Sunday, January 19, 2014

"Taking Shots" William Burroughs Photography at The Photographer's Gallery

A decade and a half after his death, I wonder if we are starting to see William Burroughs' life and work in new contexts. There is certainly still interest in Lonesome Cowboy Bill, as the Velvet Underground styled him, as shown by "Taking Shots" an exhibition of his photography at The Photographer's Gallery which sits him beside shows by Andy Warhol and David Lynch; not a bad positioning for a writer.

Burroughs was never in any way a professional photographer, and his work was invariably developed in drugstores rather than darkrooms, and used to illustrate particular ideas, or as possible material to inculcate into some visual cut up experiments with sometime collaborators Brion Gysin or Ian Sommerville. This exhibition, expertly curated by Patricia Allmer and John Sears, and accompanied by a series of essays by Burroughsologists such as Barry Miles, seems to have a duel role: to use the ephemera of his poetry to look at his life afresh, via a fragmented photo essay - in a sense co-written with Bill himself - and to explore and make the case for the development of his cut up technique and how photography was an important marker in that.

The pictures themselves are the fragile originals from the archive, except in a few cases, where contemporary prints have been taken from undeveloped negatives, and this decision gives us a more intimate viewing experience. In a large room, tiny photographs, many smaller than the 5 x 3 inch of our own memories, are mounted and sequenced, requiring the audience, even at a busy private view, to get close to the work. Anyone who has gone through a shoebox of old family photographs will recognise this "domestic" experience of photography. Burroughs himself is mostly absent from these photos, yet a picture of him with camera, anonymously taken in Tangiers, is used to remind us of his gaunt watchful figure, surely a model for the otherworldly watchers in the recent SF series "Fringe"?

Burroughs' life seems to be too often taken in "fragments" - the troubled early life from which he escaped, the beat writer in New York, the libertine in Tangiers, the drug user in Mexico, the literary celebrity in London, and then the old man of letters and "uncle" to the avant garde. One value of this exhibition is that it enables us to look at Burroughs life as a whole. Some fascinating ephemera connects up his mother's flower arranging pamphlets (published by Coca Cola) with some of Burroughs own snapshots of flowers; the few photos from the Beat Hotel give evidence of his early collages, much of which disappeared in his many moves. Then, from the archives, we find sequences that seem purely artistic, even if accidentally. A film of a car accident in New York, is like a photo-montage of a Burroughsian scene, raw material for one of the fragments which fill his novels; a series of photographs of a bed before and after sex are surprisingly evocative in a gallery context, both pre-Emin confessional, and a rare insight in Burroughs the homosexual man living with his lover John Brady in a post-legalisation England, not that far from where this exhibition takes place. There are also some fascinating shots of Gibraltar and of a return to St. Louis, which offer a tantalising view of what Burroughs found fascinating about different places.

For although the written work is sparingly extracted here, Burroughs the writer seems subtly present throughout the exhibition. In  his own work he often undertakes a disappearing act. He is there, or in disguise, "the Kid" for instance, and then he is gone, observer on an otherworldly scene. In Tangiers the local boys knew him as "the invisible American", so quiet were his arrivals and departures. This cool detachment is one of the consistent joys of his written work, whether in the forensic documentation of "Junky" or the cut ups of his sixties/seventies work, or in the more woven fantasias of "The Cities of the Red Night" trilogy.

Because Burroughs' photography was rarely kept or preserved, and exists now through the obsessions of archivists and collectors, it doesn't immediately reduce to the status of "material" for his work that a more self conscious visual artist's pictures might, and neither have we "finished" or "exhibited" work that we might find from a traditional visual artist. These are not "studies" for later works but perhaps part of the work in progress - particularly in the photographs of infinite collage, where photographs were linked together and photographed, which then formed another photograph. In an age of instant digital cameras we sometimes forget the joys of discovery of the undeveloped film. There's one specific section when Burroughs had used cut up techniques to recreate his own version of "Time" magazine, a consciously artistic collage which is indicates, alongside the Brady sequence, that Burroughs considered photography a small, but vital piece of his own art practice. Sensationalists might be disappointed to find no pictures of guns, syringes or naked boys; and indeed, apart from a brief selection of portraits taken in the 1970s, very few pictures of the key figures in Burroughs' life. Yet sensationalists are often disappointed when they encounter Burroughs' work, which is so determinedly literary despite some of its graphic content.

With a life that spanned most of the "modern" twentieth century, (1914-97), our appreciation of Burroughs is both as an outlier - the beat outsider living in his "Interzone" - and as an exemplary modern; the obscenity trial of "Naked Lunch" pushing the envelope for what possible in a literary work. The avant garde of the 2nd half of the 20th century had very real reasons to be transgressional in a (Western) society that was still pushing Victorian and Christian moral standards in a world after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Yet Burroughs, far more than many contemporaries of his, was as equally vital in terms of the work itself. The language experiments in "The Ticket That Exploded", "Naked Lunch", "Wild Boys" and others surely find an appropriate content for their increasingly experimental forms, that are far more readable than, say, "Finnegan's Wake" or "The Making of Americans." Burroughs, like Anthony Burgess, found a second life as a writer in middle age, yet with his proclivities it was a necessary outsiderdom that means his best work is linguistically exciting in a way that many of the heirs to the beats, and sixties experimentalists isn't.  This exhibition provides a useful alternate biography that benefits from being as fragmentary as his literary work.

In the essays in the accompanying exhibition catalogue essays are attached to particular photographic sequences in the exhibition. There's a risk that too much is made of certain things; after all these were non-exhibited work - and the connection between his work and the photographs is often very tangential. What it does do, I think is move Burroughs a little away from the "myths" and "mythos" that have grown around him. Yet some of that mystique remains. In the 1970s a bad experience at a coffee bar in Frith Street saw a vindictive Burroughs "trolling" the venue for days and weeks on end, taking photographs and standing outside, creating a bad vibe that eventually led to the venue's closing. A series of photographs documents this somewhat unflattering story; the cowboy-outlaw using Marshall McCluhan rather than Smith & Wesson to clean up his part of town.

Taking Shots is one of three exhibitions, alongside industrial photographs and soundscape by David Lynch, and photo sequences by Andy Warhol, concurrently taking place at The Photographer's Gallery in London until March. My first time since the venue has moved, its an impressive space over several floors and well worth a visit. A symposium on the "cut up" will take place on 15th February. 

No comments: