Saatchi Gallery, May 2012

'Out of Focus: Photography' is a freebie show in probably the best large contemporary art space in London. Gallery after spacious gallery of well-lit high quality wall space. And unlike the Tate or Whitechapel you are not instantly clubbed to death by people in black shirts if you take a camera out in order to share what you are looking at.

That sunlight and fresh air approach partially extends to their curatorial assessment of what’s going on in the art photo world at the moment. Signs of caution include fear of attracting the wrath of the ethics-in-photography invigilators who never sleep, there are no people photos where the subject did not have their arm twisted to sign a model release first, for instance.

Being as contemporary as logistically possible (plenty of stuff that’s been big on the web in the last couple of years) there is a decent mix of both the matter and anti-matter kinds of photography here. For some this is sacrilege and will be sufficient to condemn the show as all over the shop. But while it is indeed all over the shop it’s also the case that sooner or later as you progress through the three floors you will almost certainly find something to be deeply engaged by and as a result decide your trip was fully justified and only a little bit ruined by the wrong kind of photography being nearby. So, think of it as a diverse music festival, a bit of this and a bit of that.

Among all the clever strategies for me it was the first simple works in the show that commanded most attention, anonymous Californian portraits by super cool, super-bitch Katy Grannan. Forget the deeply repugnant ‘permission was granted’ moral position that merely served to get these images through the door, they are deeply exploitative pictures - and yet also immensely important. Exploring the surface signs of individuality, these staggeringly, mesmerisingly detailed, pixel and grain-free prints describe what it is to be human, manifested through frail, aging flesh, biological imperfection and the myriad of ways people choose to present themselves to the world lit by viciously intense sunlight. These highly selective, deliberately disconcerting portraits are drawn from the American dispossessed, eyes curiously vacant, an under-class witnessed at their most powerless (outside a clinic?). A brief collusion or financial exchange with the vulnerable - and in contrast to the sordid intimacy achieved in the snapshots taken by another voyeur of the poor, Boris Mikhailov back in the former USSR in an even greater state of impoverishment (in numerous senses of that word). But these misgivings ultimately are sniping at just the cheap facade of moral integrity that has to circumvent predictable attacks on the work but as a result of the incredible artistic integrity these are photographs that resonate in a way that is impossible to dismiss.

A less overtly imposing set of small prints by Laurel Nakadate star herself as a slut, where the exhibited photographs show the signs of the inky fingerprints of men invited to lust over them. She's provocative, thought-provoking and, much like this show, a bit of a tease.


(Until 22 July 2012)