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Ipswich x 5
It is a concept which would draw interest from artist and scientist alike, to compare the contexts of the five 'lpswiches' around the globe. Charles Page has carried his camera to Ipswich in South Dakota and Massachusetts, Suffolk, Jamaica and Queensland, to photograph the landscape, people and way of life of each district. His collection was exhibited recently at Global Arts Link, Ipswich, Australia. Of course the districts' name reflects the common thread which weaves throughout each society, that of British imperialism. The group is further unified through Page's treatment of his subject, each composition is oddly cropped and the subjects are immediate, the spectator is instantly engaged and in close proximity to the scene. The overall effect of the 'rudimentary' compositions is that of a documentary mode of representation, strengthened by the use of black and white film. If documentary photography implies objective reality, the effect is deceiving, as there is little reality in this exhibition.
Page subscribes to stereotypical discourse on landscape in his representation of Ipswich in South Dakota. The vast empty spaces of Dakota are silenced through sparsity. It is a view of nature reminiscent of the sublime in landscapes of the nineteenth century. The silence of the landscape resounds in the photographs taken from inside the vacuum of a car interior. Flat and motionless, the landscape is broken here and there by signs of industry, but on the whole is represented as timeless, fixed, constant and unchanging. It is a romantic view, an artist's perception which colours the lens of these 'documentary' images.
While Ipswich in Dakota is fixed in silent restraint, Massachusetts, Queensland and Suffolk are animated with the activity of suburban neighbourhoods. Perhaps it is the black and white film that gives these images their sense of nostalgia; the 'Ipswiches' have a type of sentimentality commonly pictured in postcards. The Australians pictured are two laconic matriarchs meeting over a chicken-wire back fence. In America boys dribble a basketball by their family home in a tree-lined street. The English are represented by a solitary woman bent with age dragging her trolley through narrow lanes and past stone walls of huddled flats. Sentimental but not saccharine, these images appeal to our fondness for familiarity and the everyday and in some cases the associated kitsch. Like the Dakota images, these photographs draw on stereotypical discourse where each place is personified as a cultural cliché.
The British imperialism in each district's past is most apparent in the photographs of Ipswich, Jamaica. Here the dark faces of Jamaican children peek from the shade of colonial verandas. Again Page subscribes to stereotypical discourse, the naked Jamaicans bathing in a pond are somehow closer to God in their contentedness, away from the evils of industrial society. Whether Page intended this message is uncertain, but given the traditions of colonial photography the reading is inevitable. The close-up photographs of old Jamaicans are reminiscent of ethnographic photography, direct, clinical and, were they viewed by a nineteenth century scholar, no doubt representative of a racial type.
Not to say that viewing the collection is not pleasurable, indeed quite the contrary. Page has offered rich insights into contemporary societies across the globe. Formally, the photographs are sharp, dynamic, and have a complexity in their structure that reveals the talent and experience of an excellent photographer. The clichés are delightful, the subjects regarded fondly and the differences between these 'parallel' societies fascinating. Dissent arises on the matter of objective reality, and whether we can accurately label these photographs as documentary. The photograph as a 'document' was the subject of debate between Roland Barthes and John Tagg, and more recently, Victor Burgin and Vilem Flusser. I prefer to stay ringside in that debate, but will assert that if Page sought subjective documentation at the expense of objective reality, which itself is only common perspective, then he has indeed created a documentary of 'Ipswich'.
Charles Page, Ipswich (Suffolk). Silver gelatin photograph. Courtesy GAL, Ipswich and the artist.
Charles Page, Ipswich. Silver gelatin photograph. Courtesy GAL, Ipswich and the artist.