‘Yet it is not (it seems to me) by Painting that Photography touches art, but by Theatre.’
– Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
Some photographs have a disconcerting ability to confer a sense of hidden space between the viewer and the subject that is at once familiar and comforting, but also intangible and disrupting.
In Spencer Murphy’s award winning image of Katie Walsh, it’s not immediately obvious who this woman is or why we are looking at her. Her expression is quizical and uncertain – as if she has had to be cajoled into this quiet, mute performance – and we wonder what we are looking at; wonder how this picture came about. Her beauty is both extraordinary and banal, but since it cannot be both, a drama is created in the space where these two binary forces meet. The mud splatters connote the rawness of nature and we might guess at her profession, if it has eluded us thus far. This information itself creates a tension between her outward expression of femininity and our imagined projection of equine energy required in her chosen discipline.
Murphy photographed several jockeys for his commission to promote the broadcaster Channel 4’s racing season, but the meticulousness of his approach coupled with the tension between the camera and his subject, is only fully realised in the portrait of Katie.
Ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks. – Roland Barthes
This is the last weekend of the show down at the National Portrait Gallery in London. I urge you to get down and see it.