“The subversive gesture to record and document, even if in cinematic discourse, the political and social status that a police officer represents in post-911 New York cannot be taken for granted”.
Christopher Anderson’s work in essential terms is cinematic and tightly compressed. His images, when collated in book form become a mellifluous assortment of single-minded and openly amorphous readings into the psychological ponderings of portraiture. The subjects within each frame are shot at distance and the frames that they inhabit are cropped in such a way as to force the viewer to spend time with each unnamed individual inside where he or she may place themselves as if in the cinema, directly in conversation with their still image and the Real world that it inhabits. This of course leads to a sometimes uncomfortable if not unpleasant study of pores, eyes, and skin-the elasticity of each bearing the weight of what the crux of photography always asks-what is it to be represented and to what conversations shall we make of authorship and subject? And yet within, we are left to imagine-to imagine time, space, personality and intent. We read the terrain as if we are reading the film script arc, waiting for the hockey stick to drop on our necks as the denouement prepares its final message. I have mentioned that Anderson’s works, particularly his color images feel like a slice of blade runner or some futuristic society in which everything, perhaps in a simulation is monitored with a hyper-sensitive zeal where technology meets the condition in which it is accepted, rather where surveillance culture is normalized and all things are recorded and projected-an alternate directors cut to an alternate film in an alternate techno-universe.
With Cop (Stanley/Barker), Anderson brings us closer to questioning the relationship of power, photography and civic symbol-namely through is tightly cropped and atmospheric images of New York police officers. The subversive gesture to record and document, even if in cinematic discourse, the political and social status that a police officer represents in post-911 New York cannot be taken for granted. Though I am unsure of Anderson’s personal response to archetypes of power, simply by using the language of “cop”, we begin the strange dissemination of “their” image and in doing so we are able to question the relationship that a civic image has to the population that employs it.
In the interview below and after seeing the work in pdf form, I began to fashion my own imaginative discourse with the police within. My own background paving the way for how I thought Anderson had intentioned his images while making this work. What I found as politically explosive and perhaps what reminded me of cinema in the way I had an early appreciation for Scorsese and Ferrara, both auteurs who have used New York and the NYPD in their films, left me with a vastly different summation of what Anderson would explain about the work. One point that we both spoke or agreed on within the work deals with the current politicized notion of the police as seen through the brutality that has come to inform their relationship to power and populace. In Anderson’s claustrophobic images, it was impossible to escape Eric Garner’s ghost. It was impossible to escape his choking death and it was further impossible to escape the notion that the architecture of power is balanced ever so precariously. What the work did for me, outside of our agreements, was to allow all the imagery of my past, a flood of improbable memories cinematic and real-time to wash over me and allowed me to envision my own narrative (with early Swans soundtrack) to the images. This is one of the stranger gifts that Anderson repeatedly gives us, he simultaneously locks down any external information in his images, compressing them and erasing the majority of their location, information etc. and yet in doing so, he actually opens up a space in which imagination may run freely. Reduction and emphasis.
Christopher was nice enough to field some of my questions about the work, no matter their missing the mark a little and he has forgiven me for using my imagination to run with his work. I cannot say enough about the importance of work like Anderson’s and its beginning to be a habit to suggest, but Stanley/Barker have taken the bar up a notch again. The paramount of photobook design right now lays in their hands-especially the covers, and the content follows suit. I don’t think it would be fair only in July to say what my favorite book of the year is on a personal level, but…
BF: There is a bit to unpack in your new book Cop (Stanley Barker) and my first point of intrigue is how we ascribe its intent. We can discuss at length how it works within your oeuvre as we go, but the first and foremost question that I pose to you is what is your intent with the images of the police featured in Cop? Let’s discuss the color images before we discuss the zerox images…
CA: I think my first pictures of New York City cops were just observations of the changing visual landscape following 9/11. Bomb blast barriers went up, they carried bigger guns, and they seemed to be everywhere. The increased presence of security… partly a means to help us FEEL safe… reminded me of the fact that something actually was wrong. But I was still just observing. It’s not as if I set out with a specific investigation or “project”. But as I was responding visually to everything that was happening in the world, including running off to Afghanistan and Iraq, I was also responding subconsciously to what I noticed at home. My visual response to things is emotional and unconscious. I don’t really know how to plan out academic responses as a way to support a thesis. My motivation is much for impulsive.
It was the Bush era and then came street protests of Occupy Wall Street, the death of Eric Garner, the election of Trump…Photographically I was responding to all of this in many ways. I found myself making photographs of cops on the streets of New York City almost as some form of unconscious protest of a thing that I couldn’t quite define. Photography was being criminalized and photographers were harassed in New York. So here I was, surveilling the surveillance. Maybe I thought I was commenting on a larger sense of authority. I am not really sure. Nothing had crystalized in my mind. I was still mostly observing.
But what I noticed in the images was something entirely different than a protest or commentary on power. There was almost sentimentality in the photographs. I saw a portrait of a working class, immigrant America. The uniform served as a thread on which to hang a cross section sample. It was the control sample (to put it in scientific terms). The similarity of the uniform acted like a frame to see something else. When you look closely at them, you saw the diversity BECAUSE of the uniform. So because of the uniform, the pictures were no longer about the uniform. Maybe they spoke to some thing else more universal. Something about the humanity in the pictures. In some ways, these pictures of cops have nothing to do with cops. It felt more like a love letter to New York than the punk rock I thought I was singing.
I also think of this book as a 3rd in a trilogy where I am playing with these extreme close-ups. The first was STUMP, portraits of politicians during the 2012 American presidential campaign. Then Approximate Joy. And now this. Viewed together, I’d like to think that they speak about more universal themes than their supposed subjects.
“I think my first pictures of New York City cops were just observations of the changing visual landscape following 9/11. Bomb blast barriers went up, they carried bigger guns, and they seemed to be everywhere. The increased presence of security… partly a means to help us FEEL safe… “
BF: The crumpled Zerox images in Cop remind me of 90’s show flyers. They have, simultaneously a Christopher Wool feel in their stark and contrast-heavy images, but also when we add the crumpled action and its resulting image, we start thinking that perhaps the images are retrieved from the garbage or that they were kept somehow out in the rain or perhaps even in the confines along with other flyers in a closet archived from teenage walls to be examined later…
CA: The crumpled cops were an accident. In 2012, while collaborating with New York Magazine, I was illustrating a story about NYPD for the magazine. I had made dozens of Xerox print outs to help edit. I had them taped up all over my studio. I was editing by process of elimination and crumpling up the discarded ones and throwing them in the trash. At some point, I thought I made a mistake and dug into the trash to retrieve one of the pictures. When I unfolded it, something about the image changed. It was more abstract, sure, but it also somehow felt more urgent. The abstraction made the image atemporal. It seemed to free the image from a journalistic context and allowed it to speak to broader themes…just like that weathered flyer pulled from the closet has different meaning when viewed from the distance of time.
BF: The image of the police officers within-their identity implicit, but also lost in a sea of images of other police presents us with the question regarding Authority and Image and who is controlling or monitoring or surveilling whom? In this case, its quite clear that the way in which the images were shot (and shot being specific usage) that you were aware that you could find yourself in a strange position. The action of photography here, shooting American cops could probably land you in home security questioning at the very least. The compression, the distance and the obfuscation in between your lens and the cop featured show us that you are probably shooting with quite a long lens and it gives you quite an advantage when stalking your prey…were you seen or questioned when making the work and do you think this level of subversive imagery will land you with questions later?
CA: Part of the protest in the beginning was the act of making the pictures. Perhaps I was sort of challenging authority by doing it: “I am watching you watch me” After 911 police were harassing people with cameras for photographing in subways and “sensitive” buildings and of course, police themselves. In a city full of tourists this becomes quite impractical and at a certain point, journalist were being harassed for having “professional” looking cameras, which made no sense in a city full of tourists and mobile phones. I guess there were court challenges by the NY media. There result is that the NYPD is now very well aware that they cannot prevent people from making pictures and they seem to be well trained to be quite accepting of it. Often they would make a comment to me, “did you get a good one?” For the most part they are now actually quite nice about it. Perhaps they have had very good public relations training. But I must say, in their place, I would not be so comfortable with it. The way I am photographing them is a bit violent, with a long lens, close…I wouldn’t put up with it. It is still a very uncomfortable thing for me when making these images.
BF: We can no longer observer a cop as simply that. Even the name cop retrieves a whole lexicon of visual perimeters for us to discuss, namely from cinema-Scorsese and also the 70s and 80s New York films in which the beat cop or copper etc. has a historical mode of representation that we can discuss, but presently the idea of a cop is a bit different in America and this is possibly the crux of your book. How do we consider representations of law enforcement in a day and age post-9/11 when the very mention of the police raises eyebrows that alarm rather than pacify in the age of “I can’t breathe” (the crop of your images reminds me of Eric Garner)? I would suggest this work is to examine how we view our current protection and fear it at the same time.
CA: I guess that gets at the heart of the pictures. My protest is all mixed up with sentimentality. I made some of these pictures with my anger about Eric Garner. I made some of them because I was missing New York. I made some just as an observation of something that had nothing to do with cops.
BF:This (your honest note about observation) is often something completely ignored in the day and age in which photography has adopted the struggle of art and academic identity policy to pursue representations from levels of mediocre investigations of abstraction to the dogmatic disguise of censorship. What I surmise with this is that observation is at the heart of what we do and in challenging the single outcome of a body of work like Cop, what you propose is consideration of the medium, the subject, but also the viewer to remain un-remanded for their speculations on what you have observed. It is a very powerful body of work. Thank You!
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm and Christopher Anderson. Images @ Christopher Anderson.)