Review: Stephen Gill – Pigeons & Marten Lange – Citizen

22.09.17

Pigeons have followed us into our cities. They mingle among footfalls in the shadows of hundred-story buildings, and huddle in the forlorn but sometimes lively nooks that architecture forgets. Magnificent in their banality, or banal in their magnificence, they are the allies of the rat and mouse – long-term companions of human beings, often persecuted but more often simply overlooked.

Stephen Gill’s Pigeons (Archive of Modern Conflict, London) and Marten Lange’s Citizen (Etudes, Paris) both offer us particular visions of these creatures. Lange’s cool clarity and Gill’s looser, probing sensibility also provide an interesting commentary on the inherent subjectivity of the photographic process, with their divergent approaches each casting the pigeon in a very different light.

Lange’s greyscale photographs lift the pigeon from its surroundings, with flat backgrounds and a direct composition evoking the formal portrait. The title of the book might be read as a reference to the styling of the passport photograph, a form of documentation that establishes one’s right to exist in a particular geographic context. But Lange’s images are more forgiving than the automated photobooth; his soft lighting accentuates his subjects’ bodily forms and feathery textures. Lange’s pigeons are dignified, arranged systematically without textual comment, and the book itself is suitably neat, smooth in its textures and presentation.

Where Lange appears to have invited a small flock inside his studio, Gill has used a pole-mounted camera with flash to reach in and under the railway bridges of Hackney, bringing us a slice of hardcore pigeon. The compositions here are as wild and improvisational as their subjects’ lives. These are pigeons as ragged survivalists, ready to share the city with the cockroaches in whichever version of dystopia that might manifest. Gill is sympathetic to them, but his stark flash and uncontrolled compositions provoke a sense of intrusion – the idea that we are peering into crevices of the city that are not for us. Will Self contributes a useful essay and introduction; the design is somewhat pedestrian but doesn’t distract from the contents.

At the centre of both of these books is a desire to reveal, to pull back a curtain and perhaps provoke empathy and a sense of the strangeness present within the contemporary city. They offer us something that the staid genre of ‘wildlife photography’ no longer does: distinctive ways of observing the beings who share our world and make their lives among us, the humans.

Perimeter x Heavy is a new editorial collaboration exploring contemporary photography, art, design and their various relationships to the published form. Produced in-house by the team at Melbourne-based bookstore, publisher and distribution house Perimeter and Sydney-based photography magazine and online platform The Heavy Collective, Perimeter x Heavy comprises book reviews, interviews, studio visits and features. While further expounding the published output of artists who feature across both Perimeter and Heavy’s inventories, the platform aims to provide thoughtful insights into the wider here and now of contemporary publishing practice.