Friday, 18 September 2009

Marcus Munnelly’s 'In the Scene'

Originally published in Hotshoe, August 2009.



The idea of undertaking a degree that allows for the possibility of studying imagery of the ‘everyday’, the shy aesthetics of ‘deadpan’ or ‘antitheatricality’ is indeed a strange one. It is not as paradoxical as it seems, however, because if one were to carry out a degree in photography this would be rightly encouraged. Since the late 1970s the appearance of large format art-photography on our gallery walls has increased, and with it a form of photographic discourse that embodies a variety of important questions about what constitutes, amongst other things, pictorialism and its appearance within the photographic image. Current art-photography essentially requires what could be called the study of a ‘negative aesthetics’, or, as Jaques Ranciere has rightly specified, a birthing of art-photography not in reference to the conventions of pictorialism found in historical examples of the fine arts but, instead, inscribed within the most banal or trivial of photographic imagery:

“Photography did not become an art by imitating the mannerisms of art. Benjamin accurately demonstrated this regarding David Octavius Hill: it is with the little anonymous fishwife from New Haven, not with his grand pictorial compositions, that he brought photography into the world of art. Likewise, it is not the ethereal subject matter and soft focus of pictorialism that secured the status of photographic art, it is rather the appropriation of the commonplace…” 1

Somewhat conversely, Michael Fried has asserted that art-photography’s inheriting of earlier pictorial issues - prevalent in 18th century French painting for example – is the true reference point for its emergence in the 1970s. Whichever position one takes on the matter, the birthing of photography as an art form proper represents just the beginning of its larger quandary as a subject. Photography also necessarily takes on many of the predicaments associated with late-modern visual art discourses (abstraction, concept-art, minimalism), coupled with the lumber of a Bejaminian notion of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, and many of the abhorrent impasses of postmodernism. Therefore to properly undertake a degree in photography is to attempt to view and understand numerous examples of the practice itself conceptually rooted within a plethora of other subjects including aesthetics (and its politics), art history, non art-photography, new media and both analogue and digital technologies.

Because of this challenge to budding young photography students, every year we award an undergraduate photographer from the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London, a prize in the form of a feature in Hotshoe. This year, we chose Marcus Munnelly, because he has produced a body of work that is intriguing, coherent and professional (his dissertation on framing the land as landscape is also intelligently put together and serves to underpin many of the issues he explored when photographing In the Scene).



Many of Stephen Shore’s, Jean-Marc Bustamante’s or Thomas Struth’s photographs possess a flat, almost accidental quality, as if printed from a film still; a slice of a once moving image that now merely serves as a seemingly inconsequential abstraction from the sense of reality its moving counterpart might provide. When, for example, considering the most vapid of Bustamante’s Cibachromes – Tablea no. 17 (1979) - something of this lack becomes apparent. There is something absent in this image, namely, an immediate and approachable sense of the classically pictorial. Such photographs require the onlooker to do the work; to consider exactly what it is we are not seeing as a means to our eventual understanding of what we are seeing…

Marcus Munnelly describes his triptych In the Scene in the following way: “This series of photographs are motivated by the mimetic nature of the theatrical within constructed environments. The chosen theatre set depicted in the work is an artificial construction of reality. I am fascinated by the state of functionality of objects and props within a set as the original, intended function has been removed.” 2

Munnelly searched through London’s cultural events magazine Time Out, looking for suitable West-end theatre sets that he could arrange to photograph. He eventually settled with Alan Ayckbourn’s Woman in Mind (partly inspired by Oliver Sachs’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat), a play that first came to the stage in 1985.

The resulting image is staged, artificial, plastic-like and somewhat illusory. Munnelly is interested in how the various elements of the set converge to create this deception of reality; how theatre sets generate this false sense of reality that actors can then perform upon.

In the Scene, in its triptych form, is fundamentally a landscape image. Like Sarah Pickering, Munnelly is interested in the space itself as opposed to simply just its intended function. When there are no actors or seated spectators present the space becomes functionless, it can only be considered on the level of what it succeeds to be: a redundant landscape, brought back into view by being framed and photographed.



“The main reason behind the triptych was that to photograph the stage just seemed to simply represent it, but I wanted to make it my own, to break it up, so the parts could be individually scrutinised. People have asked me if it is my garden. I wanted the background to be as dark as possible; I wanted to specifically focus on the set itself. I chose the lighting myself; I sat there and instructed the lighting guy in the theatre, almost like a director. We had agreed this before-hand.” 3

In the Scene takes as its subject the birthplace of theatricality itself, but seems to represent something more deadpan and antitheatrical than one might assume would be the case. To use Ranciere’s term, it represents the ‘commonplace’ of the theatre. Like Tableau no. 17, Munnelly’s image is a frozen moment in anticipation of forthcoming action; a snapshot of the stage as the curtain first opens; or comparable to Bustamante’s photograph, a single image abstracted from the context of the time-based narrative of Woman in Mind.

Although embodying elements of deadpan photography, Munnelly successfully aestheticises In the Scene in a way that differentiates it from Tableau no. 17. Where as Bustamante’s image could be photographed off-the-cuff, so to speak, Munnelly’s does not offer up this illusion, it is openly considered, staged and lit as if in a photographic studio. Indeed, a theatre set contains all the usual objects of a photographic studio, but there is something about the potential presence of an audience in the theatre - a component that you wouldn’t find in a studio photograph. As soon as one knows what exactly is being photographed here, it is the potential presence of an audience that allows this image a certain tension: a tension that seems to attach a slight sense of theatricality to an otherwise deadpan photograph. In the Scene occupies a space next to deadpan; an impassive space, one with little but enough emotion to render it subtly and justifiably aesthetic.



1. Ranciere, 2004 33.

2. Artist’s press release, LCC undergraduate photography show, 2009.

3. Interview with the artist, June 2009.