Karen Knorr describes her own background as privileged, which gave her special access and a particular perspective when shooting the wealthy inhabitants of London’s Belgravia from 1979-81. In fact, her first introduction to the area was through her parents, who were locals, which allowed her to get started by shooting their friends and neighbours. Knorr, who was born in Frankfurt and raised in Puerto Rico, avoided crudely satirising these acquaintances – but at the same time, having studied photography at the University of Westminster in the ’70s, she took a critical approach. Perhaps that’s why her project, recently published as a book by Stanley/Barker, still works. Avoiding tub-thumping rhetoric in favour of a cool, dispassionate eye, it reads as an alien-eye view of a particular class at a particular moment, rather than an agitprop time piece.
It’s also intriguingly intimate, an unusual mix of the insider and the outsider perspectives. Knorr worked with her subjects to take their portraits in their homes, recording the details of their faces, postures, clothes and surroundings in grave, finely-modulated tones. She also interviewed them, carefully selecting quotes to pair with the final image. Despite her restraint the result is damning, though, those she photographed seemingly given enough rope to hang themselves and revealing a chillingly frosty world view. “There is nothing wrong with Privilege as long as you are ready to pay for it” says one young man, his on-trend plastic chairs seemingly at odds with his starchy attire and attitude. “Today Security is more than a Luxury. It is an absolute Necessity” states an older man, seemingly more in tune with the contemporary shifts in attitudes. “I wouldn’t vote for any particular party but rather for a Leader,” says another, a comment that evokes a call to Fascism, or at the least the absolute power of the Thatcher years.
Another quote seems in tune with Knorr’s own approach, describing “the Interior” as representative of “the Universe for the Private individual”. “He collects there what ever is distant whatever is the past,” the unknown voice continues, accompanied by a shot of a hidebound interior. “His living room is a box in the Theatre of the World.” Knorr’s project evokes a sense of that staginess, the contingency of reality – especially now, nearly 40 years after it was shot, as the Deb parties referenced by one of the subjects fade into history. But Belgravia remains relevant – particularly now, after the 2008 financial crash which prompted new questions into the distribution of wealth.
Contemporary photographers have produced a slew of new projects looking at the so-called 1%; many would do well to look at Knorr’s example, at how to get inside a microcosm, how to simultaneously step outside of it, and how to let it speak for itself.
– reviewed by Diane Smyth