Bigwigs in their natural domain

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Julia Fullerton-Batten entered a single picture (duly noticed in these pages) into the national portrait award last year, and now London’s National Portrait Gallery is showing a small commission of her work (called A Picture of Health) in one of its little side galleries. It is a show of only 16 images, double hung in a single room, on the subject of senior people either within or concerned with the UK National Health Service. It’s a modest commission; not only does the NPG have to acknowledge a sponsor for the commission itself, but even the photographic prints have had to be paid for out of somebody else’s marketing budget.

Fullerton-Batten has been allowed to visit each of her bigwigs in context. One is in the metal stacks of a medical library, several in the kind of wood-
panelled meeting rooms that spell “establishment” to eyes trained in Britain, one in the Treasury. A chief of an ambulance service is in the breeze-block interior that is the functional norm in buildings paid for out of public funds.

She has then photographed them with a large-format camera and that stilted lighting which makes indoor electric light, in particular, slightly other-worldly. In addition, she has asked for considerable stillness over a longish period of time. As a result, her sitters look like actors in their own lives, an excellent way of nudging viewers to think about institutions and institutional roles rather than individual post-holders.

Nick Partridge, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, is at the water cooler, poised with his weight towards the balls of his feet rather like a sprinter in the days before starting blocks. A couple of crumpled plastic cups lie on the floor, as though we can already see the trail he will leave behind when he disappears.

There are few extras because these are real portraits. But the few extras there are are very interesting. A cleaner in a nurse-like uniform ignores the photographic palaver behind her in a very precise account of how busy nurses have to be. A mandarin in the Treasury does exactly the same. Yet we see that these people count too.

We can, if we like, see contrasts between the different kinds of people it takes to make a public service, and that was part of what Fullerton-Batten was about, and certainly what the NPG should sometimes be doing. We are used, I think, to pictures in which the person is subsumed in the office. Here the office is nothing much without the person who fills it.

I liked this little show so much that I wandered up the Charing Cross Road to see another exhibition of Fullerton-Batten’s, Teenage Stories at the Charing X Gallery. It consists of two series on teenage girlhood, one of which I like less than A Picture of Health and one more.

The one I like less is a fairly conventional dream-series where a girl stares out from a hotel room on to a night-time airport, and we see her reflection mixing with the scene outside. Less pretentious, and far more effective, is a series of large-format prints in a parodically “modern documentary” style of girls who have become physically too big for the world that they live in. Photographed in a model “village” somewhere (it’s actually a pretty complete urban agglomeration, complete with docksides, motorways, bijou little suburban
developments and all), the trickery is perfectly obvious and not Fullerton-Batten’s point at all. She might have achieved something of the same effects of scale with collage or with Photoshop and it doesn’t matter a jot. The easy references don’t matter much, either. Robinson Crusoe or Alice in Wonderland, it is not hard to think of precursors. What matters is the striking psychological truth of these portraits.

Not only are the girls giants in a world that physically restricts them, but they also act out melodramas of operatic scale within the confines of humdrum day-to-day life. Picking up a milk-bottle in the morning becomes fraught with the possibilities of eroticism. Going to the supermarket becomes a picaresque adventure and travelling an Odyssey. Any patch of water, harbour or urban canal, becomes a possible site for Ophelia’s tragedy. Getting chewing gum off a heel is an Everest of self-consciousness.

Fullerton-Batten has used non-professional models for these pictures, and that was a good idea. Between them, her models and the photographer get exactly right the split between enjoying being stared at (even provoking it) and wandering about unaware of the outside world at all. This seems to me to correspond so well to a moment in the change from child to woman that I asked myself who had photographed such a thing so well before. Of course, others have worked in areas that overlap with this. Sophie Calle, Mari Mahr, Rineke Dijkstra . . . But just mentioning those names gives an idea of the standard Fullerton-Batten has reached without anybody much yet noticing. Is this autobiographical work? I don’t know. But it is highly personal, evocative and moving, beautifully crafted, occasionally funny, and bears looking at again and again. That’ll do for me.

I had been distracted toward the Fullerton-Batten medical pictures on my way to see the Angus McBean show in a bigger space in the NPG. This is a really proper show, and the gallery has done one of Britain’s major photographers proud. It is fun to see his actual props and the sheer quality of many of the prints is fantastic.

I remain rather impervious to the camp theatrical side of McBean, and there is a lot of that. On the other hand, there are plenty of very fine things here. When he fiddled less, he often reached his best. His montage portraits of the playwright Emlyn Williams or of the composer Ivor Novello are worth the entrance money alone, and so is an astonishing picture from 1945 of Clara Luce with botox lips that might have been photographed this month.

Anybody who has seen as many photographs as I have has come across vanity on a pretty epic scale before, but here is one of vanity so terrible it has become almost a disease. McBean himself was not exactly averse to contemplating with approval his own splendour, but his portrait of Cecil Beaton simpering in a mad excess of his own works, including book covers, previous photographs of himself starring on stage and so on is stomach-curdling. Or blood-turning, whichever you prefer.

‘A Picture of Health’, supported by Deloitte, continues until September 10, ‘Angus McBean: Portraits’ until October 22. Both at NPG, tel 20 7306 0055. The NPG’s 150th anniversary partner is Herbert Smith. ‘Teenage Stories’ is on show until July 21 at Charing X Gallery, tel 20 7287 1779

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