I was relatively underwhelmed by Les Rencontres d’Arles this year, but one of the highlights was an exhibition housed in an old church and simply titled Vernacular. Curated from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat, the exhibition consists of three series of vernacular photographs each of which focus on very particular and rather eccentric subjects. One consisted of photographs of people in blackface, another featured images of people dressed as incongruous and slightly threatening polar bears, but for me the stand out was a series of images simply titled Predator.
This series had such an impression on me that I found myself still thinking about it three months on, and I finally decided to buy the book of it. Predator consists very simply of a series of vintage vernacular photographs where the shadow of the behatted photographer has intruded into the frame from the bottom of the photo. As a concept for a short series, let alone a 200 page book, that might seem very slight, but Predator is a great example of how a simple idea can be repeated and varied in subtle ways that gradually build up into a strangely engaging narrative.
As a viewer you know that the photographs in the book are all taken by different people, but a part of your brain can’t quite release the idea that it’s the same individual behind the camera each time. The photographs themselves are often so so sparse and the information in them so repetitive that one searches each new image carefully for significant information, incorporating anything that stands out into the mental image that you have started to construct of this odd and dimly threatening photographer.
An early group of photographs are all of children mostly smiling or bemused but occasionally more ambivalent or crying. While you’re already wondering what the photographer’s relationship is to all these very different children might be, the appearance of crying children starts to seed the thought that it’s something sinister. After all who stands there and takes a photograph of a crying child, rather than attempting to comfort them? The hatted shadow starts to call to mind a film noir villain, perhaps from Peter Lorre’s sinister if pitiful child murdered in M or Orson Welles’s kingpin Harry Lime in The Third Man. Later photographs of young men similarly conjure the image of Robert Mitchum’s predatory preacher Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter.
I never thought I’d praise a book for providing it’s viewers with almost no information besides photographs, but this is exactly what makes Predator work. Because information is so scant the interpretation of the book is left very much to your imagination, and that might be the only weakness of the book in that to those with little imagination it will just appear like a catalogue of visually connected images. The structure of the book hovers somewhere between an actual narrative and a series of loose themes. It starts with photographs of children, then animals, then adults, before breaking into a mixture towards the end. In truth there probably is no real narrative, but because the photographs aren’t strictly typological I found myself irresistibly drawn to search for one.
In short the conceptual simplicity of Predator belies a book of surprising depth, which I found myself spending far more time with than I imagined I would. It illustrates so many things about photography, from the way context alters meaning, to the irrelevance of a photographers intent, in defining how a viewer understands an image. If you have the imaginative energy those photographs can act as springboards for all sorts of strange narratives, and the book is a great reminder that a photographic series doesn’t need to be complicated or even consist of particularly different photographs to have a powerful narrative effect.