Whether stage-managed or discovered (and the last is true): the subjects of David Williams’ photographs of the series ’Is’: Ecstasies I-XXII of 1988 give the impression that they are selected from unknown places which can hardly be found again. Spatial situations, occasionally constellations which vaguely open up strange views, appear shortened and abstractly flattened, as it were, in pictures of small format. Little light-white and reduced values of lightness cut through, scan or differentiate toned black rectangles which even after patient investigation do not always reveal their object-like, material, plastic or dimensional identity - even if: the pictures retain in their concrete autonomy power of reference as well as inaccessibility. When passing through these 22 obscure places, one experiences analogously discontinuity and also, in the penetration of spatial breaks and abstract connections, rhythms which can be felt as in concerto from, whose structural elements, however, plunge at the same time out of the abstract context individually back into the backgrounds of recognized or presumed spatial origins. In the process, cognitive viewing constantly adapts itself to changeable distances and it experiences losses and gains synchronously on different levels and qualities of time.
This is probably the smallest exhibition the Museum Abteiberg has ever organized; however, David Williams’ dense image-places within the limits of portrait-and miniature format take part in disputes of contemporary photographic art between knowledge, perception and recognition in such a curious way that undivided attention is to be devoted to this aspect - which also complies with the intention of the artist whom I thank for his cooperative interest.
Incidentally, “”Is’: Ecstasies I-XXII” is shown in a museum for the first time after the series could be seen first in 1989 in The Photographers’ Gallery, London, and in a few more venues afterwards. David Chandler wrote an elucidating text about it for the Portfolio Magazine No. 4, 1989, which the author and publishers make available to us here - in slightly modified form; I thank hem both for that.
Translation: Christel Hughes
‘Is’: Ecstasies I-XXII, the very naming of David Williams’ discreet series of photographs invites speculation. Intrigue surrounded their appearance in 1988: rumours of sudden introspection; an illness perhaps; the photographer’s self conscious and radical change of direction. All pointed towards some hard wrought art delving into dangerous psychological territory. While charmed by the level of interest the work provoked, Williams, as ever, remained evasive about the accuracy of the analysis. There is little doubt however, that then, as now, these photographs have a profoundly personal dimension, and that they represent a point of change for the photographer, a point of maturity. This was certainly the first series of photographs - the first work of art - that Williams had felt driven to complete.
For those seduced by the witty, incisive and highly popular portraits from Williams’ residency at St Margaret’s School for Girls in Edinburgh during 1984, the Ecstasies series seemed austere and impenetrable. Yet despite the obvious painstaking approach to his material and the self-contained precision of his presentation. Williams’ photographs are not the result of any programmatic strategy. Indeed, during its making, there was a sense in which Williams abdicated responsibility for the work, distanced himself from any real control of its basic structure of direction. His working process seems to have relied much more on feeling and intuition, and the idea of the photographer ‘feeling his way’ into each image is an important key to reading the photographs. Emphasising this kind of procedure should not suggest that the images offer a form of instant gratification, on the contrary they demand and reward sustained scrutiny. As these photographs assert themselves it becomes clear that Williams has not lapsed into a sterile formalism, but is testing the ground of a more direct emotional and psychological discourse with the viewer.
The photographs are small and discreet, inviting the viewer to draw close. In this there is a physical intimacy, a dialogue that mirrors the photographer’s practice in this series of careful selection and of honing in on details. The general impression from the images is one of a rich and varied abstraction based on formal rhythms and relationships but, although all figurative and narrative elements are subdued, the move towards the abstract is not fully consummated. An essential feature of these images is that they both provide and withhold information. Locations are suggested but are indistinct, objects and surfaces are disguised by odd angles and abrupt framing. The space within the image is uniformly shallow, but we are constantly made aware of some other space that exists off-camera - a space immediately beyond the surface scanned by the photographer. Often light seeps through from this other place, glowing warm; forms that suggest holes and tunnels invite passage but simultaneously deny it. The doors appear locked, the tunnels infinitely deep; the dark rectangle of the image with its tactile, liquid textures is our window onto a world held in limbo.
These photographs entice the viewer into a captive space, but it is a space that is neither threatened nor threatening. The tensions that ripple through the images are not violent, they conduct a silent war in which pictorial elements manoeuvre and vie for position. Central to these elegant hostilities is the exchange, played out in the photographs (one could almost use ‘narrated’ or ‘documented’ in this context), between the physical and psychological associations of light and darkness. Through the pervasive air of fixity and absorbed contemplation, light is a property of fascination - light that beckons, that forms itself into delicate hieroglyphs or floods a vacant wall. Darkness and shadow, however, are the very substance of the work, the state of mind that dictates the terms of the ‘fascination’ that fixes the conditions for seeing. This seems to be the axis of Williams’ idea - ultimately the envelope of shadow, the world of closure is a source of inspiration. The points of light and the recurring signs and symbols, with their vague reference to archetypes, are the notes of harmony and discord in a musical pattern that resolves unease into calm assurance.
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