John Young and John Lethbridge

Ordinary photography
The Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney

What is it about this group of works by John Lethbridge and John Young that separates them from other photographic works? What makes them "ordinary", and by so declaring, implies their difference? Perhaps their conformation is determined by the conventions of portraiture and of the photographic installation. This "commonplaceness" is, by its very emphasis, what situates these works' concerns away from the prosaic.

On entering the exhibition space one is confronted by, not one, but several visages which stare out almost melancholically at the viewer: John Young 's Ultimate Entombments. These forms, recognizable as portraits (or at least as images constructed with that history in mind), are denuded of any reference to the individuality of those portrayed; they are presented simply as visages, and the works are thereby vacated of most of the characteristics of the genre. For John Young, this evacuation of personal referents indicates a concern with a conception of the "general"; the general as a mode of allusion to an "ideal form". We see the form of the work first, before we see the particulars about it. We see the portrait, the sign, the instant before we see the represented face. This indicates the influence of a Platonic idealism, the hypostatization of forms: a conception of "forms" as being capable of independent existence, as givens.

Through this assumption we are led to believe that images are signs which are instruments of the forms of things, replacing the concept of language as being an element of the thing itself. Unlike this notion of instrumentality, John Young's photographs do not act as indexical signs. They do not state: "this person", but, "person". In their concern for generality, these pictures do not attempt to "render as present" their subjects; in fact, they are almost drained of any existential links between the representation and the subjects.

Appended to each of these ample photographs is an isosceles triangle of stretched calfskin. (An allusion perhaps to Young's series Three States which has no small bearing on these works.) Seemingly an afterthought, these appendages are in fact quite crucial in the deployment of the works. In a sense these hides act as givens: in their formal ideal and their singular allusion to a gesture they have something of the quality of an haptic state. As formal arrangements they create space, exploring and extending the surrounding interstices between each physical boundary. Acting as would a mathematical application, as an "n-place operation ", each photo-structure is an increment of the last, indicating the geometric space as measurable and infinitely divisible, and therefore static.

This series of immobile states suggests our confusion of space with time and motion as we experience this in our conscious lives. As in Zeno's paradox, where Achilles, having given the tortoise an insurmountable handicap in an hypothetical race, can never catch up with it, arriving at the point where the tortoise had been, only to see it move on ahead, these pictures never quite "catch up" with the conventions they re-present; or is it that these conventions, insistent as they are, are what never catches up? Or as an arrow in flight, supposedly occupying a point in space at every moment within its trajectory - as a sequence of segments - it can be said to be forever immobile. What this stasis allows is measurability, and further, intelligibility, that of presence. Thus we can cease motion, contain it in spatial abstracts in order to 'read' it. But, in a sense, John Young's rhythmic allocation of these forms decries stasis in their positioning as formal undulations. We can interpret Time-Rhythms as an alternative to linear time. Our subjective perception provides a keen sensation of time connected to bodily rhythms as time determinants, as well as to other rhythms which occur in nature.

Like the moving arrow which never really is at a specific point, the actual experience of viewing, let alone making, the works, is a single and indivisible act of motion. Like Zeno, John Young and John Lethbridge prove we can never reconstruct the experience of time or motion from a series of immobile states. But unlike Zeno, there is no confusion of the irreducibility of subjective states with the divisible nature of geometric space and linear time.

The same obfuscation of motion and time with space, unmasked by these works, is at the core of our inability to apprehend the nature of psychological and emotional experiences. This begins with the quantitative attempts at describing these states; such as in the equation of intensities of emotions into terms of diminution and addition. Yet we know that no emotive experience is quantitatively comparable to another; any differences are qualitative.

It is these qualitative differences of emotional experience that traverse John Lethbridge's photographic installation. Large format cibachromes are attended by tributaries of pictures of "like" states; channeled together by funnels or fishing lures and almost conventional in their appearance as "installations". Rather than a numerical application , the physical properties of these works are moderated by the immeasurable "qualities" of Lethbridge's subjective invocations.

What does occur in these works is not so dissimilar from the arrangements of John Young's mood states in that here the interpretations – the "readings" as it were - are, as the funnels imply, fluid. There are no actual divisions from image to image in terms of the emotive states, only something akin to the lines of connexion flowing from photograph to funnel to photograph. Like some insistent dream, each photographic element seems not to require a great deal of space, but together, in harness, they extend their boundaries, as if in each somnolent state events are altered.

We are all Platonists here, assuming that abstract concepts are more real than, and prior to, individual objects. This Platonism we inherit as a characteristic of intelligibility is what binds our linguistic structure to immobilize our experience of time. The works of John Young and John Lethbridge indicate that this "convention" is less inflexible than the difficulties it propagates may infer. Nevertheless efforts are made to overcome these parameters - and to initiate causeways towards another non-Platonic understanding of things. This is the employment of language we seek; what poets do. Is this then, ordinary life?