Photographs are often electrified as much by context as by content. Take, for instance, a box of photographic negatives containing rather ordinary scenes of daily life in England from the 1930s and 1940s. A country lane, an untidy living room, several sides of meat and a stack of boxes are all relatively unassuming in their content. It is the knowledge that these negatives were key components in the forensic evidence of criminal investigations that charge them with an altogether new context.
Once the property of the Birmingham City Police Force, the images have languished uncatalogued in the extensive photographic collections of the Library of Birmingham for some time. Mat Collishaw presents twelve of these forensic negatives in his current exhibition ‘In Camera’ – the result of his commission by GRAIN to make new work in response to the archive.
In Camera; 5 Sides of Bacon (Stolen Property), Mat Collishaw, 2015.
Collishaw’s scaled-up negatives are mounted in transparent acrylic vitrines. Placing forensic imagery within such a clinical structure might suggest that they are offered up for clear scrutiny. Silk-screen printed with phosphorescent ink, however, the images are displayed in almost total darkness. Individual flash bulbs punctuate the gallery intermittently, illuminating the images briefly with a cold blue-grey light. Attempts to study any work in close detail are foiled as the light is extinguished and the image fades eerily away, only for another work to be lit. The gloss of their display and the enduring cultural fascination for forensic imagery make the works both seductive and compelling, an effect which is heightened by the continual frustration of the looking process. The lighting system requires an alternative navigation of the exhibition space, one in which the viewer is drawn in, slowed down and where new paths are required as works are lit at random. That both sides of the negative can be (temporarily) seen heightens the sense of disorientation experienced in the darkness.
The use of these forensic negatives raises ethical questions, and sensitivity from both artist and curator has been required. Special permissions from the police have been obtained to display the images publically. Presumably this, in part, accounts for the lack of graphic or explicit content that has liberally populated other recent exhibitions investigating forensic photography. It could easily be argued, though, that the potential dramatic impact of a photograph of a crime scene with no body in the image’s frame is perhaps greater; for left to the imagination, the sinister possibilities of each image are amplified. Indeed, alongside negatives in the exhibition that depict the scenes of suspicious deaths, for instance, are also ones that evidence the relationally trivial misdemeanours of coin counterfeiting, the violation of licensing laws and, somewhat humorously, the theft of five sides of bacon.
The works presented in In Camera are troubling, fascinating and slippery. Re-appropriated and re-contexualised here as artworks, multiple new layers of interpretation and meaning are transcribed upon the original negatives. Isolated slices of life such as these can be taken in myriad ways. Yet like criminals themselves, the images swiftly disappear under scrutiny, resisting interpretation and, ultimately, refusing to answer questions.
Image Credit: In Camera Installation Image, Mat Collishaw, 2015.
Mat Collishaw: In Camera continues to 10 January 2016 at The Gallery, Library of Birmingham. In Camera is a commission by GRAIN.
Review by Anneka French, commissioned by Photomonitor. Published 18 October 2015.