Thursday, July 19, 2012
Photographer: Paul Phung
Posted by Harry Warwick
The photographs I have chosen this week are from Paul Phung’s more recent work. Often his subject matter is dissatisfied youth, but what is particularly distinctive about these portraits is the seemingly causeless nature of the youths’ discontent. No coherent explanatory narrative forms between pictures of the same subject, and the various objects within the photographic space serve little historical function, either. Such is the disjuncture of past and present that the top picture, in which a young woman sits on a mechanical child’s amusement, appears almost anachronistic, impossible. It is clear that a rift has opened up in these young peoples’ lives. But it is equally obvious that we can only guess, never know, what made them this way.
The result is not an absence of depth. It is just that, by photographing subjects in this kind of isolation, Phung has made that depth inaccessible. We are certain that pain burns beneath those expressions, but are helpless to realise the exact texture and origin of the discontent. As a result, Phung’s subjects are all difficult to read and endlessly intriguing because of it. Though our interest may be stimulated by empathy, it seems more likely that these enigmatic young people retain our attention because we can’t tell exactly what we are meant to empathise with.
Perhaps this is why I find Phung’s monochrome portraiture particularly effective. The high contrast is consistent with the divide between the dark, unrecoverable past and the stark present in which his subjects find themselves. The grainy appearance of these pictures reminds us, first, that there is distance between the photograph, the imperfect copy, and the real world, the unattainable original, and second, that this distance is also what separates these flat depictions of pain from the complex, three-dimensional realm of causes.
Elsewhere, Phung’s photography draws attention to its status as an aesthetic practice through its selection of subject matter as well as through its formal qualities. Even the photographer, it seems, is a worthy target of photography. Either implicit or explicit in all of the images above, then, is a self-reflexive questioning of what role the photographer occupies. Is the photographer here to expose tiny fragments of the natural world that we would otherwise miss? Or is the photographer’s purpose merely to provoke more questions, to reveal the dark areas among the light?