Thursday, June 4, 2009

What Michael said...

Here is the transcript of what Michael Gifkins had to say at my exhibition opening and the launch of my new book YOU WON'T BE WITH ME TOMORROW at Bath Street Gallery last Tuesday night.

"The reason Harvey asked me to launch his new book tonight is not because I know anything about photography. What I know is what Harvey has told me so on that basis it would be like reading out Harvey’s own PR release.

There is a truism though, which says a picture is worth a thousand words. On that basis I estimate that all over Auckland tonight the equivalent of perhaps five new novels are being launched and as a literary agent I do know a small amount about books.

Incidentally, you may have noticed that Harvey has just written War and Peace on the gallery’s southern wall.

You might ask yourself, why does a photographer choose primarily to make books of his photos rather than simply place them on gallery walls?

This is not the same thing as a curatorial retrospective accompanied by a book. The kind of book that Harvey invites us to enjoy is an all-new, artist-made thing, which is to be read according to quite specific rules.

First, it has a title – this book is called You Won’t Be With Me Tomorrow. As with a novel, the title is not merely descriptive of content – it resonates with that content, tells us how to read it. Harvey told me at dinner on Sunday that the average man thinks of sex once every seven seconds. It may have been seven minutes, but I immediately thought, thank God that the corollary isn’t true – that a woman thinks of sex every seven seconds.

Then I thought that perhaps Harvey should get out more.

But he went on to say – about this book – that it deals with the next stage within relationships after that seven-second urgency has been lost. In other words, if this is not a sad book, then it is certainly a poignant one.

Books also impose a mode of reading. As an English speaker, the impulse is to “read” a book from start to finish – in other words, to discover the narrative that the images cumulatively suggest. In photographic terms, each double page spread plays one picture of against another. So the editing of the book becomes hugely important – especially when the photographer himself is the editor. Why this order, and not another? Why this juxtaposition of one photo with the one on the page opposite? A lot can be explained in the relatively simplistic terms of a photographic critique – resonances of colour/form/line. But then too there are resonances of ideas, and as the book progresses we cannot help but feel that the author – the photographer – has something to tell us.


We notice the recurrence of pictures of three women whom a police investigation would establish as “persons of interest”. We might choose to call them beautiful. We might want to label them as “the woman in the photographer’s life” and I’m sure Harvey would confess to this. But why the sadness/the longing/the poignancy of these and other images? Why the sense of spiritual desolation? What is all this white noise from colour’s existential vacuum? Harvey the photographer has taken the photos and then Harvey the editor has arranged them to tell us something.

If this was all there was to it, it would not be quite enough. But I suggest it goes beyond Harvey’s own intention for his images – or at least beyond his conscious intention. Who is the man with the bandaged leg? It’s Harvey, of course. But Harvey doesn’t know about Philoctetes, who 2500 years ago was one of the many suitors of Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. Philoctetes achieved an injury exactly the same as this and it smelled terribly when the bandages came off. And how does this photo relate to my favourite in the book – and on the wall – of the bandaged woman whose arm twists up her own back to show us her tattoo of an anchor? Who has injured whom? Does love have to be like nuclear war, always resulting in mutually assured destruction?

This book starts its life simply as a book of photos. It becomes much more than this, chiefly because of the author’s careful attention to the meaning of his own work. But then it also becomes much more again than even he intends, and even as we read it, which is always the measure of art."

1 comment:

Abby Storey said...

Fabulous! Thanks for posting this speech Harvey, it's nice to hear Michael's insights into the work.