Picture This

In Picture This we find a variant of the itinerant photo-booths of one strand of photography's history. Painted backdrops go all the way back to Daguerre, the diorama operator. But since as long ago as Etienne Carjat in the 1850s, photographers have stepped away from the too-obvious fantasy of the painted scene by using a plain or abstract backdrop. To go back to it now is a self-conscious choice. Here members of the public invited by Oetzmann are positioned in something very close to the sentimental view of the English landscape of the classic poster for Start-rite children's shoes ('well begun is half done!') But there is no expectation of illusion. The subjects don't face us as though they were in the painted scene; rather they invite us to share their perception of its falseness. The device is simple enough, but it opens a wealth of enquiry. Oetzmann's participants are dressed in urban uniforms, more or less unsuited to the rural scene in which he places them. They stare into a receding future which doesn't recede. They are complicit in a photographic mise en scene but are also the subjects of our scrutiny. This many-layered representation invites us to consider the long traditions of English Arcadianism and to question how it fits into the world-view of the population today. It depends for its success on the certainty that its eventual viewers will be prepared (and able) to unravel specifically photographic clues, rather than clues from the factual world alone. Oetzmann in other words expects his viewers to be literate in photography, and he addresses himself uncompromisingly to that literacy. No more apologies for photography some how being different.

Francis Hodgson
Head of Photographs at Sotherby's, London.

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