The studio photographs by Murison-Bowie are characterized by artists looking absorbed. In his introduction the photographer explains how this theme presented itself organically, at least to begin with:

“But there is a distinctive and perhaps unique theme that has emerged: the concentrated gaze of the artist. When I looked carefully at the contact sheets of the early shots I began to notice that I had been capturing images of people thinking as much as doing, people standing back from what they had just done or thinking hard about what their next move would be.”
Murison-Bowie, S. (2012) Artists & Studios: Private Views. Oxford: Oxfordfolio (p 19)

Once the theme had emerged naturally, the photographer seems to allow for the possibility that he might have sought to highlight this absorption in his subsequent photographs:

“Having found these moments of thought in the early contacts I began to find them again and again in the studio, both of a standing back kind and of a deep concentration in the precision of the moment.

“‘Absorption’ is the single word which sums up what I have come across here. What I have found time and again is that the space energizes, encourages, provokes a concentrated application of skill and craft, of thought and judgement. I believe this shows in my photographs.” (p 19)

His words are carefully chosen to emphasise a lightness of touch: the absorption is already there; and merely “shows in my photographs.” He stresses that he felt he was as absent as a beholder can be:

Absorption also provides the key to what I have been able to capture. Each individual clearly became so engrossed in what they were doing after a while, even though a sort of quiet, even desultory conversation may have been going on between us as I occasionally clicked my shutter. But I believe that I was not really there in their minds. The work was. (p 20)

Although his own role in the process is more modest, Murison-Bowie’s position is much the same as Liberman’s: that their photography is valuable because the beholder is effectively absent, leaving the artists absorbed in their work. The unquestioned premises of these claims for value are aligned with Fried’s analysis of Diderot’s poetics of C18 painting: that we want to see real life in these tableaux, and that behaviour is more real when it remains unobserved. Indeed Murison-Bowie references Fried in his introduction and perhaps borrows from him the notion of absorption.

Questions arising:

  • The photographs are not transparent windows onto the studio but rather are in themselves the artistic production of an individual. In this context who has control of the presentation of the artist; or, who is the author of the ‘tableau’?
  • What are the limits of the tableau? What appears in the photograph? The studio? The artist’s wider activities? Tracey Emin might present one example of a tableau with problematic limits.
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