The clean, minimalist gallery space at Streetlevel Photoworks in the heart of Glasgow offers a welcome refuge from the summer’s tourist-crowds. From the 17th of July until the 16th of September Brian Griffin’s solo-exhibition entitled POP provides an escape from the realities of the bustling city centre. The worlds which Griffin portrays in his photographs are of that almost extra-terrestrial realm known as ‘the music industry’. On a modest scale of four walls, the exhibition looks at previously unpublished record covers which Griffin produced for the likes of Placebo, Depeche Mode, Kate Bush and many more icons of popular culture. This contrast between the monumental and every day is what gives this exhibition its character. Each image is mounted in a minimalist rectangular frame with no apparent distinction made between each. The viewer inspects each image individually, perhaps recognising the album sleeves and/or the names given in the titles beneath. Everything around the prints is toned down and straight-forward allowing the images to have a maximum impact.
The impact of these images is considerable as each invites the viewer to delve fully into the emotions and atmosphere which Griffin wishes to convey. Looking onto these photos one feels as though one is the witness of something great, something out of this world. Take for example the album covers made for Kate Bush. One is highly saturated and the other in black and white, yet both are monumental in their own right. The foregrounded figure seems to demand the landscape around her, the heavy clouds and swaying crops seemingly reflecting her inner turmoil. The angle, the colours and lighting all work together to orchestrate an image fully saturated with emotions which reflect the pop music for which they were created. Some of the more experimental images on display use a more subtle visual language. The absence of human figures in Echo and the Bunnymen’s ‘A Promise’ from 1981 allows a more abstract sense of emotive energy. The cliffs portrayed seem to reverberate, perhaps vibrating in reaction to the pained, lamenting but very much oscillating sound of ‘A Promise’.
The great thing about the exhibition is it lets you see a breadth of Griffin’s work in the one room. The exhibition provides a unique opportunity to see the album covers in immediate juxtaposition as one would not see them in a record shop or the like. A good example of how this hanging side-by-side enriches our understanding of Griffin’s work is evident in the comparison of the album covers for Placebo’s England’s Trance (1982) and Depeche Mode’s Construction Time Again (1983). It appears the latter image is a development on the theme of the first: both are concerned with the portrayal of masculinity. Each image subjects the male figure to a grand and somewhat hostile landscape. The difference between the two, of course, is the raw and unpolished nature of Construction Time Again in contrast to the rigid, man-made structures of England’s Trance. In both the human figure is the focal point yet as the composition of England’s Trance pivots on the dark and upright figure of a suited man, the other harnesses a kinetic energy in the synergy of the man’s action and the latent violence of the mountainous scene. This juxtaposition raises questions on the portrayal of masculinity and on man’s role in actively moulding the world around him.
In addition to the framed prints on the walls, the visitor has the chance to peer into two horizontal display cases at the centre of the room. These contain contact sheets which allow some insight into the thought processes behind the final chosen image. The visitor begins to understand that the production of the images entails more than first meets the eye. Behind each album cover lies a careful process of elimination and the exhibition allows us to think of what significance an alternative choice of image may have had. Why did Griffin choose a particular shot over another? This is a rare moment of intimacy shared with the artist creator in an otherwise rather anonymous and unassuming exhibition. This intimacy interaction is strengthened by the numerous portraits and self-portraits of Griffin himself which are displayed alongside the contact sheets.
The exhibition is overall a great opportunity to gain insight into the work of one of the most prolific British photographers of the 70s and 80s. Apart from marvelling at the photographer’s skills from a technical and aesthetic point of view the exhibition also initiates a conversation dialogue on the role of popular culture in art and the very conscious artistic process which has gone into shaping the icons which we have loved and continue to look up to today.
By Isabelle Thul