.

This portrait was taken at the height of the Brexit tensions and it was synchronistic that dark clouds moved across the sky as we shot her. The House of Westminster looms as a forbidding silhouette and nods to my own fascination with Monet’s representation from the other side of the river. The clouds are a classic pathetic fallacy of course and the flare from the additional flash light, hints at the scrutiny with which we observe and judge her as journalist and 'woman'. Whilst the setting is staged, she is caught slightly off guard as she adjusts her microphone revealing a glimpse of her guile.

Not only is Kuennsberg a great journalist but she is also the first woman political editor of the BBC and inevitably worthy of a place in the archive irrespective of which facsimile is chosen. She has the job of unravelling the complexities of the political class and presents this back to us. She must play an artful game in negotiating with people skilled at sophistry and avoidance.

What I might consider great portraiture possesses the emotional moment as priority stolen from an otherwise collaborative process inspired by the greats of portraiture, especially my own heroes Irvin Penn and Bill Brandt who I fear one lifetime is not enough for me to ever emulate. A portrait of any lasting value must represent something of the person beyond a flattering likeness and there is a line to be walked between the complicity of the subject and their collaboration in the portrait process. As 'subject' we are submitting to the risk of being exposed and scrutinised in a more exploratory way. In my work I seek to discover something in the moment that represents the subject beyond just flattering likeness and this I suggest may be at odds with tradition of objectification that accompanies the photography of women 'as beautiful' first

This lone image for your consideration prioritises the examination of her as interpreter of the Machiavellian but I do consider it not to be unkind or unflattering but indeed beautiful. There is a discussion to be had re. contemporary feminist representation and whether we should continue to interpret our modern, successful, powerful women figures primarily through the lens of aesthetic stereotypes that have defined portraits of women in the past.

Very best and kindest regards,

*slightly re-worked from the original text for the purposes of the blog