Retrospective Summer 2012
Lauderdale House, Highgate Hill, London, N6 5HG • September 19 -30
Retrospective Summer 2012 opened this week in the upper gallery of North London’s Lauderdale House. The venue, not quite as grand as its name might suggest, is a quirky neoclassic community arts hub on the borders of Highgate Village, and it aptly plays host to photographer (and neighbour) Dan Hall’s summer exhibition.
The show’s title, Retrospective Summer 2012, is perhaps a somewhat misleading one, for it is not a retrospective in the traditional sense; these images do not come from a body of work that has previously been exhibited to the public, nor has the artist himself exhibited anything prior to this collection, because this show is in fact his debut. There is an inferred confidence in using such a title and I needed to be no less than thoroughly impressed if this show was to avoid disappointment.
On ascending the stairs to the upper gallery we are confronted by one of the many geometrically bold images in the collection, Pylon and Sky. Photographed from beneath, the pylon fans from the centre of the image out towards, and beyond, the edges of the frame. Like a skeletal carambola wrought out of steel it is set against a sky that bleeds from turquoise into deep copper sulphate. This image says a lot about the photographer; he understands composition and he wants to impress. It is physically one of the largest photographs in the exhibition and one of the few images printed onto canvas. Everything about this photograph, from its size, printed technique and position on the stairwell (visible from below and above in the upper gallery) betrays the import the artist places on this image. And rightly so … it’s stunning.
It’s the first in many visually strong images that use heightened colour and bold geometry, but this is not the nucleus of a theme in the work. The exhibition is in fact almost defined by its lack of an identifiable overarching theme. That’s not to say that the images are completely disparate, for many of the photographs here have obvious siblings and the compositions are often knowingly framed, heightening the notion that their purpose is art, and not reportage. This precision of composition breaks the fourth wall, reminding us that there is, in all these images, the invisible yet unmistakable presence of photographer himself.
The exhibition is almost uniformly divided into photographs that have a high saturation of colour (belying the photographers digital medium) and those that have very little colour at all. For me, some of the most emotionally engaging images fall into this monochromatic camp. Limehouse Viaduct in Mist is the first in a series of haunting images with its robust, brick arches that are all to easily swallowed by a descending fog that recalls Saucy Jack and choking pea-soupers. Likewise, Snowy Parliament Hill at Night (a personal favourite), reveals a grainy, indistinct landscape filled with figures making their way home, eerily stumbling through the frame like zombies in a post-apocalyptic scene. Aircraft and Buildings is sharp and angular, the presence of people is inferred yet they are markedly absent, and with its visual reference to 9/11 the effect is quite chilling. And in Builder Watches 7/7 News the photographer captures a blue collar worker watching live coverage of the terrorist bombings of London in 2005. The Dalek in the right-hand side of the frame is an ironic punctuation of the real terror intimated in the image.
This is a very human moment in the exhibition where figures are often indistinct, in silhouette or pushed to the fringes of the frame. Humanity is here, but it is ancillary to the overall composition. Even in the portraits, of which there are five, there is a distance between the figures and the photographer, not physically but emotionally. This is not a criticism, merely an observation, which is adversely emphasised by Man with Beard in Snow, where the subject looks straight into the lens connecting directly with photographer and viewer. Its beauty is underscored by its rarity.
Intrigued by the divergency of the exhibit, I asked Dan how he went about selecting the images. After making his own selections, part of his process was to ask family and friends to choose personal favorites. This might go some way to explain the variety of images here, which contribute to the exhibition’s lack of continuity, but at the same time, it is the reason why it is so thoroughly enjoyable. There is something for everyone. It’s a collision of the urban and the natural; of colour and monochrome, all underpinned by an understanding of classicism and formal composition which is alluded to in images such as Statue Looking Back and Porlock Rainbow which recalls Turner and Constable in its tonality.
Having seen the exhibition, I understand now that Retrospective Summer 2012 is a literal title, insomuch as it is a contemplation on things that have past which, by definition of the medium, is the purpose of photography. And if this excellent debut exhibition is anything to go by we can expect Dan Hall to engage us emotionally and intellectually with many more future retrospectives.