Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Miss Titus gets her Knickers in a Twist

Brad Feuerhelm has an archive of weird and wonderful pictures and he lets photographers use it. Last year he put out a call for photographers to make new work out of old; he let them mess with his archive.

One of the nine women to respond to his call was Melinda Gibson. Retina-scanned and with fingers inserted into white gloves, Gibson was given free reign in the climate-controlled bowels of Feurhelm's London Headquarters of the Weird and Wonderful.

She by-passed the medical curiosities room, gave a barely a glance at the war trophy-photography cabinet and cocked a snoot at the contemporary taxidermy section.

Instead Gibson headed to the pin-ups. She selected key images and made a book of them. But not just any book. It's a kind of annoying book that I'm still not too sure about, but then again for a book that I'm not too sure about, I sure spent  a lot of time looking at it. The book's called Miss Titus Becomes a Regular Army Mac and that title is the first annoying thing about it (and if you go through the book you'll find out why it has that title).

The next annoying thing about it is it's handmade, beautifully - so you know that Gibson spent an inordinate amount  of time on it. It's gorgeously made, tactile in a paper wrapping with a kind of glassine sleeve cover (to go with the archive picture theme). It feels lovely in the hands. Wait a minute, that's not annoying, that's good isn't it. Perhaps a bit of envy is creeping in here. If schadenfreude is taking pleasure is someone else's pain, then freudenschade is the word for taking pain in someone else's pleasure. It's just too darn smart!

Anyway, the cover is annoying. It has a text by Feuerhelm which is rather dense in the way that only photography texts can be dense - but it makes sense. It tells you what the book is about and how it was made.

Oooh, how was it made? Well, the pictures are from an archive, a lot of them are from old libraries so the backs of them have titles and dates and other marks. So Gibson only goes and incorporates that into the design and overall concept of the book.

How does she do that? By being triple annoying and making one of those books (see Ben Krewinkel or Brian Griffin) where the pages are 'French-folded' so that to see the pictures you have to cut the pages - you have to destroy the book to see the book.

Now that completely matches the origins of the images and adds a certain theatre to the book. It makes you work to see the images and because you've worked so hard you really want to see them. And because the pictures are all of women in various poses (mostly glamour poses but there are suffragettes in there as well), that cutting of the pages, that stripping away is rather symbolic.

So it's a book that makes you work to see the images, where the images connect to their origins, where multiple layers form multiple narratives (including the narrative of construction)! Fabulous.

Below is a review I wrote of the book for Emaho Magazine  - written as I cut the pages open.

Buy the Book here.

Melinda Gibson’s new book, Miss Titus Becomes a Regular Army Mac is a book about a collection of photographs, a response to a collection of photographs or an examination of how that collection has been used. Or perhaps it’s all those three things. It’s hard to tell.

The collection in question is Brad Feurhelm’s. Feurhelm’s collection is one of photographic curiosities, the marginal and offbeat.

So Miss Titus is an investigation in some way. The first thing I notice about it is the beautiful packaging. The first layer is loose tissue, the next is orange paper (with the title mirrored in white) and then more tissue stuck with orange stickers (like the ones you get to mark sold works at some exhibitions).

Then I get to the book. It’s a small book, which is bound by three brass staples at the spine. The title is written on card that appears beneath translucent paper that has been folded over and joined at the spine. Oh and look, slip your hand into the gap and the title is on a card insert that pulls out. There’s an explanatory text  but it is kind of dense and it’s too early in the morning for that  – so I put it to one side and move on to the book which is a far more transparent way of reading the text.

Inside the book I don’t see the pictures that I expect to see. Instead I see the backs of the pictures I expect to see, complete with titles, notes, addresses, bar codes and credits. There are pictures with traces of glue on them, showing they’ve been ripped from a scrapbook or album, pictures from digital printing sites, pictures or porn stars that are FOR PERSONAL USE ONLY NOT FOR PUBLICATION.

These draw me in, but still I can’t see the pictures because, with only a few exceptions, the pages are folded over and stapled at the spine. I bend the folds and sneak a peak but that’s kind of unsatisfactory. So what do I do? If I cut the pages, then I destroy the book, but if I don’t then I don’t see the pages but at least I preserve the book as the collected fetish it is supposed to be. And it is supposed to be that – the special edition is even for sale in the Louis Vuitton Maison Librairie in London, something which transforms the fetish into something even more vulgar than the collectible photobook and has me gagging to get my old puritan hairshirt and scratchy underpants out. LV? What does that packaging do to the book?

Anyway, back to the book. The folded over page format is one that has been used in a number of photobooks in the last few years, most notably by Ben Krewinkel’s A Possible Life. Here the visible pages show the official documentation and immigrant identity of Gualbert, a migrant to the Netherlands. Cut the pages open, and the friends, family and hopes of Gualbert are revealed in a series of personal artefacts. The  impoverished, depersonalised Gualbert become a real person, his Possible Life came alive.

And so it goes with Miss Titus. The visible pages show the hidden dynamics of the pictures; the notes and the traces of their lineage. They tease me into wanting to see the pictures underneath, they make me work for the pictures, make me invest my time in hypothesising about what lies beneath. They make me agonise about cutting the pages open and wrecking the book. Or am I wrecking the book? Perhaps I’m just modifying it in some way? Perhaps I should do what I did with A Possible Life and have two copies, the cut copy and the uncut copy.

So after an inordinate amount of time and consideration, far more time and consideration than I normally give to photobooks, I get cutting. I can see a shadow of the first image on the visible page and when I cut, I see the original. It’s a picture of a semi-nude woman (from Hawaii maybe) wearing a garland of leaves around her neck. Opposite there’s a picture from Chicago of a semi-nude woman with fairy wings. I go back to the caption. It’s Muriel Page and the visible caption says her ‘…wings are burned from her back many times a day on the stage of the Harding Theatre…’ What does that mean. Back to the picture and still I’m none the wiser. I’ll be puzzling over that for the rest of the day.

And so it goes on; glamour shots, nudes, Grace Slick and there’s the title picture of Miss Titus becoming a regular army mac. Miss Titus is Susie Titus and the picture shows her learning ‘military etiquette’ in basic training in World War Two. She’s shown in a line of women marching towards a mess hall. But which one is Miss Titus we do not know. The title does not tell it all and nor does the photographic composition. For all the guessing and the hypothesising and the close-reading, there is a shortfall in information.

More pictures come. Suffragettes, a kissing male couple and women in service are a counterpoint to repeated pictures of women posing for a male view. One titled Complete Man exemplifies the book. A woman comes off stage from some kind of nude review. She’s naked except for a heart shaped piece of material over her bottom. And as she leaves the stage a man looks at her and she looks at the man. His body is inclined towards hers, his left hand blurred in movement. But she looks right back at him as she walks past him. If he’s the Complete Man, then she’s the even more Complete Woman, almost as complete as the Hawaiian Hula girl who appears in the last picture of the book. This last picture might be produced for the male gaze but that’s not how she’s posing. Her legs are crossed, her arms are down and her hair is down. She is who she is, no matter what the photographer does.

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