Night Porter

By Chris Shaw

By Alan Dunn


There is a sad Americana sweeping the streets. Young bands on the Wirral stretch every sinew to sound like Neil Young and the spirit of Lou Reed is at Open Eye; the hotel as metaphor for rock-n’roll excess and zoo for the most distracted and clock-watching human evolutionaries.


The sense of the waste-rooms is frozen by the rejection of colour in Chris Shaw’s work. It’s not even that they appear black & white - there never was the remotest chance of any colour seeping in to these photographs. Bodies lie around and skirts and t-shirts are lifted to reveal flesh, but this is not enticing. It’s repulsive, desperate last-exit 4am stuff. The carpets are probably stained but we have to guess as there’s barely enough light to see. This is not international daytime. It’s high contrast and high-risk living and the bodies just look done in.


Sometimes you want Lou Reed to sing about surfin’ USA rather than Berlin, even just the odd chorus, just to know that it’s possible and that there is a lightness to ease the bleakness. In the exhibition, there is niggling framing that obliterates parts – but not all – of the texts that are scribbled around or on top of the photographs (eg “corridor of dreams”). This irritates me and the person I see the show with. We’re experience artists and don’t need to be teased with half words that perhaps were meant to be full words. It comes across as clumsy and careless like a hotel TV that doesn’t work. The texts are not the main reason to visit but once there, you expect them to work.


We remember Walter Dahn and the seemed-so-cool late 80’s German photographers. And Bogarde and Rampling. Turn the corner and encounter more naked pissed souls locking themselves out of their rooms. I’m not sure I really want to know about all this stuff.


Right there in the middle of it all is a black & white photograph of someone who looks like Kevin Rowland. A poor lost soul, searching for any soul rebels. There are many Kevins but the one I first became aware of - the Dexy’s Midnight Runners singer that crooned Geno – is not this one who opens the door with an iron in his hand. Room 405 I think. The County, 2000. Given the photographer’s recent acclaim for fashion photography, we wonder whether he actually stalked KR, knocked on the door, explained, and then re-staged it. Maybe. Maybe not. But we are made to wonder about the integrity of what we are presented with, within an overall package of “The Independent/American Express Fashion Photography Award Winner”. And once the integrity of any exhibition experience is dented it is a difficult journey.

Americana, high-contrast Germanic fuzzy edges and washed out UK hotel walls. One photograph is called The Auditor and is another example of the photographer always looking down on his subjects. Standing on a chair or using particular lenses, it is a power-increasing stance. Drunk people cannot object at the worst of times, just as sleeping or dead people cannot object. Or lost Kevins. Looking down on them increases our pity, a classical artistic technique matured over centuries.


 “Dirty Pretty Things” showed us the artificial light and hope of hotels, the internal prettiness amongst the external dirtiness. And that’s what’s mainly missing from Shaw’s vision. The hope is too faint. There is always a small speck of light in his work but it’s a tiny glimmer: the chandelier reflects what little surrounding glow there is, the elevator sign lights up, the flashbulb bounces off of the mirror, neon corridor strips light up the corridors and numerous images of the single light bulb, traffic lights outside the window and a striped lampshade. Light is of course the essence of each photograph but each one of these images is a direct light-emitter. Each photograph has a small pinhole that lets a clogged flow of light reach us. Each and every human, no matter how wasted (or disgusting), has that little bit of light and warmth within groggy reach. But in the Gallery I just feel that the light is a little too weak to see these days. Or sometimes we just need a bit more help from those that have vision.