At first sight, it's a good name for a photography exhibition: "I Am A Camera". Neat, smart, typical Saatchi Gallery. But read the well-known Christopher Isherwood quote a little further: "I am a camera, with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking..." It's possible that this wasn't quite the message that the organisers hoped to convey - this show is anything but a collection of passive, unthinking snaps: it's about the territory where painting and photography overlap and, above all, about the photographer as artist.
Loosely titled "True Life Adventures", this exhibition, with its 200- plus works, is only the first part of "I Am A Camera" (part two is scheduled to begin in September, with the final instalment next year) and represents just a tiny fraction of Saatchi's collection. As can be seen from these pages, there's a lively mix in the up- coming show, with some familiar faces including Richard Billingham, Andy Warhol and Nan Goldin, as well as lesser-known discoveries, such as Tierney Gearon. There are photographs that look like paintings, paintings that look like photographs; the work connected by a sense of discovery and different ways of seeing - whether it's the exhilarating portraits of family life by Gearon, or the harrowing, in-your-face work of Nan Goldin.
This is bound to be a popular show. Equally, Charles Saatchi is bound to get some stick. The sheer weight of numbers suggests something indiscriminate, as does the checklist of must-have names. "What hasn't he bought?" you ask yourself. "This is the collection of someone who has started collecting recently," claims Paul Wombell, director of the Photographers' Gallery, "who knows little about the history of photography and a lot about contemporary fine art." To which Saatchi might reply that that is the whole point. Wombell's comments underline the continuing differences and tensions between the worlds of photography and fine art. But given this ambitious attempt to bring the two together, things can only get better. n
"I Am A Camera", Saatchi Gallery, 98A Boundary Road, London NW8, Thursdays to Sundays from 18 January to 25 March, tel: 020 7624 8299; admission, pounds 5. Readers in possession of the Independent Art Card, to be given away free in "The Independent" and "The Independent on Sunday" next weekend, can obtain two tickets for the price of one for this and other exhibitions. See next week's "Sunday Review" for details.
"I Am A Camera", the book of the exhibition, is published by Booth-Clibborn (pounds 38).
Clockwise from left: "Untitled 1999"; "Untitled 2000"; "Untitled 2000"
The 37-year-old American photographer has been taking a lot of stick lately for her pictures. What began as a "very, very personal" project, documenting her and her children's trips to visit relations across America, has been receiving increasing press attention, much of it hostile. The problem is that, in many of the photographs, the children - Emilee, seven, and Michael, four - are nude. Gearon's images - showing them wearing masks, messing around, weeing on the ground - are delightful depictions of childhood discovery. But some people - among them the readers of Tatler magazine, which recently published some of them - have responded with outrage. Now critics have begun to call the images "disturbing".
Gearon is horrified by this, and is particularly appalled by suggestions that her pictures are exploitative or have paedophilic overtones. From now on, she says, she is considering insisting that the children wear clothes in any pictures she takes of them - even though none of the pictures in the series to date has been posed. This seems a shame - the several trips the family made were an attempt to deal with the trauma of divorce, and the children were clearly enjoying themselves. The trips took them to Georgia, Utah, California and beyond: hot places, where they liked to run around nude.
The untrained Gearon worked as a successful fashion photographer before starting a family, and her children are clearly everything to her. "I don't believe in making people do things they don't want to do. I say to them, `If you don't want to have your picture taken, don't do it', but they like showing off." She is at a loss to explain the various misreadings of the pictures, other than to say that "some people just have issues".
It would be a pity if recent criticisms were to put Gearon off, since she clearly has a clever eye for an arresting image and an ability to make her subjects relax. If the images are disturbing, it probably says more about us than about Gearon or her children. And the nudity certainly shouldn't be allowed to get in the way - some of the best images in the series feature the children's encounters with adults, where the masks come into their own as an ice-breaking tool and the mixture of real and unreal faces is sublime.
Left: "Henry VIII", 1999; right: "Anne of Cleves", 1999
Tokyo-born, New York-based Hiroshi Sugimoto went to Madame Tussaud's for the subjects of this series of "portraits" of Henry VIII and his six wives. Removing the waxwork figures from their tableau setting, Sugimoto lit and photographed them individually. The finished gelatin silver prints have the remote appearance of photographs of Old Master-style paintings. But, as Saatchi Gallery curator Jenny Blyth says, "If you look closely, you'll notice something like one of the eyebrows being a bit rough."
Sugimoto has been here before. In a previous series, he photographed stuffed animals in dioramic settings. The artist Martin Maloney, who wrote the introduction for the book being published alongside "I Am A Camera", says that Sugimoto "focuses our attention on his study of the imagination of the invented worlds of creative people". In the process he also takes beautiful photographs that pose questions about the very nature and traditions of portraiture.
Nan Goldin Above: "Thanksgiving" (detail), 1999
New York artist Nan Goldin's all-or-nothing approach to documenting her life has been much-copied, but Goldin's existence among New York's SoHo subculture throws up some remarkable subjects - from drag queens to people living with Aids, tattooists to heroin addicts. These pictures inspired a thousand fashion shoots and accusations that Goldin was the mother of heroin chic - a criticism that's not strictly fair, since her subjects are always real, and much of her work is about finding beauty in unexpected places. In the Thanksgiving series of 149 images, Goldin's output ranges from tender to ribald, humorous to shocking. Sometimes the images are uncomfortably personal. In the self- portrait shown here, "Nan one month after being battered", the artist appears in full make-up, her eyes badly bruised. It is an uncompromising, honest portrait, made all the more disturbing by the discovery that the bruises were caused by Goldin's boyfriend.
Above: "Two People That Live in the Same Room and Don't Talk To Each Other", 1999; left: "He Loves Me", 2000
Los Angeles-based painter Kristin Calabrese is one of Charles Saatchi's latest discoveries. Her large-scale, almost photographic oil canvases of unusual subjects - abandoned domestic interiors, a kitchen range, furniture - provide a wealth of texture and shade for Calabrese to play with. According to Martin Maloney, "Calabrese's images assert the abstraction in ordinary things" - they force the viewer to look more closely at the colours and shapes of everyday surroundings. Calabrese's rich, faintly naive treatment elevates the mundane, awarding it a respect and adoration that it rarely receives.
Left: "Hangers in the Closet", 1976-86
The ubiquity of Andy Warhol's silk screen paintings since his death in 1987 is in danger of overshadowing the artist's other output. Warhol's work with photography is less well-known, but no less interesting. He virtually invented banal photography, preferring Polaroid and photobooth technology and picturing a suitcase on a chair, coathangers on a rail - unlikely subjects for art. But it's what he did next that is interesting. Sewing together grids of identical black-and-white images with white thread, he echoed the references to mass production in his paintings and challenged the tyranny of the "single image" in photography. As Martin Maloney says, "Warhol didn't respect the photograph too much; its authority became fictionalised when multiplied to look like celluloid film-images."
Above: "Untitled", 1994
Richard Billingham's photographs of his family have had a lot of exposure - some of which you suspect comes from the shock-value of witnessing these characters up-close. For Billingham's family photographs are rough and ready, the house shabby, the people scruffily dressed. His mother is overweight and has tattoos - it's not exactly Butterflies. Martin Maloney calls it "family life on the front line" and commends Billingham as "brave enough to look at his world without embarrassed laughter". What sometimes gets overlooked is the fantastic texture and composition of the photographs - the rich mix of patterns and colours, and Billingham's unfailing ability to be in the right place at the right time.
Jessica Craig- Martin
Below: "Evening Honouring Bill Blass", 1992
Jessica Craig-Martin is the daughter of Michael Craig-Martin - the influential artist and Goldsmiths professor who is credited with launching the Young British Artist movement via star students such as Damien Hirst. Through her photographic work for American Vogue, Craig-Martin the younger has access to a glamorous world. She counters that inane celeb-snapping with personal photographs which focus on the tawdriness behind the glitz: close- ups of creped, tanned skin, fake nails and insincere gestures. Martin Maloney describes her as a "modern day Diane Arbus". That's debatable. Craig- Martin's critical eye can be deliciously vicious but, as one observer remarked, some of the pictures are in danger of looking like a "paparazzi shoot gone wrong".
Jason Brooks Top: "Lois", 2000; above: "Sara", 2000
Photography plays a part in 32-year-old Jason Brooks's work, but only a part. His enormous black-and-white paintings are easily mistaken for photographs.
Brooks uses a complicated technique involving only black acrylic paint, a scalpel and an airbrush. He uses the scalpel to "erase" the paint, painstakingly revealing the white canvas beneath to create the different tones of grey. Using the photograph he has taken of his subject, he copies or "charts" the face in fearsome detail: every eyelash, every blemish. The finished texture is smooth - heightening the hyper-real feel. One portrait takes at least a month to make. The results, he says, are "intimate paintings, almost topographical - it's about not denying anything. They're repulsive and seductive at the same time." While he is faithful to his subjects in terms of accuracy, Brooks says that the work is "not about the individual". He doesn't just paint portraits - landscapes, funeral wreaths, tulips and crotches have all been accorded the same scrutiny.
Brooks's portrait subjects in the beginning were friends and associates - mostly other artists - but, he says, he ended up being branded as a bit of a "YBA celebrity painter" and now seeks his sitters elsewhere. His latest subject, Lois, is the teenage daughter of a man he met in a cafe. Almost 2 metres tall, it's a wonderful painting - beautifully capturing the awkwardness of adolescence - but Lois hasn't seen it. "I think it would be quite hard at that age confronting something that large and in more detail than you'd ever thought of seeing yourself," says Brooks. So, does that mean he thinks the portraits are cruel? "No, not cruel, objective."…