Schizophrenically situated over two locations on Great Newport Street, the Photographers' Gallery has long been a discreet refuge from the sluggish flow of tourist traffic lost in the interzone between Leicester Square, Chinatown, Covent Garden and Soho. For over a decade the gallery's lo-fi caf?© has served the finest carrot cake in London - best accompanied by a mug of strong black coffee or a cup of herbal tea, just watch the excremental pellets of jasmine unfold before your very eyes!
The combination of quality-at-a-budget snacking and white-cubed spatial sanctuary from the West End's swarms of sightseers and shoppers has meant that for lazy minds like mine the images on the surrounding walls often function merely as background material (akin to the pretentious hum generated by those habitual coffeehouse philosophers who also seek shelter from the demonic consumer mode outside and then hypocritically compete with my own art bullshit whispers). However, over the last year a captivating exhibition programme has ensured that it is the photographs rather than the refreshments (or even the bookshop) that dominate the gallery (although the carrot cake remains as good as ever). Successive shows have raised a series of important questions concerning the violence and seduction surrounding the concept of the archive.
Following the acclaimed exhibition of original prints from the London Fire Brigade Archive and the award-winning work of Walid Raad as The Atlas Group, the current show is Found, Shared: The Magazine Photowork. The exhibition includes displays from three small magazines: Found, Useful Photography, and Ohio (the latter being the German magazine linked to the conceptual artist Hans-Peter Feldman rather than the Ohio Magazine aimed at informing Ohioans about state-wide events with the tagline 'The Beauty. The Adventure. The Fun.' Researching online, I ended up at this magazine by mistake but lingered long enough to learn that Ohio has become a hotbed for herbs).
Acknowledging the significance of the coffeehouse in the history of the small magazine, the serving area of the caf?© has been decorated with its own mural. Xeroxed pages effortlessly synthesize the bombastic manifestoes of the historical avant-garde with the nerdy fervour of punk fanzines. Black-and-white images are spliced around the colourful counter display of cakes and transparent pitchers of cranberry juice and orange juice. In the caf?© gallery, the familiar rectangular jigsaw of interlocking tables has been reconfigured in rows to accommodate interactive screens, a rolling video programme, and a spectacular mound of magazines bearing titles that hint at borderline obscurity and/or cult status.
One wall of the gallery is a montage of selected entries from Found, a magazine produced by its readers who send in a bewildering array of lost and discarded photographs, crumpled love letters, scribbled notes on ticket stubs and flyers, inky messages spiked with heartfelt obscenities, abandoned aides-m?©moire and other ephemeral splinters that in their fragmentary material beauty can be traced back to some kind of fucked-up totality recognizable as our own. Each item is accompanied by the personal response of the folks who found them. As a veteran of the weird world of used books, I was unsurprised to find that several photographs had been sent in by other bookstore workers. (Incidentally, Dirty Found is an offshoot of Found that publishes more explicit and perverse finds. These tend to resemble more closely the types of forgotten memorabilia fetishistically lurking between the wrinkled pages of paperbacks dumped in used bookstores as an alternative to being dumped in the street.) The Found archive admirably demonstrates the radical contingency and random construction of all archives. This is history literally in the making.
Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London