Keith Vaughan: On Pagham Beach, Photographs and Collages from the 1930s / Reviewed by Matthew Turner / 19.11.17
Keith Vaughan’s Pagham Beach photographs, which make up the most part of the current exhibition at Austin Desmond Fine Art, are not just images; they are a story embodied in an object. Namely, the tatty little black box they were found in, which was carefully made by Vaughan from overexposed photographic paper to fit the exact proportions of the photographs, and labeled in his distinct hand. The intimate photographs it contained were considered lost and their original negatives destroyed, but they had been on a subterranean journey; through the hands of an old seafarer who frequented The Colony Room – that favourite haunt of Francis Bacon et al. – to Tracy Stamp, who, formally known as Bernard, was only the second person in Britain to undergo a sex change. It was then left to her great nephew to pull them back into reality again. After which point they were meticulously restored, but the feint, abstract crop marks and folds lines left by the artist are still intact, along with the areas that have been erased with the cross hatching of a scalpel blade.
Vaughan bought his first Leica, along with everyone else, in the early 1930s. It seems that he wasn’t much interested in the decisive moments that light, hand-held cameras enabled, but in using the camera’s eye, instead of his own, to explore his sexuality in a time when homosexuality was still illegal. The camera allowed him to be in charge of his own spatial production and create a utopian world, where his desires were no longer illicit. For in the photographs Vaughan is not only creating aesthetically pleasing images, he’s also editing out those aspects of the world that stop him being himself. Buildings and streets that impose an order on the body’s movement and reinforce social norms are not present; clothes, which speak of class, wealth, rigid ideas of sexual identity and manipulating your real flesh, are also erased. It’s disconcerting that after he’s finished editing his utopia he is left with an effaced landscape – the point where land meets sky, that most primitive spatial condition – and naked bodies.
The landscapes and people in them look detached from the outside world, but still, the photographs make reference to the events of the time without explicitly depicting them. Much like Virginia Woolf, W. G. Sebald and many others, his work speaks about the war, and the surrounding events, without mentioning it at all. Vaughan could speak German, learnt from his mother, and spent time there throughout the ’30s. So when looking at the photographs it’s hard not to think about Hitler’s Aryan race and ‘Triumph of the Will’, released in 1935. In the film many of the shots featuring Hitler are from below, casting him as a giant in the landscape– an Übermensch. Vaughan also employs this camera angle, but instead of using it to induce fear and exert control, he ameliorates it to express a liberated body, one that is bigger than the societal landscape that tries to repress it.
Bodies in such perfect and divine states recur throughout the photographs, with Vaughan using renaissance motifs, seen in his reconstruction of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ and ‘Florence Pietà’, as tool to explore them further. Many of these intense poses expose the extremes of the male body, bringing their interior musculature to the surface. And by bringing the interior of the body to the exterior he is able to examine them in a greater depth, almost penetrating to their interior psyche, instead of merely exploring their surfaces.
In the strange composition of ‘Bather throwing ball’ we can see another extreme of the body, not through exertion of the muscles but through a surrealist manipulation of perspective. In this picture, as in many of the others, he’s freely cycling through ideas from the time, away from the restrictive nature of his painting practice. A freedom many painters found through photography. But he also seems to be using the traits of other artistic movements to lay out his subjects in different stylized sexual positions. It’s sometimes easy to forget that only the fine space of the lens separates him from the body in front of him.
When Vaughan’s camera was stolen around 1939, he didn’t bother replacing it but instead concentrated on his paintings, which developed from many of these photographs. But his period of photography was vital to his artistic development and also gave him a space to traverse his sexuality. As he looked on, without incriminating guilt and in the safety of the dark room, to the geometry of his desire coalescing in the chemicals of the developing dish, this utopia in the dark may have seemed more real to him than the outside world.
– Reviewed by Matthew Turner
Keith Vaughan: ‘On Pagham Beach, Photographs and Collages from the 1930s’ continues at Austin/Desmond Fine Art, London until 8 December 2017
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