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Sport 26: Autumn 2001

Damien Wilkins — Andrew Ross

page 129

Damien Wilkins

Andrew Ross

In looking through the first twenty or so of Andrew Ross's photographs as they are reproduced here, one might be forgiven for feeling the range of interest on show is similar to that of any talented young photographer: a nose for ‘weird’ one-offs (the torn-out cables of Broadcasting House), ‘lucky’ and humorous juxtapositions (the ‘Jesus Said’ sign lying beside a broken toilet) and pathetic found statement (the Goldie reproduction pinned to a wall ‘weeping’ with watermarks). The thematic cast of these first photographs might also feel consistent with early assessments: neglect, abandonment, decay—the classic tropes of youthful art. This is an eye drawn to things forgotten, decommissioned, wronged. In short, an eye on the lookout for kindred spirits.

And Ross has a great radar; his walls especially, with their eloquent rips and elegiac stains, can be quite beautiful. Wallpaper, 252 Riddiford street, 8/1/98 is the most dramatic of these. The paper's severely crinkled surface, billowing with the light from a door showing the silhouette of a cross, encourages us to think of a shroud but also of the silk of a parachute, or perhaps just wrapping paper. Similarly, his rubbish-choked rooms are persuasively, ambiguously detailed. The ambiguity concerns the current status as well as the ultimate fate of these interiors: are these condemned-looking places actually in use? Have we arrived at the moment, or just before the moment, of their transformation? (The spectre of urban development is cleverly summoned by the first photograph, Patrick Braxton walking past 248 Riddiford Street, 13/7/97, in which a nondescript two-storey wooden dwelling appears to be nothing but front, as though built for a filmset. In this illusory flimsiness, we catch its real precariousness.)

Fireplace, 256 Riddiford Street, 12/96 has a good joke at its centre (a work-safety poster says ‘Think of Those Below’ underneath a comically bowed and overloaded shelf) but the joke is only half the page 130 picture, Again, the question of use and fate hangs around the objects. The junk heaped on the floor—rags, papers, a cassette player, a plastic petrol can—make the place uninhabitable. More than that, their association with the scorched fireplace puts one in mind of a bonfire—the soiled interior, we feel, awaits nothing more than a match. And yet on the mantelpiece there is a different order of objects—bottles, aerosol cans, a cup and an OK-looking iron. Are these the things someone has thought worth saving? Or the things needed by someone who inhabits another room? Gradually we see that it is not the romance of conflagration that animates this photograph but something altogether more constructive—the dream of renovation, or at the very least, the appetite for salvage.

Then we strike something odd: Mr Hunt, Holloway Road, 17/11/97.

This is a photograph that communicates something rather different from what we've been accustomed to, and something more difficult. It is a deferential work.

That there is anyone home in this sequence comes as a shock. Surely everything up to this point has been to demonstrate estrangement and emptiness? The peeling wallpapers speaking of lost lives, the paneless windows of extinction. Even that iron on the mantelpiece is as much about absence as its opposite. It is worth looking then rather closely at this living person and at the others who now appear, since it seems more and more the case that though Andrew Ross, with his studied eye for lines and surfaces and shadows—photography's painterly tools—can render, say, a collection of old gateposts articulate, the uncanny expressiveness of his work is best caught in his portraits.

The portraits also, I think, rearrange our notions of what the other photographs are doing.

The first thing to be said is that the people in Ross's photos hardly seem worth looking at—this is what is interesting about them, their reticence. They appear on first glance to be somewhat bland figures. Working people, tradespeople, small operators or, as in the case of Mr Hunt, retired people perhaps—they have neither the monumentality that is one photographic method of ‘capturing’ the working class, nor the spontaneity that is the other way of doing the same. Neither page 131 sculptured nor relaxed, Ross's subjects, made self-conscious by the camera, are yet strangely vivid characters. Where does this feeling of aliveness come from?

Partly it rests in the livingness of their possessions. Mr Hunt's pots have nowhere to go so they sit out on the little stove. Likewise, the small kitchen table doubles as bench and shelf. The dainty ‘good’ teacups rest upside down on their saucers at Mr Hunt's cardiganed elbow. The domestic life, in its modest way, teems and is plainly on show. To enter here is to penetrate a typical bachelorhood or widowhood. And it's a discomforting journey our eye makes as it moves between the floral curtains and the ceiling spotted with mould. In it we discern a familiar life pattern—gentility eroded by time. A perfect parallel for this everyday disfigurement is found in the slightly stiffened pose of Mr Hunt.

At the window there is a string bearing greeting cards and it is tempting to feel in this the movement of a metaphor: we have seen Mr Hunt's hand, all his cards laid out. If this were true, however, the photograph would be satirical, superior in ways it clearly is not. It would amount to little more than the laying bare of an illusion.

What gives the photograph its delicate power is the tender way Ross gathers these ordinary objects—the cups, pots and cards—up for inspection, but it may also have something to do with Ross's awareness of his own position as the taker of the photograph. From that awareness he chances on an allegory of the photographic sitting. No matter his sympathies, the photographer is not an intimate. The empty chair across from Mr Hunt is the one Ross has just got up from. It is into this space that Mr Hunt looks, the clasp of his arms exactly the posture of someone with a visitor in the house, his face expectant, interested, guarded. The intimacy is incomplete. There is a terrific politeness in play here. What candour is available is the accidental stuff that the surroundings grant the visitor. Ross backs his camera off as far as possible to fill the photograph with these gifts but it is that empty chair which finds the light.

There is something similar happening in Staff, Kia Ora Sheet Metal, Adelaide Road, 2/12/99, Ross's lovely group picture. These fleshy, soft figures have been asked simply to stand in their place of work. The page 132 camera backs off again and this time catches some wonderfully grimy and impersonal machinery, while filling the centre with these five name-tagged workers.

Family group snapshots are, notoriously, a sort of compositional impossibility. Everyone is the wrong height; someone's hand is doing something funny; there is one who will not smile. It is exactly this sort of haphazardness that Ross wants, since it offers a key to the personal dynamics of the workplace. You feel the staff have quite naturally arranged themselves in the way they have always arranged themselves, the two couples—one slightly further back than the other—and the third man, who is the tallest, on the left, resting his hand somewhat proprietorially on a metal drum. Everyone has been here forever, everyone knows his and her place. Ross has deferred again—this time to the group's own sense of itself. The picture feels both instantaneous and historical.

This exemplary photograph is not at all showy—the machines don't ‘loom’ and the people are not idealised or made ‘interesting’—and still one senses a peculiar moment in our social history, together with the poignancy of something on the cusp. Yet the cusp, as Ross points out again and again, is not the sentimental area of despatch. The cusp has its residents and their modes of survival are rich with industry and humour. The most explicit of these photographs are those that visit the op shop, the second-hand store and the TV repair place, but there are other interiors—both empty and peopled—which conjure a sort of heroism out of very little at all.

Angus Lonie's living room, 258 Riddiford Street, 11/97 is a brilliant, meditative study of such a personality. Again the picture, since it visits a house, makes the nature of the photographer's intrusion one of its subjects. The ‘mirroring’ of floorboards and panelled ceiling has the effect of creating a kind of horizon. We are now so far back from the person, we don't notice him immediately and having read the title that directs us to the room, we are not looking for him anyway. Not that he cares. Unlike Mr Hunt and the Kia Ora staff, who tolerate the lens but nothing more, Angus Lonie (if it's him) wants us to know something different: he is prepared to ignore us. Of course we cannot ignore him.

page 133

Feet up on the table, he reads the paper. The pose is without calculation but it is deliberate and it carries a charge—from that unpromising corner, the sitter conjures if not comfort then certainly everydayness—he is being, we feel, habitual. This is my place, he is saying, this is what I do. The improvisational skill of this feet-up position finds its corollary in the improvised arrangement of the kitchen; or indeed its companionship, since the sitter is perfectly aligned with the objects in the room. He is their intimate.

A side-table is oddly pushed under the sink; it is too long for the space and it sticks out. Beneath the table there is a rubbish bin. A microwave is balanced on a narrow cabinet and a small stove sits on a shelf. From these unattractive things and from the visual clutter of electric cords, cups and containers, it would be easy to compose a conventional picture of alienation but that is not the effect. The version of domesticity Ross evokes is not despairing but strikingly lighthearted, borrowing its tone from the sister's raised feet and making us see two things at once—the careworn and the carefree.

This newspaper reader is no more ‘lost’ in his living-room than Wayne McCulloch who sits at his panelbeating business, surrounded by old car-doors and axles. They are both figures of resourcefulness. And without skirting the displacements of these lives (the interiors are unhealthy-looking, the dirt palpable, the options and means drastically reduced), Ross still manages to illuminate strength and pride.

One further photograph, unpeopled this time, might show what is at stake in these works.

In Stairs, 252 Riddiford Street, 20/11/97 a section of hose or piping, frayed at one end and appearing two-headed with nozzles at its other, seems to move down a disreputable flight of stairs. We are encouraged to think that the pipe is going to meet a length of metal—a heating element of some kind?—which sits on the bottom step alongside two pieces of wood. The handrail is missing from the stairs and the wall covering billows and puckers with age. From down on the next level a cloud of light shows other shapes.

The broken-down is frequently rich with pictorial virtue since the camera has a sort of inbuilt sensitivity to the poignancy of disintegration. page 134 (Witness the many portfolios filled with shots of half-ruined houses or decaying monuments. The eyesore, it appears, can be rather easily redeemed.) Ross, as always, creates something more.

The pipe and the metal coil—though orphaned from their original functions—are on the way to becoming something else, something new—courtesy of the photographer's eye, they are involved in a comic drama of connectivity. Of course nothing can come of this tryst, yet the striving goes on.

Ross's photographs—comedies really of loss and salvage and invention and survival—regularly enact such a drama. They are poised between pointlessness and industry—between Angus Lonie reading the paper with his feet up and Wayne McCulloch in his overalls—and they slyly suggest that the boundaries between the two—between endeavour and collapse, design and dereliction, between, as Bathroom, Erskine College, 15/10/99 puts it, the bath and the toilet—are less substantial than we might think or hope. With great tact, Ross enters addresses in which these boundaries can be glimpsed. His leaking wallpapers are one way he keeps vigil over the porous. His most powerful work shows that our lives are similarly stained, similarly threatened, similarly resistant.