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Shoot! Existential Photography @ The Photographers' Gallery

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by Jo Ellis (subscribe)
Travel blogger, music lover & disaster magnet.
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Shoot Yourself into a Picture
Death has been photography's eternal companion. With one snap, time stops and that reality is frozen once and forever, captured in a picture that will outlive the objects it represents. This atypical theoretical analogy Roland Barthes analysed in "Camera Lucida" came to life at fairgrounds in the years following World War I.

In the exploration of the different similarities between the gun and the camera - load, aim, shoot - the trigger and the shutter release button fused together in a strange side-show that appeared on the 1920s: the photographic shooting gallery. If the person shooting hit the centre of the target, the bullet would trigger a camera, which would respond by taking a picture of the punter. Bang! Their portrait shooting themselves would materialize itself for posterity. And that was the prize they won by hitting the target: their own image firing.

Death and eternity coexist in these photographs. If a picture has a dual materiality –the object and the representation of a reality - these images have a paradoxical nature: the depiction of somebody's self-elimination in an object that will endure the passage of time.

Shoot! Existential Photography
Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre - Photo-shot, fairground at Porte d'Orléans, Paris, June 1929 © Jazz Editions / Gamma / Gamma-Rapho Courtesy of The Photographers' Gallery, London

The Photographers' Gallery exhibition Shoot! Existential Photography traces the origin and development of this bizarre attraction, from its popular practice at fairs to the way it attracted artists and intellectuals such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.

The exhibition is divided into two parts, distributed between the fourth and fifth floors of the gallery. The first part starts with the celebrity cabinet, where portraits of celebrities, film-makers and thinkers shooting are displayed.

A large portion of the room is dedicated to Erik Kessels, a common woman who became famous due to her faithful excursion to the photographic shooting gallery almost every year. The collection of portraits starts in 1936, when Erik was sixteen years old. The magic of the series is the documentation of Erik's life up until she was in her nineties. With an instant view from the visitors, years go by and the journey through time begins; Erik's appearance gradually changes, the people around her are different, the setting is transformed, yet the look on her face and her pose while holding the rifle remains the same. The collection not only documents the advancement of Erik's reality but also the evolution of photography itself, in a parallel transformation.

Shoot! Existential Photography
Ria van Dijk - Photo-shot, Oosterhout, Netherlands, 1978, Polaroid, 10.8 x 8.8cm © Erik Kessels. Courtesy Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam Courtesy of The Photographers' Gallery, London

The exhibition continues with the experimental work of artists and their study of sensations and complex depictions of the world with this technique. Like in other art forms, photography is a medium for creative human expression. In her work displayed in The Photographers' Gallery, Emilie Potoiset conveys "moments of menace and tension, electric shocks and psychic nifts", as the description in the gallery states. In this case, she created a sequence of shooting photographs, arranged in a way that they recreate the bullet's path to the shattered mirror.

Swiss artist Rudolf Steiner took this fascinating technique to a whole new level of experimentation. In his work, the camera is the target, and the bullet has a double impact on the image: the strikes of the ray of light and of the bullet itself on the film. Thus, two types of impression are superimposed on the photograph. Undeniably, it is interesting to see the visual effect of this innovative artistic technique. These kind of violent experimentation with photography and bullets have also been carried out by Jean Fraçois Lecourt, whose work is also on display.

Shoot! Existential Photography
Christian Marclay - Stills from Crossfire, 2007 Audio-visual installation on four screens, 8 min 27 s, loop. Courtesy of the artist, White Cube and The Photographers' Gallery, London

The exposition concludes with the work of Christian Maclay called "Crossfire". In a four-screen video installation, Maclay adapts episodes from American movies where the actors are shooting their guns at the spectator. I found myself in the middle of four screens with life-size images of people shooting at me. The effect was exhilarating, a loaded gun of adrenaline. The thrill of the dangerous illusion was overpowering as the bullet sounds engulf the air and I found myself in a state of trance, hypnotized by the short and speedy shots of the montage.

At the end of the exhibition, visitors (over 18 years) have the possibility of taking their own portraits in a photographic shooting gallery. For £3, you get 4 shots. If you hit the target, you get a picture of yourself shooting. Two of the bullets I shot hit the outline of the target, one hit the wall, and the remaining one was never found. Good aim always helps, yet the trick is to close one eye (if you are holding the back of the rifle with your right arm, close the left eye), hold your head close to the rifle and keep your eye in line with the pointing hole.

This is a must-see exhibition to explore new art forms, a rush of sensations, have fun and relax by shooting a bullet into a picture.
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Why? An exhilarating form of art
When: Monday-Saturday 10.00-18.00, Thursday 10.00-20.00 and Sunday 11.30-18.00
Phone: 44 (0) 20 7087 9300
Where: 16-18 Ramillies Street London W1F 7LW
Cost: £5 / £3 concessions, free for Members and under 12. Tickets available from the Information Desk
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