Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on the photography of David Stewart - "Fogies"

Manit Sriwanichpoom. ‘Wilted,’ [Fogies] in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News magazine. Yr.49, Vol.44, 28 Mar. – 3 Apr. 2003

This kind young white guy handed me a book introducing photography galleries in New York City – ‘Photography in New Your – International.’ The book cost 5 dollars, but he gave it to me for free. Maybe he was too lazy to answer my questions when I asked where all these galleries were and what interesting shows were on, in addition to the photos in his own gallery which I had just look through.

That guide book was for Jan.- Feb.2003. A bit larger than the palm of my hand and printed in 4 colors, it had 146 pages. I looked through it hungrily and stopped on page 71.

There was a picture of an old man, very thin, in a dark blue suit. No tie, but he looks good. He stands, leaning away at an angle from the pale, cream colored backdrop. A bit shy, he rather timidly turns his baggy, bulldog face toward the viewer. His hand holds up a fist full of red roses, like someone in love, or looking for some sympathy from a girl. This withered uncle’s gesture suggests a former playboy; the letters L, O, V, E, are written on the backs of 4 fingers on that hand. Any lady who saw it would have to laugh, charmed, but feeling pity at the same time.

The withered old uncle with pretty red roses is as beautiful as an oil painting. [The picture] has quite some power, enough to pull me through that snowy day to the Chelsea district to which many art galleries have moved, fleeing the high prices of Soho, which was taken over by the fashion district, for example, Guggenhein Soho and Prada. The old galleries were all turned into clothing stores.

Eventually I arrived at In Camera, a little gallery where the picture of the wilted uncle was found with his group of many old uncles, all of them equally old and withered – appropriately called “Fogies.” In Thai, that would translate as ‘withered.’

David Stewart is an advertising photography, aged 43, from London. He is the owner of these photos. David must have a pretty good sense of humor and be fairly playful about life, looking at the old people he imaginatively got to pose for him. Sometimes, if they don’t understand, they might easily get mad or upset. Where in the world can you ridicule the aged? How can you not be respectful and mannerly towards them?

Look at the old couple, grandma and grandpa, middle class, ordinary folk. They stand on a pedestal before a bright blue curtain. Beside grandfather’s pedestal is a rubber doll, blond and young, used to satisfy desires. She stands open-mouthed. But on grandmother’s side is a big ice-cream cone with a chocolate sticking into it. Look carefully. Both of them are daydreaming, their eyes glazed. The viewer knows right away! Grandfather is dreaming of sex; Grandmother dreams of sweets.

‘Sex’ in this case, for David, may mean vigor, strength, manliness, or power over women. It doesn’t mean anything about love. ‘Old uncle wants to eat a young girl.’ Another picture makes clear the fantasies of elderly males. They want a pretty young girl – blond, big breasted, in a silver evening gown, covered with sparkling diamonds, like a Hollywood starlet.

Sitting on his lap, caressing him, making the old guy in the tuxedo feel powerful and important. (In the picture, the young woman wears gloves: ‘I will take your money but not you disease.’)

As for the sweets (ice cream) – this must signify childhood – bright, lively and satisfying.

David Stewart drives in his point about older women thinking of childhood more than sex with a picture of twin blond grandmothers standing against a yellow background. Turning their faces away, the grannies wear bright green uniforms. Everything is identical, even the big pink silken cords they hold.

Not that old men don’t think of their childhood. They also recall those days, but what they miss are the things that show them to be ‘heroic’ and manly – things that were exciting and challenging such as playing on wheels, on the soccer field; playing soldier; wearing a big helmet and guarding a sand castle; playing computer games, or stealing the cop’s traffic cone and sleeping with it in a happy embrace.

There is another set of pictures that I liked very much – pictures about death. Rather than presenting death as scary, depressing and hopeless, Stuart creates some funny, fresh and pretty images.
For example, three white guys chatting, literally, around the edge of a grave in a churchyard. All three wear bright little plastic hats, their attitudes and gestures like young kids. As they chat, they dangle their legs in the freshly dug grave. They are very peaceful in body and soul.

Not unlike the grandma in another picture. Rather than sensibly drinking her tea, Grandma lives it up in a sunny field, her face serenely happy. Wearing a flowered yellow swimsuit, she soaks in a clear blue swimming pool which resembles a coffin.

Though we know cigarettes are dangerous to your health, one granny lies supine in the snow, smoking, using her hands to pillow her head. It is a happy picture. Who cares what they say? I don’t care; I’ll find a smoke if I want to, says Grandma.

David Stewart doesn’t just do old people. He prints some pictures using the oldest color photo printing process. He enlarges pictures to 3 x 5 feet in what he calls the Carbro-color process. It was invented by Louis Ducos du Hauron in 1863 and was much admired in the 30s and 40s.

Printing these pictures is a very complex process. There are 45 steps in the paper preparation process and another 15 steps to dry the paper. A difficult process like this is not going to be popular in a fast and busy world like today, but the pictures that are produced are very beautiful indeed. They look like drawings or paintings.

They use the same paint as in oil paintings. The image has more depth – like a three dimensional picture. But these images can last 100 years. The quality is very good. (This is one of the faults of photographers: they want their pictures to last!)

While writing this article, I had to take a break to go to the funeral of a dear old, much respected senior relative. So, I had a chance to chat with my aunties, who were close friends of the deceased.

“How do you feel about old age and death,” I asked very directly. I wanted to know what the experienced would say – they are old before me.

“I don’t feel like doing anything. I want to sit still. I’ve done everything now.” My auntie is 72. “I’m not afraid to die now; I’m afraid I won’t die!”

That was a shock!
I felt I hadn’t done anything yet! And old age will suddenly be upon me!
So, do we dare to just sit, dangling our feet in the grave?

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