My new solo exhibition Man in the Street opens next Wednesday, June 10, at Tacit gallery, 312 Johnston St Abbotsford. This is the catalogue essay I wrote:
The human figures in this exhibition are details enlarged from Edwardian travel postcards. Over a century ago, from rooftops and high vantage points, photographers aimed their large plate cameras down at the street to capture urban scenes of pictorial interest. By accident individuals passed into view and gave the buildings scale. They have few individual features, but a century ago they were real people and were preserved for ever at the moment of exposure.
The tiny scale of the figures in the postcards, only a few milimetres in size, combined with the ink dots that print- ed them to abstract their shape to the last degree of recognition. Scaled up in the exhibition the figures are beginning to dissolve into anonymity and formlessness.
Man in the Street is part of my continuing exploration of entropy and disorder in representations of male identity. Working through a series of related projects over several years, I have been exploring the subject of masculine alienation and doubt. Using appropriated imagery taken from books, advertisements and even toys, photo-based techniques are used to process the imagery into new visual artefacts.
This project uses small details from my collection of early 20th century postcards. Its subject is the solitary male figure in public places and explores the commonplace idea that the individual is alone even in a crowd. This separateness extends to the interior world of consciousness, and the images in the exhibition seem to capture these anonymous figures deep in thought.
The postcards used for these pictures are of London, Hamburg and other bursting cities of the new century. The rapid urban growth at that time meant there were new wonders to behold and new sights to capture. In New York and Chicago the skyscraper was born and a whole industry of postcards followed their upward progress.
Tourism and business travel provided a market for keepsakes, and as emigration flourished, families separated by vast distances were held together tenuously by photos and by postcards such as these, with their brief and, for us today, melancholy messages of love and attachment.
Since the photographs were made in the first years of the twentieth century, the people in these pictures are long dead; they have entered the oblivion suggested by their disintegrating forms in the pictures. But the cam- era can bring them back to life, at least provisionally, and they reach out to us across the intervening century. Photography is a time machine: when the shutter opens and closes, a thin slice of time is captured. That mo- ment is preserved while time moves on remorselessly.
The anonymous men in these pictures are going about their busy work or are stopped in apparent contemplation. We can’t know what world of feelings they inhabited but they appear alone in their thoughts and caught up in the drama of their daily life. Perhaps the camera has captured them sulking over some perceived slight, or plotting a secret business advantage, or daydreaming about some romantic attraction. Whatever the case, they are frozen forever in that unknown moment.
Greg Neville 2015