Hattie Crisell talks to Michael Hoppen about his intriguing new exhibition, comprising photos which document debauchery, science experiments, planetary maps and more
A photograph can be a memento, an artwork, or an advertisement – but at its essence, what is it? Just a document, proving (with a margin of possible deceit) that something really happened. That’s the thematic principle behind the new show ? The Image As Question: An Exploration of Evidential Photography, which is now running at London’s Michael Hoppen Gallery.
The exhibition is a passion project for Hoppen, who has been collecting the photographs for 12 years. “This is probably only a third of them,” he says. What they have in common is that they “provide you – as a policeman, a mathematician, a scientist, a doctor – evidence as to how something works or how it happened.” In practice, this means a fascinatingly diverse exhibition of images, encompassing crime scenes, scientific experiments, planetary maps, war documents, political events and mathematical proofs.
Some of these relics are deeply disturbing – a mid-20th-century photograph of a murder scene, for example, focuses on the window where the burglar entered. It’s only after a few seconds that the viewer registers the corpse, half off-camera in a corner of the image, slumped naked over a bed. Other photographs are full of humour: a Los Angeles mug shot from 1969 shows a disheveled, middle-aged woman, Ellen Lucy Chenard, who has been arrested for disorderly conduct. A policeman has scrawled the nickname “Ellen of Troy” above her head.
There are unexpected additions too, like Trent Parke’s My Son Jem is born, Sydney Royal North Shore Hospital NSW, 2003: a photograph of a baby emerging like a fish from a water birth. It’s hard to argue that the photo was taken as evidence, because it’s clearly radiating love – but it’s still a testament to a particular moment, and a proof of sorts. The joy of the show is in its variety, and as a whole it makes the viewer reflect on the history of human striving. Finding each picture, says Hoppen, felt like rescuing a rung of a ladder: “And I suppose you could say that they’re all linked by the fact that they’re part of the same ladder, to knowledge.”
? The Image As Question: An Exploration of Evidential Photography runs from September 28 to November 26 at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, London.