Tajikistan weaving by Christian Caujolle
Unlike most of his previous essays in black and white, the colour photography Rip Hopkins has brought back from Tadjikistan fits within a documentary tradition whose importance is only now being realised, after having been underestimated for years. Unknown only 15 years ago, Walker Evans has become an important benchmark, not only to the history of photography, but also as someone called upon in any reappraisal of the history of visual creativity in the twentieth century, and in analysing the relationship of visual creativity to the real world it investigates.
The main feature of this photography is its documentary nature, meaning the absence of stylistic effect, and this, together with the way images are accumulated and presented in serial form, has ultimately created a well-defined approach that keeps the author in the background, where, at least apparently, he has withdrawn from the scene, leaving the stage free for the theme, the motif, or the subject he wishes to focus on. Because it claims that its function is to explore reality, to make it intelligible, and to question it – and Evans, Sander and Strand were undoubtedly its leading exponents at the time it was invented – for a good half-century this photography has been dominated by the attempt to achieve ever more spectacular, more original effects. Yet today, because photography has been forced to redefine its role in the era of television as the main carrier of image-based information – indeed television now holds the monopoly on providing such information – and now that the Internet has also moved into the area between games and information that was formerly filled by the silver screen, it has been realised that the photographic genre has its limitations, and has also tended towards a certain naïvety, no doubt well-meant, but often at odds with the idea itself, which is to inform and record facts.
Rip Hopkins’ long stay in one of the republics of Central Asia that were part of the Soviet Union, whose name, wholly exotic, masks the fact that we live in perfect ignorance of the country itself (who could have located Tadjikistan on the globe before the war in Afghanistan showed it bordering on a country under the sway of the Taliban?), was not so much a journey as an attempt to bring a mystery into focus.
Of course it was a journey in the sense that it involved travel to another destination, and in the sense that there was a compelling desire to make a journey, in every sense, through a country that is quite unknown. It was also a journey because he wished, as he explains so excellently, to go among people and meet them in their own cultural context – a culture centred on the craft of carpet-weaving. It was a journey, but one whose photographic record cannot be dismissed as a type of “notebook” of the kind that became popular following Bernard Plossu’s Mexican Voyage, nor can it be described as an attempt to create an ethnological or ethnographical record, something we have seen re-emerging after losing ground since the thirties, when it gave way to travel photography, a genre which, first in black-and-white and then in colour, was – and often still is – created to grace the pages of magazines and albums, inviting us, in their own words, to “dream” and indulge in travel by proxy.
The approach of Rip Hopkins is quite different. Essentially frontal and precisely framed, he records situations, captures moments and, above all, captures space. Seemingly artless, leaving one to wonder in the circumstances whether the persons photographed gave their consent and accepted the presence of someone capturing them on film, these pictures display a quiet determination, not just to reproduce the world he sees but to provide a record of situations that make personal sense to the traveller (which is their intimate dimension) and show proof of the wonderment he experiences when faced with ways of life that differ from those he knows in Europe.
By breathing new life into an important tradition in photography, Rip Hopkins – and this is one of his particular merits – uses colour to give it new meaning. The ordinary format and the negative are used by him to confront a highly coloured world with a restraint, a finesse and a sense of composing through colour which are quite remarkable. No hankering after the spectacular, no flashy effects, no cheap mocking in situations where sometimes kitsch would seem to be the overriding element, no temptation to exploit voyeuristically the charm of the exotic. Simply a correctness of approach, generous, respectful, with carefully composed images that stress the interplay of colour and use the viewfinder to capture the unaffected poses of the persons he sees.
For us who know no better and do not know the country, Tadjikistan becomes a place that questions light itself in its ability to invent this interplay of colour, and, strangely, too, a place where time calms the spirit, enhanced by soft-focus monochrome tints that at the same time allow the occasional flash of vivid colour to filter through. These are legends, precise, simple legends, that give us the information we need.
This exploration of a country unknown to anyone, carried out with remarkable restraint, provides the perfect example of a genre of documentary photography that proudly claims title to its function – to document – and yet affirms its contemporariness. The challenge, a far cry from present fashions, which become unfashionable as soon as they are launched, was a difficult one to meet. The absence of complacency, the refusal to be contented by mere appearances, the strictness with which he adheres to a cohesive succession of choices, not only bring this documentary to life beyond all expectation, but today offer us an alternative to the banality of all those holiday snaps taken to be looked at, looked at again, and then just discarded.
All in all, a person who has carried off a project that teemed with pitfalls at every turn, and carried it off faultlessly.
39 silver prints - 40*50cm
Mat aluminium frame (width 1cm)
Tajikistan weaving by Miriam Rosen, ArtForum
For once, something has been gained in the translation--and there is a lot of translation going on in this remarkable series of images. To begin with, the title: What began in the mind of Sheffield-born, Paris-based photographer Rip Hopkins as "Tajikistan Weaving" became "Tadjikistan Tissages" for the purposes of this exhibition. The scatlike alliteration of the French version is already more compelling to the ear, but it is the subtle transformation of "weaving" into "weavings" (tissages) that serves to alert mind and eye to a multiplicity of possible readings. These emerge from Hopkins's translation of a journey of nearly two months into a photographic record of people and places in a country that was woven together in the '20s from bits and pieces of surrounding ethno-political entities and which is still in the process of being rewoven in the wake of the 1992-97 civil war.
Hopkins, too, has arrived at a kind of interweaving--of reportage, portraiture, painting, road movie, and autobiography. Consciously or unconsciously, his work has more in common with the carpets that sparked his interest in Tajikistan than with any documentary account. Among the technical "translations" this process has entailed is the shift from the panoramic camera Hopkins used in his earlier work as a photojournalist ("I got tired and cynical," he has said) to a medium-format Pentax complete with tripod (because "I wanted to be in control of the image") and from black-and-white to color ("People are generally disappointed when they find themselves reproduced in black and white"). The result is a much more studied sense of composition than before and a sensually understated treatment of color. Moving from one city, town, or village to another with contacts provided by people he met along the way, and notably the indispensable translators, Hopkins did not simply photograph the schoolteachers, travel agents, hotel owners, farm girls, orphans, carpet weavers, and others he encountered, but involved them in their own mise-enscene, so that, as he points out, they were the ones "who ultimately chose the image they wanted to convey of themselves."
Portraits? Not really: The subjects often look away from the camera, stand off to one side, turn their backs, or, in one case, absent themselves entirely from a domestic interior the better to display, instead, a refrigerator, a wall clock in the form of a giant wristwatch, and a television covered with a prayer carpet. In one particularly haunting image, almost a hybrid of photo and film, a Russian woman seen from behind is studying a painting on the wall of a popular history museum while her son blurs his way through the doorway beside her.
26 silver prints - 40*50cm
5 silver prints - 60*80cm
2 silver prints - 100*120cm
Glass + white wooden frame (widths 1.5-2.5cm)