Jonathan Shaw is a photographer who likes to push boundaries. Terry Grimley finds out how.
Jonathan Shaw is a photographer who likes to push the boundaries of the medium and its capacity to record space and time, using both up-to-the-minute technology and techniques developed by 19th century pioneers.
In the exhibition Time-Motion at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in 2003, he showed Gallery 13 a remarkable panoramic photograph of visitors to the museum’s Pre-Raphaelite gallery. The specially staged shot, exhibited as a print measuring 13 metres long, was recorded on a camera moving laterally along a fixed track, and was the single largest photograph ever shown in the museum.
Now another spectacular image he had already produced at that time – it was illustrated in the book published alongside Time-Motion – is being exhibited for the first time.
Called Crash, it was taken at the gay nightclub of that name in London in 2001, as a collaboration with the architect Nigel Coates for his book Ecstacity.
As displayed in the top floor gallery at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, it’s a 60-metre long, continuous image which is wrapped round the gallery’s maze-like walls.
“For me, this is about the scale of the work,” says Birmingham-based Shaw, a principal lecturer in photography at Coventry University.
“To generate the sense of claustrophobia that you experience in the club it’s important that you can never see it in its entirety. It’s about my physical relationship with the camera as well as the relationship of the subjects to the lens.”
The viewer is surrounded by a heaving mass of over-lifesized naked torsos, with bodies blurring into distortions as though in fairground mirrors, or suddenly snapping into sharp focus.
Astonishingly, this is one continuous photograph, achieved by Shaw walking through the dancers holding a specially modified camera.
“The act of shooting is as much a part of the subject as the subject itself,” he says. “I had an old twin-lens reflex camera on its side. I had taken out all the gears and replaced the motor, and it pulled the film through as I was taking the shot. It’s simply me walking through the dance floor and creating one continuous image along the roll of film.”
Shaw takes evident delight in the fact that his work is rooted in that of 19th century pioneers like Friedrich von Martens, who introduced his panoramic camera, the Megaskop, in Germany in 1844, though he points out “I’m moving the film rather than the camera”.
But delivering giant prints of his images is entirely dependent on digital technology, in these days when it is standard practice to cover buildings with giant photographs of themselves when they are undergoing major renovations. In the past Shaw has done commercial work of this kind with the Manhattan Loft Company, which introduced New York-style loft living to London.
This giant photograph has been produced in collaboration with Monster Digital in Halesowen and Palm Laboratories in Digbeth, so it’s an all-local product.
Meanwhile, here’s a question for art lovers.
Which educational institution in London has a collection of more than 10,000 works of art ranging from Durer to Turner and Stanley Spencer, but no public gallery to display it?
Few people, I suspect, would correctly identify University College, London, which is probably most strongly associated with art because it incorporates the Slade School of Fine Art.
Now more than 50 works on paper from this rich but little-known collection have been lent to Birmingham’s Barber Institute, where they will be on display until October. It is the first time a body of works from UCL has been shown outside London, and possibly the most substantial exhibition ever drawn from the collection.
The Slade was founded in 1871, but the UCL collection began well before that, with the gift of the largest body of work anywhere by the late 18th century neoclassical artist John Flaxman, presented by his sister-in-law Maria Denman in 1847.
In 1872 George Grote bequeathed a large collection of prints and drawings which it seems was begun by his grandfather, a Dutchman who moved to London from Bremen.
Alongside further substantial gifts from Henry Vaughan in 1900 and Charles Davies Sherborn in 1936, the collection continued to grow through the 20th century with the addition of works by staff and students of the Slade, a tradition which continues up to the present with works by living artists like Paula Rego and Ana Maria Pacheco.
A pivotal figure was the Solihull-born surgeon-turned-artist Henry Tonks (1862-1937), who taught at the Slade from 1892 to 1930 and was Slade professor of fine art from 1918. He is the teacher most closely associated with the tradition of figure drawing for which the Slade is famous, and taught the remarkable generation of young modernists who studied there just before the First World War, including Stanley Spencer, Percy Wyndham Lewis, CRW Nevinson, David Bomberg and Mark Gertler.
Tonks bequeathed his small collection of old master drawings, including one by Rubens, to UCL, while his executor shared out Tonks’s own drawings between this and a number of other public collections.
Although the UCL collection includes oil paintings, the Barber has chosen to concentrate on works on paper, plus a few small examples of Flaxman’s plaster sculptures.
Highlights among the early works include a chalk self-portrait by the little-known Leonhard Beck from about 1510 which at a glance could almost be mistaken for a Lucian Freud, and a wonderfully delicate drawing of a girl, also in chalk, by Wenceslaus Hollar, dated 1635.
Flaxman is represented by two pieces of startlingly direct observation from life – one showing a man sleeping in a niche in a wall, the other a woman shaking out a cloth on a balcony.
* Crash is on display at the New Art Gallery, Walsall, until September 6 (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 11am-4pm, admission free). For more information about Jonathan Shaw’s work, see www.jonathan-shaw.com
* Dürer to Spencer: Highlights on Paper from University College London is at the Barber Institute, Birmingham University, until Until October 25 (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun 12 noon-5pm; admission free).