Photography: Pierre Gonnord

Galeria Juana de Aizpuru, Madrid, 2007

The only real difference between them is about a dozen or so city blocks in uptown Madrid, plus four centuries of elapsed time and technological innovation. Drop by the Prado to check out the Blind Hurdy-Gurdy Player (if not within dropping distance, Georges de la Tour should be on your -- and everybody’s --- coffee table). Then come back to the Juana de Aizpuru gallery to make the acquaintance of Abel with his one empty eye socket, the other buried under a thick carapace of oozing cataract, and an upraised hand whose gnarled fingers are deformed by calluses, cuts and filth. Same deal, right? Same chiaroscuro virtuosity, same mannerisms for depicting the “wretched of the earth” with not a whisker of condescending pity. They’re virtually the same piece of human wreckage, De la Tour’s eyeless street busker of seventeenth-century Lorraine, and Pierre Gonnord’s specimen of a hopeless down-and-outer, a twenty-first century hard luck story in spades.

But Gonnord is a French photographer based in Madrid who travels between Spain and France to search out his subjects in the dirty corners and mean streets where social workers fear to tread, from the Paris banlieue to the squalid shantytowns of Seville, which must be where he found that woman Concepción, whose incredibly resonant face conveys so many possible biographies. Who are his subjects? Illegal immigrants, for the most part, generally from Eastern Europe or North Africa, and not a few of them criminals on the run from the law. Gonnord tells of one: “Michel was born in a circus and grew up surrounded by clowns and wild animals. His parents died early on, and he joined the Foreign Legion. Now he lives by himself, and I sometimes see him sweeping up in some brasserie. He reminds me of one of those characters you see in the bygone Paris of Brassaï.”   

 Gonnord’s evocation of LaTour (1593-1652) lies not just in having his subjects backlit by flickering candlelight.  I submit that the people he photographs are living in  the same conditions of joyless, precarious misery as did, well, practically everybody at the time La Tour chose his subjects,  Murillo put faces on the carpenters in his nativity scenes, Velazquez painted jester dwarfs, and Goya depicted the street ruffians in the Caprichos. You need only take a look at just about anyone’s version of a penitent St Jerome or a pustulent Job – the latter examples bringing us back once again to De La Tour by way of Auden’s: “About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters…”         



Ackerley & Son

from New Partisan,  April 26, 2005
God spare us from ever having to read the books our children might write about us unless we provide them with opportunities for later-life pursuits less grim than parental payback. To get off the hook, it helps if you are by nature uninteresting. Better a life of quiet desperation than to be laid out on the dissecting table  for  our sins, as befitting murder victims (James Ellroy's mother), Bloomsbury homosexuals united by mutual affection (Nigel Nicholson's mum and dad) or the dysfunctional morons who screwed up Marvelous Me (variations on a theme by Eugene O'Neill from just about anyone you care to name).

In calibrating the refinements of parricidal prose, I know of two such accounts that rate as sui generis thanks to their extraordinary melding of parent and offspring, that is, subject matter and author. Extraordinary not in the sense of great or hugely important, but by virtue of being out of the ordinary, startlingly original and worth a read.

For all I know, My Father and Myself by J.R. Ackerley (1896-1967) may be required reading these days in Sodomy 101 classes at America's Great Universities, but my impression is that the third of the book taken up with dreary pickups of several hundred young men, mostly of the lower orders and often clad in uniforms of one sort or another, comes up short of the gaiety required for inclusion in the gay lit canon. If aversion therapy ever makes a comeback, though, this might be just the thing. Example: Joe Ackerley is with his father in the dining car of a train. A waiter comes by and an "exchange of smiles and winks" takes place. A few minutes later Ackerley excuses himself, heads off to the lavatory, gets it on with the waiter and returns in time for coffee. In a famous memoir called My Dog Tulip, Ackerley recounted his one and only experience of reciprocated affection, after he had become an old twank who found happiness in a cross-species relationship notorious for having added unwholesome new layers of significance to the word petting.

When not cataloging sexual transactions and churning out self-pity ("the latchkey turned night after night into the cold, dark empty flat"), Ackerley brings his father into focus as a typically bluff and jovial Edwardian known as the banana king of Covent Garden, successful enough as director of a firm of wholesale fruit importers to ensure that Ackerley, his brother and sister enjoyed all the amenities of their social class and era; house in the country, servants, public schools, followed in his case by Cambridge and a harrowing stint in the trenches. The charming, feckless and garrulous mother who took to the bottle in a big way during her latter years gets cursory nods of filial affection.

So the big deal must be that the author and his father had a troubled relationship. No; actually they got on fine. Ackerley wonders whether the old man suspected his proclivities, though it's clear he must have. Young Joe brought his boyfriends home, never feigned even a polite interest in women and by his own account was enough of a swisher to be instantly recognized as such by others of that ilk. Dad was careful never to ask a loaded question, much less a direct one, and pretended not to catch the open allusions in his son's published work. In general, the elder Ackerley was as dutiful and affable a parent as one can hope to draw in life's lottery.

On the first page of his book the author promises "surprises, perhaps I should call them shocks" but not until tertiary syphilis has laid father in his grave with Joe embarked on his distinguished career as a literary editor do we find out what was so special about the progenitor "with his heavy figure, his Elder Statesman look, his Edward VII hat, umbrella and eternal cigar, his paunch, mustache, his swivel eye, his jumps and unsteady gait, dull commuting, respectable life, his important business, his dreary office pals and their eternal yarning about chaps putting their hands up girls' frocks (never into boys' flies)."

Turns out dad led a double life, spending alternate weekends keeping company with a mistress who bore him three daughters that were farmed out to a governess and to whom he paid sporadic but sincere paternal attention in the guise of dear Uncle Bodger. Making provision for his secret family drained the inheritance that was supposed to maintain the other one, so the younger Ackerley ended up supporting his mother and sister for the rest of his life, as he complains (far too often) in this memoir.

Does the revelation of dad's duplicity disconcert Ackerley? No, he makes it clear that as jolts go, the posthumous glimpse into what he calls his father's secret garden "was not severe to a mind as self-centred as mine." But what it does do is open up the intriguing possibility that if Ackerley Sr. could have had one secret life, well, why not two? And why shouldn't that other one have been gay enough to have him turning tricks way back when he was a young, good-looking, penniless trooper in the Royal Horse Guards, a regiment in which the younger Ackerley found easy pickins for pickups.

The final pages of My Father and Myself deal with the son's impassioned attempt to get the goods on the late Alfred Ackerley. as he tracks down doddering old cronies who might have known the truth and obsesses over ambiguous remarks that might absolve him of "his long pursuit of love through sex, out of which, in the end, I emerged as lonely as I began".

Well, was the Banana King of Covent Garden really a fruit? It looks to me like in his younger days, the old boy and some uniformed pals were streetwise enough to tease cash, gifts and favors out of a wealthy count whose inclinations are as clear-cut as are the indications that he was terrified of acting on them or venturing beyond the boundaries of  "befriending" the young protegés he doted on. Maybe not, though. But who cares?

Ackerley does, desperately. "Was not a man who was capable of so much, capable of anything?" he asks himself over and over as he peers at images of his father in fading sepia only to conclude, in consternation and uncertainty, "I would not have picked him up myself" and then immediately adds "but the photograph was said not to do him justice."

What should have been the point of departure turns into the deadest of dead ends; and so Ackerley throws in the towel after exhausting so much of his own energy, his considerable skill as a writer of prose and the reader's indulgence in dogged pursuit of the most Monty Pythonish of biographers' Holy Grails, the outing of  dear old dad.



Photography: Axel Hütte

Focus, June-July 2006

Two years after a major retrospective in the Crystal Pavilion of Madrid's Retiro park, Axel Hütte is back in town with an encore selection of the photographic landscapes that have been his sole professional pursuit since 1975. The show at the Helga de Alvear gallery was styled North/South and that vertical slash  is enough to make one wary. Is it a tip-off that Hütte, who trained under Hilla and Bernd Becher and with them launched the "New German Photography" movement, has now become a disciple of Barthes? That would be like the cardinal archbishop of Boston suddenly switching to Scientology. But no, it is just a convention of the "duality shows" that seem to have become the flavor of the month for European curators, pairing works in twos, bringing together thematic opposites, b&w and color, old stuff and new -- this from veteran Spanish photographer Ramón Masats in a concurrent show across town.-- trying to achieve an effect greater than the sum of its parts.

In this case, the contrast is between wet and dry, hot and cold, lush and arid, green and brown. None of the very large pictures is identified, or readily identifiable, as a place, though a little research turns up the fact they were taken at the Audubon Swamp in South Carolina, Maui in Hawaii, the sun-baked salt flats of the Canary Islands and elsewhere. Focus, not locus, is the issue -- never do you get the feeling of a particular place or landscape. It's the difference between art and illustration (in the National Geographic sense), poetry and narrative. But as far as I can make out, the relevant juxtaposition is that which fuels the long-running debate (with no winner in sight) between the potential of painting vs. photography. 

Hütte seems to me one of the most painterly photographers in the business -- and that is meant as a compliment. He is especially good at capturing light altered by water, as when it distorts the reflection of a "woman wearing a print dress" just barely visible under a school of swarming tadpoles, herself a figure just as generic and indefinite as the "straight vertical poplar-like trees" that engulf her. His interest in nature is fixated on detail: pinnacles, rocks, waterfalls. In that respect, he is much like Samuel Taylor Coleridge who wrote in 1797 that "I can contemplate nothing but parts and parts are all little. My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great, something one and indivisible. And it is only in the faith of that, that rocks, or waterfalls, mountains or caverns, give me the sense of sublimity and majesty."

Speaking of sublimity, Hütte obviously beholds and knows his Caspar David Friedrich, though none of the photos on display actually looks even remotely like anything I've ever seen by the big cheese of German Romanticism. Moonlight or mile-high mountains need not enter into it, but the photographer's sense of mystery and awe is similar, as is the way he doesn't let you approach the landscapes too closely, in part owing to the image's huge size -- you have to stand a good distance away to take it all in. Paradoxically, the sensation of being left on the outside produces a visual dynamic that draws you in closer and closer. But in all of them, there's an invisible line he'll never let you cross.

Other photos, however, do bring specific works of art to mind, though not in the sense of being derivative. The waterfall that bisects one image down the middle, from top to bottom, recalls Manet's House at Reuil. And in the way drifts of powder-sugar sand cover two outcroppings so it is impossible to tell where the edges are or what their real shape is. Clouds engulfing a mostly unseen coastal mountain can't help but be read as a homage to Hokusai -- but this is just to give a rough idea. Hütte's work is not so much a reference to paintings as it is to painting, and that is why it will take considerable time for his photographs to exhaust their capacity for being looked at with pleasure and surprise.