Review of “Finders Keepers: A Survey of Collecting” at the Michael Hoppen Gallery (Ben West)

 

Untitled

 Figure 1.[9]

In an interview announcing the opening of his gallery’s new 20th anniversary show, Finders Keepers, Michael Hoppen admits to a seething sense of frustration that has plagued his career as a photography collector. This frustration, he concedes, stems ironically from his nous as a dealer, his ability to find an image that, while seemingly unheralded upon purchase, quickly flourishes into unadulterated vogue. Gaby Wood, a journalist for The Telegraph, explains how Hoppen confides in her ‘with a certain amount of melancholy’, the regret that ‘he wouldn’t be a decent dealer if he’d kept everything for himself.’[1] It is partly because of this reluctant compliance to share his visions with the art market that Finders Keepers make such a compelling show. The exhibition is a wide selection of Hoppen’s favourite, most obscure, foreign treasures, unconstrained by time or place; counter posed against much vaunted old favourites and unsold exhibition prints. What a visitor to Finders Keepers finds before them, then, is the essence of the photographic medium: a clear commercial value born out of a certain art-historical prestige; complimented by the romantic, spontaneity of the photographic process.

Recently, the British painter Frank Auerbach criticised the photograph for its un-quenching, over accessible historicity . Unlike the painted landscape, which transmits every possible moment of human will into its composition, the photographic landscape, for Auberbach, merely provides a direct and motionless translation of its subject.[2] Whereas Auberbach’s observation- that ‘a photograph is just pixels’[3]– may be  harsh and unwarranted, it does ,nonetheless, bring an insightful, increasingly forgotten point back into the spotlight. In this age of digital photography, with its ability to manipulate the internal and external dimensions of an image, the emphasis on the photograph as an object – with a form and yielded character- is in danger of being excoriated completely.

    Finders Keepers, however, provides a swift retort to Auerbach’s observation. So strong is the emphasis in this show on the materialistic qualities of the photograph that many of the photographs in the collection fail to disclose a title, or even their author’s identity. Date and Location- something we usually take for granted in a photograph’s presentation, as well as any possible meaning it wishes to subsequently engender- naturally take a back seat to the form and structure of the photographs. A sequence of Photographs[4]  of two wrestlers fighting in Francis Bacon’s studio are creased and replete with jagged edges. This effect suitably foreshadows the chaos that the photographed subjects will come to depict in their eventual paintings, as well as the famously unorganised studio from which they were extracted[5]. And yet, precisely because of this absence of date, time, or refined print, one feels all the more obliged to question the photographs historical origins, their respective genealogies. As the photography critic Francis Hodgson asserts in his own review of Hoppen’s show: ‘Photography will get you to these things but you have to use the full resources of an engaged culture to make much sense of them once you’re there’.[6] An anonymous photograph of America’s first ‘Public Enemy Number One’, Gerald Chapman, a Chicago bootlegger in the Prohibition Era, certainly attests to Hodgson’s understanding of photography as a culturally rich but empirically evasive medium.  At first glance a large part of Chapman and his photographer’s anonymity is dispelled by a conspicuous and thickly applied painted arrow superimposed above the criminals head. The arrow has been added to the photograph by an editor in the 1940’s, some fifteen years after its initial capture. In reality, of course, the superimposition of the arrow has done little to truly dispel the myth that western societies have fostered about these underworld criminals, despite the photographs stubborn gesturing. If anything the very presence of this particular photograph in the collection is perhaps part of a sly but appreciative nod from Hoppen, to the 1940’s , regarding the west’s continued insistence to glorify violence (no matter how decisively we pry and point). In Finders Keepers the photographs come to embody their form as tangible objects, and subsequently one’s mind turns to the various rigorous processes that brought these objects to life. Here we see processes that, in their own inimitable way, are subject to certain productive and technological conditions from which their historical contexts have determined the boundaries.   The photographs may be selected and curated on the whim of a single man, but one cannot help but feel that what we, as spectators, are being asked by these photographs, is a task on a universal scale that far supersedes one man alone.

While surveying the 3 floors of assembled photographs in the exhibition,  where each photograph imbricates and protrudes another’s roughly allocated space, one is tempted to guess that the universal task that is being asked of us by Hoppen entails the individual sketching an overarching, personal history welded to this collective whole. If this application of viewing is intended, it stands in uncanny congruity  with how Hoppen personally found himself first immersed in the photographic medium.  As a younger man, Hoppen would frequently race down to the nearest coastal port to cheaply acquire the abandoned photographs of sailors who had just been killed at sea. The barely settled, fresh historical narratives which were bound to these photographs complimented by their ad hoc form of display and auction, proved an enchanting process to Hoppen. This treatment of photography as an object based medium of curatorship flanked by a strong archaeological footing is certainly in strong evidence during Finders Keepers.  Ironically however, the most compelling aspect of Hoppen’s show actually occurs at the level of the composite image, that is, within the frame itself. Whereas its clearly evident that the photographs share very little, if any semblance with regards their subject matter or genre (there are as many Boxing Prints as there are Zoology exhibits), there is still a common essence which runs through them. In spite of, or, perhaps because of, their disparate and ill-defined historical origins  many of the photographs human subjects are captured in a befuddled state in relation to the clearly identifiable commodity objects which make up their surroundings. The sturdy rear of parked Buick, for example, in a 1931 print by  Zoltan Glass (see Figure 1. Below),  has much of its bravado dampened by the elegantly tangled legs of two lovers. No faces are shown, all that is a imprinted is a heady and candescent image, replete however, with a fleeting and ephemeral tinge. Although the legs firmly embrace, it seems that they do so more through a fear of the solid motor which gives them foundation (and forms the image’s background), than it is through any  passionate impulse. Unaided by the disclosure of a date or title many of the subjects are left stranded in a timeless wasteland, with only an out-of-reach commodity – as commonplace and unspectacular as themselves- to save them from complete historical neglect.

For many, the scattered display and the wide choice of subject matter and genre in Finders Keepers inhibits the show’s educational potential, as an insightful exhibition. Such a view may in fact have credence when Hoppen admits ,unashamedly,  to the ‘part’ of himself that is ‘always intrigued by things I don’t understand’ – ‘ the exotic’, that renewed Other kept burning inside of him by the mystery of Japanese photographers like Araki, Moriyama and Tomatsu.[7] Meanwhile, Hoppen’s curation in Finders Keepers never quite calms these fears of whimsicality and arbitrariness, either. With the photographs being organised in the order of their acquisition by Hoppen, instead of, say, on any genre or technological basis, one does always feels  like they are walking into an auction room, doubled up as Hoppen’s private living room. It is safe to say that the exhibition doesn’t quite have the intentionally incremental and subtle but coherent progression of style, to be found, for example, in the Courtauld Gallery’s current exhibition, ‘A Question of Colour’ , on the legacy of Henri Cartier-Bresson[8]. Despite these obvious flaws, the disparate and abstruse nature of the subject and genre of Finders Keepers’ photographs, have their strong comparative appeal. In the show’s most luminous light, what we see through the camera is both the retrieval and re-telling of history’s forgotten lives (the chimney sweepers, the exhausted, post-match Boxing Referee) as well as these subject’s strange re-acquaintance with the camera as an object, at first glance, unlike no other. By confronting the camera as an object, instead of as an enigmatic ego-shifting device, Hoppen’s subjects have managed to re-create a rich and surprising sense of Documentary Realism.

1,427 Words.

Bibliography

 

 

Secondary Source Bibliography

 

Glass, Zoltan, Car, Guardian.co.uk, ‘Finders Keepers: Michael Hoppen’s personal collection photography- in pictures’,  http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2012/dec/06/finders-keepers-michael-hoppen-photography-pictures

 

Website Bibliography

Clark, Tim,  ‘Cool and Noteworthy 2012: London Gallerist Michael Hoppen celebrates 20 years’, British Journal of Photography, http://www.bjp-online.com/british-journal-of-photography/report/2231274/cool-noteworthy-2012-london-gallerist-michael-hoppen-celebrates-20-years

Clarke, Brian, ‘The official website of the Estate of Francis Bacon’, http://www.francis-bacon.com/world/?c=Reece-Mews-Studio

Hodgson, Francis, ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’, FT.com, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/8e1b3f1c-43c9-11e2-a48c-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2IuTfuImE

Hodgson, Francis, ‘Out of the Shadows’, FT.com, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/bab40ff0-28de-11e2-9591-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2IuTfuImE

Wood, Gaby,  ‘Michael Hoppen: “I never thought it would be a business”’, The Telegraph.co.uk, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/9729565/Michael-Hoppen-I-never-thought-it-would-be-a-business.html

Wullschlager, Jackie, ‘Lunch with the FT: Frank Auerbach‘, FT.com, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/13de02c8-0be0-11e2-8032-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2IuTfuImE


[1] Gaby Wood, ‘Michael Hoppen: “I never thought it would be a business”’, The Telegraph.co.uk, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/9729565/Michael-Hoppen-I-never-thought-it-would-be-a-business.html, accessed on 25th January 2013 .

[2] Jackie Wullschlager, ‘Lunch with the FT: Frank Auerbach‘, FT.com, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/13de02c8-0be0-11e2-8032-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2IuTfuImE , accessed on 25th January 2013.

[3] Jackie Wullschlager, ‘Lunch with the FT’.

[4] Note: Derek, I couldn’t find the official name of this type of printed photograph, perhaps it is a called a Gravure Print? It is the type Muybridge would use for his animal sequence shots.

[5] Brian Clarke, ‘The official website of the Estate of Francis Bacon’, http://www.francis-bacon.com/world/?c=Reece-Mews-Studio , accessed on 25th January 2013.

[6] Francis Hodgson, ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’, FT.com, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/8e1b3f1c-43c9-11e2-a48c-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2IuTfuImE , accessed on 25th January 2013.

[7] Tim Clark, ‘Cool and Noteworthy 2012: London Gallerist Michael Hoppen celebrates 20 years’, British Journal of Photography, http://www.bjp-online.com/british-journal-of-photography/report/2231274/cool-noteworthy-2012-london-gallerist-michael-hoppen-celebrates-20-years , accessed on 25th January 2013.

[8] Francis Hodgson, ‘Out of the Shadows’, FT.com, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/bab40ff0-28de-11e2-9591-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2IuTfuImE , accessed on 25th January 2013.

[9] Zoltan Glass, Car (Berlin, 1931) (Photograph), ‘Finders Keepers: Michael Hoppen’s personal collection photography- in pictures’, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2012/dec/06/finders-keepers-michael-hoppen-photography-pictures, accessed on 25th January 2013.

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