I has asked the gallery where I might park in the vicinity but they were unable to tell me. Though there was a space nearby, it did not become available for another half hour; it seemed worth risking parking there though since this was the evening?
Inside the Wapping Project Gallery, photographs lit individually by overhead lights glowed as a room full of people enjoyed a free glass of wine and some cheese. Susan Meiselas herself could be seen wandering around the room photographing with a digital camera, apparently unnoticed by the guests.
The photographs were all from a sado-masochistic club in New York called Pandora's Box and although they were taken 15 years ago in 1995, it is only now that they are being exhibited since their subject matter is provocative. There is for instance, a photograph of a man's bleeding buttocks with a whip wielding female in the background, photographs of spiderwoman-like females who play dominatrix roles, dominating females relaxing on thrones, clients wearing spiked black masked hats, a woman being whipped by another woman and so on.
Billed as a lecture, it was in fact a talk partly inspired by the photographic art critic Charlotte Cotton who asked a few questions of Susan Meiselas; she was able to throw light on how such a project came into being. It would not have come into being if she had not been with Nick Broomfield, a TV director, who was filming and hence able to allow her access. He had researched a lot of places before he found this particular club, one that he considered suitable and was willing to grant him access.
Once in the club, Meiselas worked on her own and these photographs made using 800 ISO film with no artificial lighting, were made with the agreement of those present though most clients and workers did not want to be photographed. There was an air of theatricality to the shoot but these were not staged shots. She worked on just one occasion for 12 hours from early afternoon till after midnight, an intense experience; it took sometime for the session to begin for this only happened when she felt at home in the place, an occupier rather than a visitor. She needed to gain some insight into something that she could not imagine anyone wanting. Her photographs are discomforting yet this was something she needed to work through.
Someone in the audience objected to having come a long way to see an exhibition by a world class photographer that was really just a pornographic show. Meiselas replied that this was consistent with all her work, that of confronting the violence people do to each other; there is no predictable way that a Magnum photographer works. Her book of Carnival Strippers, made many years before in the days of black and white, deals with a similar theme but while one might feel empathy there with the strippers she photographs, Pandora's Box is a different more alien place; it is not a natural need being pictured here rather a perverse one.
Someone asked me why I would want to travel to see an exhibition of such photographs. In a way, I did not come for the photographs rather to see the work of an established photographer whose work `i was familiar with. This was not an exhibition of work that one went to enjoy for the subject matter rather it was something inviting a response at a kind of horror willingly played out by people, a kind of comment on the sexual perversion that has emerged with the scandal concerning the Catholic church.
It proved to be an expensive evening though as I when I got back to my car there was a parking ticket attached. I might have objected on reasonable grounds (where does someone from out of town park in the vicinity?) but decided to pay. Meeting with a world class photographer does not happen very often and one felt privileged to see work that made the banal into something meaningful albeit disturbing.
URL for the event