To the Unknown Viewer
Lola & Pani, Studio portraits 2015-2020, Palm Studios, 2020
Lola & Pani, Studio Portraits 2015-2020, Palm Studios
Photography by Lola & Pani
Curated by Lola & Pani and Alastair McKimm
Introduction, ‘To the Unknown Viewer’, by David Campany
Alastair McKimm in conversation with Lola & Pani by William Barnes
Design by Jamie Allan Shaw
Original artwork hand printed by Daren Catlin
Post production by Ink
Prepress & colour proofing by Krzysiek Krzysztofiak
56 UV coated colour plates
For the unknown viewer
Of the forms of photography, or photo-projects that are around today, very few go all the way back to the beginnings of the medium. The portrait survey is one of them. It appeals to that deep desire to gather and collect, to organise and take stock, to assert some kind of order upon a world forever slipping into the past, or into disorder. That is the slightly cold-hearted motivation, but the portrait survey can also be an occasion for much warmer things: empathy, exchange, collaboration, even community. And in between the cold and the warm, are the mystery, the doubt, and the ambiguity that come with every portrait. How does external appearance relate to inner life or character? What is revealed and what remains hidden? Why this photograph and not another? Is this image or person typical, or untypical? So, that deep desire to hold things in place and make something definitive is likely to be inseparable from the fact that portrait surveys are bound to raise more questions than they answer.
Pani Paul and Lola Paprocka have gathered together images of young people they have invited to be photographed at Palm Studios in East London over the last five years. Friends. Friends of friends. Fashion people. Music people. Artists. Skateboarders. A creative scene, in all its emergent and fragile energy. The setting is simple and understated, and so are the photographs. The poses, gestures and expressions are gentle and unforced. The camera seems to welcome and cherish rather than study or objectify. In the simple studio, the people are separate from an outside world that has clearly shaped them – emotionally, bodily, culturally.
What might an audience make of these portraits? I guess this depends upon who that audience is, and when it is, for this is a book and whatever else they are, books are things that hope to last. We throw away magazines without a second thought, but books expect at least some measure of permanence. So, while there may be audiences now, there will also be audiences to come.
The things that hold a ‘scene’ together, particularly a subcultural scene, are undefinably delicate. Moreover, the loosely shared codes – of dress, gesture, speech, attitude, disposition, relation to images – are valued precisely because they are so delicate. Nuance is everything. Shared codes have no right or expectation to be fully understood by those who do not share them. And so, the things that bind and hold together a scene are only strong from the inside, and only for a brief period of time. They risk being misread, misunderstood by other people, by other times. And that’s fine. Such is culture. It changes. Portrait photography at its best holds that delicacy without interpreting it, and without crushing it.
In 1929 the photographer August Sander published a book of sixty portraits of the German people. He called it Antlitz der Zeit (The Face of Our Time). One can imagine German audiences of 1929 looking through the book and measuring the images against their own experiences, their own conception of themselves in that complex historical moment. Sander’s work was a contribution, perhaps even an intervention into the conflicted idea of modern European and national identity. Of course, as time passes the images cannot be measured against experience so readily but can become a substitute for it. They no longer contribute to an understanding of a present and are instead slipped into the role of stand-in for the past. That’s if they last.
If they last, photographs have the potential to acquire far more authority in posterity than they ever had in their own lifetime and it is often difficult to recover the circumstances of their first appearance. But it can happen. A later book of Sander’s portraits appears in Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire (1987). In the film, two angels are wandering the divided city of Berlin. Unseen by the living they watch as the citizens go about their difficult lives, caught as they are between the upheavals of the past and the uncertainty of the future. In the grand Staatsbibliothek, an old man is seated at a reading desk looking through the book of portraits, an angel at his side. The man is old enough to have been one of the three young farmers Sander photographed on their way to a dance in 1914. As he browses the pages, the man ponders the nature of history and his own life, and we are given to see Sander’s project not as an uncomplicated historical record but as a set of images to be read in dialogue with their own time and their own people, to be measured against their experience. “What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn’t endure and that its story is hardly told?” the man asks himself. Wenders cuts briefly to old newsreel footage of the human carnage left by a wartime bombing raid. Over time the generations caught up in the war are dying out and direct experience of the inter-war period has all but disappeared. For younger people who gaze upon them now, August Sander’s images are perhaps a definitive record of the period, of ‘the way things were’. But in this brief and simple scene, of a man weighing the pictures against his own history, something of the provisional and delicate nature of photographic portraiture is permitted to resurface.
Neither the photographer nor the sitter need knows what a portrait means. It might even be best if they do not presume that they do. I think about that scene in Wings of Desire as I look through the images gathered here. I think about what these portraits might mean now, and to whom. And I think about audiences to come. What photography describes so well is what it cannot explain or account for. The appearances it records becomes images whose surfaces we gaze at, enjoy, take pleasure in, puzzle over, learn from, and project upon.
David Campany, New York, August 2020