Jon Myers: People, Places and Empty Spaces

John Myers’ current exhibition of portraits and suburban landscapes, taken in the West Midlands in the 1970s, represents Myers’ personal, and yet depersonalized, relationship with his surroundings, his friends and acquaintances. The exhibition collects black and white images of the people and places that he encountered as part of his everyday activities. Myers’ stresses that he “never went out to hunt for subjects”, rather, they were all known to him, entwined in his everyday routine, and part of his personal story. Nonetheless, his subjects are defamiliarized by the stiff, formal poses and impersonal tone of the images. They are photographed as if they are strange and unfamiliar, with little if any sentiment.

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Although the exhibition collects images of the mundane Stourbridge landscape as well as its inhabitants, never the twain shall meet. Myers’ people and places have been kept apart, not only in his photographs but also in the gallery space. His portraits occupy the upper part of the gallery, separated by a ramp from the main gallery, where walls are lined with images of depopulated landscapes.

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A few of the images depict domestic interiors, but these too are depopulated and unhomely. Some are not genuine domestic interiors, but furniture store displays, where furniture is new and unused. In this pristine condition, furniture is devoid of any homely connection to individual users. It has no story, and no memories attached. These images are illustrative of Myers peculiar relationship with suburban domestic spaces, as places that should be depersonalized and distanced from human experience.

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A series of 10 portraits of televisions, photographed in their domestic environment, lines the back wall of the gallery. Myers is fascinated by the television as an alien technology that “has just landed from space and [is] about to take over”. He reflects that this is exactly what has happened in the decades since, as the screen has taken over and now rules public and domestic spaces.

Surrounding each television is evidence of family life: books, nick-nacks, houseplants, stacked paperwork, and in one image, an Action Man. It is evident that these televisions exist within a populated environment, but they are unused, lying dormant until the family returns. All are switched off, and along with the living rooms that they occupy, they have entered a kind of stasis. Myers’ presence is not enough to break the silence. He is the listener in the proverbial forest, hearing no sound when the tree falls. Until the family re-enters, these homes are non-places, and the televisions are full of unfulfilled potential, useless without someone to watch them.

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Even in Myers’ human portraits, where his subjects are located within their own homes, they rarely interact with their surroundings. Their hands are often clamped to the sides of their bodies, isolating them from the objects around them.

The stiffness of his portraits may arise in part from Myers’ approach, the length of the exposure (up to half a second in some cases), and what he describes as an awkward inability to relate. He views portraits as a collaboration between photographer and subject, whose shared goal is to solve the “problem” of how to pose within the scene, combined with, when there are two subjects, the “problem of how to relate to each other”. He describes how subjects are startled by the noise of the camera, and capturing the stiffness or movement that occurs as a result.

Myers typically only takes 1 or 2 photographs of his subjects. On the occasions when he takes more, he finds that he always uses the first or second frame. In these first images, the subjects have not yet had time to acclimatize to their role as model, or to settle into a pose. This unfamiliarity with being photographed, and the visible unease that results, seems to be what Myers is trying to preserve in his images. Myers stresses that his aim is not to capture something “sinister”, rather he seems to want to celebrate the innocence of their unease, in contrast to the comfort that is feigned by more experienced models.

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