Simon Baker - Close-Up
Under the lens
David Pollock talks to Simon Baker, curator of an exhibition exploring the defamiliarising effect of the close-up
‘I think you can probably see this exhibition on two levels,’ says Simon Baker, co-curator of Close-Up, a new show exploring the history of close-up photography. ‘There’s the obvious and rather marvellous aspect suggested by the scenes before us, which involves actually working out what it is you’re looking at. In many cases we can’t do that when, for example, we see a series of hexagonal forms and realise it’s the surface of a fly’s eye.’
He continues: ‘Beyond that, the show looks at the way artists, photographers and filmmakers have been influenced by the close-up image in making their work. So it’s about the deeper possibilities of creating art, as well as the viewer’s enjoyment of looking at an image and having to figure out what it is.’
Pieced together by Baker, a lecturer in art history at the University of Nottingham, and Professor Dawn Ades from the University of Essex, Close-Up features examples dating back to the mid-19th century. Baker says he finds himself particularly drawn to the alien quality of close-up images when he sees them. ‘These pieces stand out from others made at the same period, and suggest links to one another – that’s one thing you’ll see in the show, that works with no causal similarity and lengthy periods of time between their creations will echo one another very obviously.’
It was shortly after the principles of photographic science were discovered that close-up photography entered regular usage. ‘Almost as soon as (Louis) Daguerre in France and (William) Fox-Talbot in Britain developed their processes they were able to make images of things from very close up,’ says Baker. ‘At first it was the concept of seeing things intimately that was attractive to people, and not the idea that these views of the world were so strange. As far as there being a vogue for close-up photography at any point in history goes, I would say the 1920s and 30s were the biggest period in this respect. Certainly, the well-known photographers in the exhibition – Brassai, Man Ray, Alfred Renger-Patzsch – became into the idea of these games you could play, to throw people off what it was they were looking at.’
Baker cites a famous photograph by Man Ray, contained in the exhibition, entitled ‘Dust Breeding’. It’s a shot of Marcel Duchamp’s work ‘Large Glass’ which is often referred to as ‘View from an Aeroplane’, encouraging viewers to think of it as an aerial shot. ‘That game with confusions of scale is very current in magazines of the 20s and 30s, this encouragement of wonderful mistakes.’
More recently, photographic artists have been inclined to create hard to identify close-ups of their own or others’ bodies, which Barker says can be both disturbing and alienating. He also comes back to the referential theme by including works by Simon Starling, which use an electron microscope to take huge close-ups of an old Man Ray photograph, magnifying the subject to such an extent that they actually show the silver inside the image. In such a way, the show lays bare photographic art as a process of imagination layered with technical innovation.
Close-Up, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, Fri 24 Oct–Sun 11 Jan.