THIS MAN'S ARMY
Watershed Bristol until 4 Oct
Focal Point, Southend, Oct 10 - Nov 21st (artist talk Nov 14th, 12.00 - please check with gallery)
While at Duckspool I went to the opening of Martin's show at
Watershed in Bristol. Martin joined the Royal Army Pay Corps on leaving school at the age of 15, and after an initial slow start to his career rose to the rank of Major, retiring last year at the age of 40.
During his last few years of
service he photographed his
fellow soldiers, using his privileged access to stage and photograph a unique body of work. To improve his photography he used his army training grant to attend a number of workshops at Duckspool, one of which led Dewi Lewis to offer to publish his work as a book THIS MAN'S ARMY, published for the start of this show.
In his statement Martin says that he is 'by nature untidy and
disorganised and was always
bemused by the very ordered
nature of the Army and its need to formalise. The images seemed to draw a line round my adult life and after making them I was ready to leave.' His pictures clearly show this formalised
order in their careful arrangement of people and objects -
often with a high degree of symmetry - in the square frame (his own square-bashing - though some are cropped to rectangular or even panoramic format.) Their arrangement seems as carefully drilled as any parade and they are referred to by rank rather than names.
So arranged are they that,
together with the steep perspective of the wide angle lens used on the Mamiya 6 that results in a strong impression of a theatre stage or even that some of the slightly more distant (and thus smaller imaged) people are in fact waxworks or dummies, resulting in a curious and powerful play on reality and image. One picture where this is at its strongest shows three men in a snooker room. Centrally at the top of the picture are three
trophy lion's heads on the wall. Below the middle one stands a man holding a cue. The two
figures slightly further from the camera - one to each side -
appear formal and wooden
despite the situation - even the games must be played with due regard to the regulations.
Probably my favourite image from the show departs somewhat from this symmetry but is still
totally suffused by the relations of rank. It shows a Regimental Sergeant Major with his family in their living quarters. A child,
almost the only natural looking person in the show, gazes at the photographer from the left of
picture. In the next vertical quarter stands the RSM, apparently ordered to be relaxed at his open wardrobe, adjusting his tie, reflected in the next vertical quarter (the idea of symmetry but not its exact expression). At right, in a curiously stiff pose which becomes almost a parody of standing to attention is his wife, arms to the sides, shoulders forced back, her stiffness and symmetry echoed and exaggerated by a bold Y-shaped yoke on her dress. She appears to be attempting - not entirely successfully - to hide the hand wash basin behind her as if it is somehow unsuitable to appear in a photography.
Words as always fail but may I hope begin to express some of what I saw in Martin's work. It is certainly worth going to the exhibition to see for yourself. The work is well printed, but was rather crowded on the walls of Watershed (also on show is Fortunes of War, by black French photographer Eric Pascal Lesdema). Possibly a tighter
editing would have benefitted. There are two pieces of text, one by Billy Bragg on life as a
soldier, and a useful afterword by Liz Wells. The book - with more pictures - seems to me to work better, but the prints do have a detail, clarity and
presence not quite available in reproduction, good though it is.
This Man's Army is certainly a class act, but it is difficult to see how Martin can follow it, so enmeshed was its staging in his army life and rank. As he also says in his statement 'I made the photographs between 1992 and 1996 and in them I recognise my former and present self in many of the people I have photographed.... The images seemed to draw a line around my adult life and after making them I was ready to leave.... I made the work, not as a polemic or as an exercise in public relations for the Army, but to try and explain to myself what it was that i was part of. As such it reflects my preoccupations and interpretation of that experience.'
It will be interesting to see what Martin's future is and what he makes of it through his photography.