Gary Bratchford: UG4.OA.35

Slide UG4.OA.35 – Modern Islam

My interest in photography started with this amazing collection over a decade ago when I first studied here as an undergraduate. Located in Cambridge North, I frequented the Visual Resource Centre (VRC) for research and pleasure and regard it as the place where I began to develop my interest in the representation of conflicts. I came back into the VRC looking for images that reminded of those early years but instead found this, UG4.OA.35 – Modern Islam.

As image and object, the slide is something special. It is a framing devise that is both visual and contextual. As we know, the context in which a photograph is seen effects the meaning a viewer draws from it. In this instance, UG4.OA.35 – Modern Islam has had two lives and has appeared in at least two different context. Firstly, it has had a scholarly function as a teaching aid or research tool; its second and most recent purpose is as an object in an archive. As objects the slide, the image within its frame and the tens of thousands that neighbour it in the VRC now represent the teaching and research interests of the Manchester Metropolitan School of Art and are a testament to its diversity, knowledge, and resourcefulness of the staff.

I chose Modern Islam because of its similarity to the work of Stephen Shore; a keystone in contemporary modern photography because of his use of colour. Shore, like his American 1970’s contemporaries, William Eggleston and Nan Goldin reintroduced colour photography as a legitimate artistic medium of display in art galleries. Like aspects of Shore’s work the photo challenges the conventional notion of the frame whilst also being sublimely ordinary and strangely engaging. Much like the images in Shore’s seminal work, Uncommon Places (1982), ‘Modern Islam’ is in its most basic form a colourful representation of the banal. Yet it is this banality that makes it so engaging. Rows upon rows of 1970s American import cars; their place in the landscape is disconnected from their origin. While Shore represents American automobiles in small town American car parks, on smooth tarmacked roads and busy intersections that bespeak a form of modernity that is entrenched in the everydayness of routine, ‘Modern Islam’ represents a sea change in culture. The image lacks the billboards and commercial signs that Shore so neatly packs into his shots, however maintains the ‘surreal density’ of information so often found in other aspects of his work. To the bottom right of the frame, Arab men in traditional garb examine the cars. Our eyes are drawn to the red cars in the foreground; the lack of colourful cars then stretches out to the background and also out of frame. This is presumably a photo of a car sales site. The more attractive red cars are kept to the front; those finished in a less striking colour make up the remainder of the stock, evident by the uniformity of the cars as they stretch out of sight.

It is here again that the issue of frame is pertinent. Whoever took the photo positioned his/her self in such a way that the most prestigious cars were given the greatest economy. Spilling out of the frame, the cars slip out of sight, the photographer’s intent is clearly to document the enormity of the stock whilst focusing on the prized assets. In this sense the photograph is also unconventional. While the frame should, as Shore notes, ‘corral the content of the photograph’ (2010) acting with passivity and indicating that this is where the scene ends, the photographer fills it to capacity.

Gary Bratchford
AHRC funded PhD Student
Manchester School of Art


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