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Monday 18 April 2011

The Post-Photographic Era: Alastair Cook, Analogue Decay, Howden Park Centre

Review by Colin Herd

The names of difficult-to-get-hold-of and in some cases discontinued-altogether photographic film have something of the poetry of a catalogue of obscure plant-names or endangered species: Kodachrome 64, Kodacolor VR-G 200, V-G-40, Ektachrome 320 T, E100 VS, Fujifilm Sensia 100, 400, Ilford XP2, FP4, FP5. And that is precisely what they are becoming in a way, relics of an outdated technology, outstripped and surpassed in the public imagination by the instant gratification, the ease, of digital. But just as the advent of photography in the 19th century didn’t kill off painting, merely refocusing it on the specific qualities of its medium that it could do better than any other (in the first instance expressive abstraction) and producing some of the most exciting movements in painting history, it could be that the digital era or the ‘post-photographic era’ as it’s sometimes termed, will counter-intuitively come to be seen as a halcyon time for analogue photography, as its artists go through the same up-against-the-ropes period of re-adjustment that painting had to and is still going through, mining analogue’s unique processes and redefining its aims.

Certainly, filmmaker and photographer Alastair Cook’s new solo show at the Howden Park Centre, Livingston, does just that, and can be read like a photographic essay. As the title suggests, Cook is specifically interested in the fragility and unpredictability of analogue, the possibility at every stage of the process for something unexpected to occur. The exhibition is arranged into five sequences. The central sequence, Analogue Decay, is made up of seven images that have suffered partial damage at some point in the development process. In one image, of Achastle, Caithness, we’re told that fluid has accidently spilled in the processing machine during development. The outline of the spillage on the print appears to lick in from the sea, penetrating the cliff like a transparent, furry, metallic tongue. It brings to mind oil spills and flooding. In an image of Lochgilphead, damage to the fifteen or so year-old negative means the image is infected by what look like scratchy veins, or barbed wire. Both these images are disorientating because the defects look out-of-place and inherent at once; they’re illusory and surreal. Perhaps most disconcerting of all is an image of Portobello, one of Edinburgh’s beaches, in which the camera has opened accidentally. The colour of the beach at the bottom of the image shifts colour as it recedes, from damp, sandy grey to bleached, porcelain white.

In presenting these accidentally manipulated photographs Cook seems to be coyly riffing on post-production, the digital manipulation of images. I say coy because rather than a knee-jerk appeal to analogue’s higher claim on veracity in the face of digital’s fakery, as some photographers do, Cook’s more thoughtful approach is to prioritise analogue’s own propensity towards illusion and uncertainty. Viewing these images, you’re constantly caught between a cloud and a negative scratch, a natural bubbling texture in the water and the result of a fluid spill. His Bagsværd Triptych comprises three photographs of architectural details from Bagsværd Kirke, a church not far from Copenhagen designed by the renowned Danish Architect Jørn Utzon, most famous for designing the Sydney Opera House. Cook himself is trained as an architect and his images focus on the way the different textures of the building’s surface (mainly concrete and glazed porcelain cladding) interact with the light. In designing the church, Utzon was interested in the movements of clouds and how they might be incorporated into the ceiling of a building. Cook performs a sort of return serve, taking what must be small details of the walls, where one building material meets another. The resulting highly-textured images capture the subtle variations of muted colour in the building and look more like empty Scandinavian landscapes meeting a horizon than building-details.

All the more so because they’re hung on the wall next to a series of gorgeous Scottish seascapes, from Arran to Saclet, Lybster, and Portobello. These images call to mind something the poet and art-critic Kevin Killian recently wrote in a catalogue essay about the San Francisco-based painter Bruno Fazzolari, and which I’m in fact quoting from Dodie Bellamy’s recent book ‘the buddhist’: “you can see a familiar horizon four-fifths down the page—not the most comforting proportion, but one often used by Turner and other painters with gigantic and tormented skies—so the earth shrinks from the sky as if wounded by it.” Cook positions the horizon more like two thirds or three quarters down the page, but the expressive woundedness certainly holds true. It’s as if, in his especially overcast seascapes, the wound, the scar where sky meets sea, overrides the colour, saturating the image with a purplish bruise.

The opening evening also saw the premiere of Cook’s most recent short film, The Forty Elephants, named after the notorious all-female gang of thieves based around Elephant and Castle from around 1870 to the 1950s. Cook calls it a psycho-geographic film-poem. Shots from the window of a moving subway train slowed right down are punctuated by quick flashes of street corners and deteriorating housing estates. It’s here perhaps that Cook’s interest in architectural and photographic conservation merge, a poetic and meditative encounter with Elephant and Catsle, its history, its architecture, its modes of transport and the people on its streets. In this, Cook is working in the same vein as the filmmaker Patrick Keiller. But if Keiller’s films take on the rhythm, the pace and suggest the form of an essayistic novel, Cook’s film paces and structures itself more like a poem, making heavy use of repetition in varying degrees for effects similar to the way a poet uses emphasis, alliteration and rhyme, echoed in the voice-over. Delivered and penned by the actor and writer Gérard Rudolf, it’s a vaguely threatening and seedily hypnotic invocation listing variations on the phrase “no rest tonight”.

A thoughtful and smart exhibition that explores the specific things analogue photography can do better than its digital counterpart (non-totalizing, imperfect, expressive, chance-oriented), the photographs in Analogue Decay are beguiling and breathtaking: decay, maybe; extinction, no.

Alastair Cook, Analogue Decay, is on at Howden Park Centre, Livingston until 9 May. For more information please visit the Alastair Cook's website.

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Image: Alastair Cook Aldmari
Courtesy the artist

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