Writing, interviews and reviews /

Drive-by shootings

Giovanni Intra, 1996
Pavement, Issue 10

In the world today, the most interesting photography has betrayed theory and converted to social life. Which is why Ann Shelton’s flash-lit wake-up calls, soon to be published as the book Red Eye, illuminate a incandescent new age of Auckland social existence and propagandise its ripe credibility.

Shelton’s new book is part fashion, part accident and part sheer embarrassment. Her idiosyncratic version of the photographic portrait hones in on the people of a nonsensical culture of “experimentalism”, an excessive yet mannered avant-garde of gender-bending, faux glam and self-mutilation which chokes on foundation whilst desperately trying to swallow art theory.

Red Eye downloads 64 images gleaned from a cast of thousands collected over the past two years. What Shelton modestly terms a “social diary” is really a charismatic expose of the hideous truths and self-conscious mythologies of unemployed psychopaths who frequent Verona cafe and actually believe in drag.

Shelton’s is an eye-in-the-pie snap-shot voyeurism. In short, she’s outed everyone who’d probably have preferred to remain invisible. In Shelton’s drive-by shootings, we don’t get the authorised ‘celebs’. Instead, we get the feigned theatre of cruelty paraded at the Hell for Leather parties and Andre Breton lookalike competitions regularly held at Teststrip gallery on Karangahape Road.

Of course it all amounts to the same thing: that glamour is a regime perpetrated by photography. And it’s only glamour which sustains those tenured aesthetes of sadism. It’s almost as Shelton has realised that we need photography as much as we need drugs and alcohol.

Up until recently the term ‘documentary photography’ has been uttered in critical anguish. Shelton’s work, perhaps more by circumstance than by choice, makes us rethink this unnecessary cultural cringe. Shelton insists on a premise at the heart of photography: people are good to look at. What’s more, she provides us with work which entertains and titillates as much as it scandalises.

Shelton poses new meaning for the words ‘celebrity’ and ‘beauty’. Her dark brittle transitory accounts of Auckland are undoubtedly beautiful. They envision a population which we know is condemned to obscurity, not to mention old age, premature death and a whole host of other attendant mediocrities. But in the meantime there’s the instant space of now.

Documentary photography should be reminded of the superficial trill of ‘now’ beyond the interstices of the politics and event, and it is the obscene, shifting beauty of the present which is captured in Shelton’s pictures. She perceives the alluring marketability of the raw moment and the bizarre familiarity of the stranger. In Red Eye, the idea of the celebrity meets the idea of the nobody. Character explodes into art. Rather than make you remember and feel concern, Shelton’s photography makes you forget you cared in the first place. Instead, simply enjoy the densely blinding results of the optical and social pleasures which she puts before us.