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Capturing Obscurity

By Altair Brandon-Salmon

All photographs courtesy of Jack Davidson


Jack Davidson, Loose Joints, 2019

Song Flowers

Jack Davidson, Loose Joints, 2020

It started in the library, on the floor. I don’t know how old I was—ten or eleven, probably—but it was here that I found, amongst my father’s books, a battered, soiled softback, its binding crumbling. It was a photography collection, issued by Thames and Hudson in the 1970s, of André Kertész’s work. The images were strange, confusing: I kept looking at them, trying to work out what I was seeing.

Some were photographs of Hungarian peasants from the 1920s; others were glacially ambiguous pictures of people caught off-guard, or of the oppressive contours of American cityscapes; and one, which I can never forget, of a swimmer in profile whose reflection is caught in the water. Yet the two halves of this man in the sea did not match up. It took me a long time to realise that Kertész had printed the photograph upside down, so that what I thought was really the man was in fact his reflection. The image, titled 'Swimming, September 14, 1919, Dunaharaszti', taken in a suburb of Kertész’s native Budapest, precipitated the realisation that photography was not just the thousands of family photographs which lay in large albums lining the walls of my home. Photography was an expressive medium, capable of eliciting the aesthetic frisson which I associated with painting, music, literature, cinema.

It is that kind of arresting impact which I search for in photography, images which make one pause, stop, look. In the millions—billions—of photographs constantly being produced across the world, there are very few which have this quality. Sometimes it seems like months can go by before I spontaneously encounter one. It happened though, with the photograph of

the hands.

They were huge, gnarly, darkly ridged with lines like the surface of the moon. They were hands which made one believe in chiromancy, that you could tell everything about a person by looking into their palms. Shot in black and white, there was one particular image which captivated me: a close-up of a right hand, the rest of the body cropped away, the fingers bent over, the nail of the middle finger at the centre, pressing down onto creased lines of skin leading to the heel of the hand. Who did this hand belong to? Who caught it with their camera?

They were the hands of Glenda Jackson, taken by the young British photographer Jack Davison. The photograph was in The New York Times Magazine, back in March 2019, for a piece written by Parul Sehgal, ‘At 82, Glenda Jackson Commands the Most Powerful Role in Theater’, a profile of the Academy Award-winning actor playing Lear at the Cort Theater on Broadway. Yet despite the incisiveness of Sehgal’s prose, ruminating on age, power, and performance, it could not reveal the mysteries hidden in the hands, baring themselves for the briefest of moments for Davison’s camera.

Davison’s work is full of secrecy, obscurity, vagueness: sometimes it is hard to know who, or what, you are looking at. Perhaps the image is blurred, or aggressively cropped, or the blacks of his greyscale threaten to overwhelm the visual legibility of the image. His debut collection, Photographs, published in 2019 by Loose Joints, leaves this ambiguity intact: there are no captions, no commentary. The photographs are meant to stand on their own, impervious and hermetic. They are supposed to communicate something which language alone cannot. ‘Pictures,’ he said to me, ‘come first before words.’

When I talked to Davison on the phone in early March 2020, a year after I had first seen his work, he was polite, disarming—and a little guarded. He talked to me about the paper Photographs was printed on, purposively matte so that the colours have a particular dry quality, the images sinking into the fibres of the paper itself. ‘I like texture,’ he notes, particularly how it describes colour, which captures the blocks of orange and red which often dominate his photography. For Davison, ‘you need to photograph to see colour’; it is his way of rendering strange and interesting a visual world of cars, cranes, industrial machinery, buildings, people in buses, clouds gathering on hills— things that we complacently take for granted. By isolating his subjects in close-up, rendering them as disparate fragments, he can create a compendium of images in which we are disorientated, meaning we have to really look

to understand.

The 29-year-old Davison is a product of the early 21st century. He first shared his photography on Flickr and met other image-makers on the platform, before transitioning into the more traditional mode of taking commissions for portraits, album covers, and—now that he has established himself—fashion shoots for Vogue, Dazed, advertisements for Chanel, Hermès, and The Row; the tally of work which professional photographers routinely find themselves doing. He is open about how for a long time he ‘tore [his] hair out’ at photographing the world of haute couture. Now, he finds the ‘surreal and weird’ elements of a fashion shoot to be fascinating and generative in their own way.

Yet it is clear that Davison views himself primarily as a portrait photographer, that the

geography of the human face and body offers an enduring fascination for him, to be captured in a variety of mediums. Dismissive of the snobbery which can pervade the practice, with its fetishism for 35mm and 120mm film formats, there are images in Photographs which were shot on an iPhone, on a digital point-and-shoot, as well as on 35mm. Leafing through its pages, however, it is impossible to tell which are which. For Davison, the format is a means to an end, a process through which to capture his desired image.

In Photographs, there are multiple pictures of people—some seemingly captured unaware, a figure in hat and overcoat walking through a snowstorm, or others with their eyes directly meeting ours, staring out across time and space. For his portraits, Davison declares that ‘I like obscuring’, by either blurring the photograph, or having hands cover part of the face, or depicting only parts of the body, so that the form is never entirely legible. For his images in Photographs, he selected pictures of people who are unknown: friends, people he has met by chance. He relieves a burden from the image, allowing it to escape the trap of recognition which tempts us only to focus on their visages.

This means that the portraits of actors he has been taking for The New York Times Magazine over the past few years pose a special challenge. How do you see Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lopez afresh? How do you capture something about who they are, while avoiding the rote visual language of the paparazzi? How do you distance yourself from other celebrity portraitists whose conventions now typically hide as much as they reveal? He points to his series of portraits for the Great Performers issue of The New York Times Magazine in December 2019 (the second time he has shot this themed issue). There were a series of six cover variations, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio, Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Jennifer Lopez, Lupita Nyong’o, and Brad Pitt. Davison’s favourite was the shot of Driver, where only a small patch of his forehead, eyes, and nose is visible, a patch of grey texture emerging out of a pool of immense blackness. Davison told me he was delighted when people said that they could not recognise Driver—that was precisely the point: to capture something about this face which was not anchored to its recognisability. Part of Davison’s ethos for portraits is expressed in the question, ‘would I photograph them if they were nobodies?’ He is candid that certain people fascinate him more than others, citing Jennifer Lopez as a particular challenge. For her, he embraced obscurity, stressing film grain, blur, darkness: the most powerful image is of Lopez with her legs pulled up towards her body, a hand lying across one knee, her eyes looking off into the far distance. It is a portrait of a woman who happens to be Jennifer Lopez. Davison praises The New York Times Magazine and its Photography Director Kathy Ryan for allowing him to ‘get away with a murder’ in its pages, and relishes its ability to reach a wide, diverse audience which more specialist magazines such as Dazed do not have. It seems

appropriate, though, that for Photographs, there is no crossover in imagery; while Davison’s photographic style stays consistent between the two, his debut monograph allows for a greater experimentation and embrace of anonymity than any commercial magazine would allow.

His second collection, Song Flowers, which was published in May 2020 amidst the coronavirus pandemic, presented a portrait of the Miao culture of south-west China, one of the country’s 56 official ethnic groups. Again, it is the portrait, the close-up, the cropped image, the obscure, which dominates—although unlike the wide-ranging Photographs, the subject-matter here is, if not within the category of reportage, at least part of the recognisable genre of the photobook. Song Flowers grew out of an invitation extended to Davison by the fashion house Marni’s creative director, Francesco Risso, who counts the Miao’s clothing patterns and weaving as an inspiration. Here, his collaboration with haute couture morphs into a more personal project, Davison’s distinctive style immediately apparent, even down to the clotted, matte reds and yellows. It is hardly an ethnography of Miao culture; it is too capacious and abstracted for that. It leaves the explaining to the text by Angelo Flaccavento. I wonder though, if Davison’s work does not loose something by taking on so specific a subject, a sense of restriction hazily hovers in the background. I think we loose some of the mystery of Davison’s photography. In Photographs, it is the pleasure in not knowing, in not understanding the wider context of what we are looking at, which makes the book so powerful.

Davison cites a variety of influences which helped form his approach to image-making, from Roger Deakins’ still photography to Stephen Gills’ work, particularly in his collection Night Procession. One can play the game of connecting their images to Davison’s, but like any genuine artist, he is more than the sum of his forebears. They inspire his eye, but do not guide it. In that sense, the verbal silence in Photographs is liberating: as viewers, we are not weighed down with preconceived structures of looking. We can find his touchstones if we want, or we can just look at the photographs.

Still, when I think of Davison’s work, it is his portraits of Glenda Jackson which come to mind first, the images which I use to introduce his oeuvre to my friends. I laughed when Davison described her ‘farmer hands,’ weathered and worn, because it rang so true. The craft of Jackson’s life was expressed in her hands—they tell us that she works, really works, that acting is no tomfoolery on a stage but a serious business. She is dressed very simply, a black jacket over a white jumper, her hair tied back, and shot against a white wall. Davison recalls the lighting: ‘it was perfect light, heavy, hard, cold and crisp,’ it is the kind of illumination which truly draws the figure, etching in every subtle detail of the face, showing the complexity of skin, every knoll and depression. Yet Jackson can look calmly, regally, out at us, her eyelids twisting somehow towards her nose, while she purses her lips and surveys us—a king looking at their kingdom.

Glenda Jackson was Davison’s favourite sitter, although he tells me that he has been trying for a while now to secure Ian McKellen, another wizened thespian who has grown more beautiful as their age has advanced, their face transforming into a fascinating topography, with Davison the self-appointed cartographer, guiding us across it. In Sehgal’s article, Jackson says, ‘[Shakespeare] only ever really asks three questions: Who are we? Why are we? What are we? And no one has ever come up with the comprehensive answer to any of those questions’. That seems to me as good a definition of Davison’s photography of the human body as any—and perhaps, just perhaps, there is a glimmer of an answer to those three questions hiding somewhere in his images.

Jack Davison told me he wants his photographs ‘to last forever,’ not as memorials or tombstones to a body of work, but to ensure that each picture he takes holds a timeless seduction which transcends temporality. Photographs and Song Flowers represent such attempts at this immortality, and like all artists, Davison will continue trying year after year, portrait after portrait, image after image, darkness his constant friend.


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