The classical documentarist aimed to be a fly on the wall waiting for the decisive moment when reality’s raw truth would reveal itself to the aesthetic eye. The arranging photographer, on the other hand, does not wait but assembles his images from reality’s inventory according to his temper and subjectivity. In ‘River Palace’, Albert Grøndahl does something different
The rawness of what is real remains the same and the temper makes itself felt in unmistakeable ways and yet this is neither documentarism in the traditional sense nor a mise-en-scène controlled by the photographer. ‘Participation’ is a key word. So are ‘encounter’, ‘mutuality’ and ‘intensity’.
On the outskirts of central Prague he met a group of homeless young men who had set up quarters in a desolate industrial compound near the river; detached figures in a terrain vague of diffuse connotations. Rather than their pitiful state, what interested him was an existential aspect of their unprotected vulnerability which he recognized spontaneously. During a couple of months he circled around their display of human nakedness, exposing himself as he tried to get closer. This became his method. Before the first pictures were taken he and his models had entered into a relationship based on mutual trust and sympathy as well as a shared sense of humour. The pictures they made together were the results of a game in which they participated on equal terms, playing with masks and the roles or attitudes which these allowed them to assume and discard again.
The anthropological air of the mask turns it into a visual metaphor alluding the ‘primitive’ or ‘authentic’ but also what is demonic and which the mask may calm. In ’River Palace’, masks are mostly focal points for a heightened emotional response, at the same time dangerous and relieving. They are not hideaways but disclose something otherwise hidden behind social and urban distinctions such as ‘homeless’ or ‘photographer’.
With a slightly high-flown turn one might say that the mask reveals our underlying humanity beneath language and our social identities; a mutually open susceptibility to basic feelings. The crude black-and-white look underscores the photographer’s will to approach something you can only get in touch with by dropping all reservations and precautions.
Classical documentarism would value the integrity of the participants both in the encounter between photographer and model and in the notion of what a good photograph amounts to. Nevertheless, a suspicion sometimes lurks, when it comes to social reportage, that the photographer is really just a devout and perhaps slightly hypocritical sort of social tourist.
Arranged photography, on the other hand, has no qualms about reducing real people to objects of artistic manipulation. But with the quivering, queerly poetic and playful yet melancholy frames of ‘River Palace’, Albert Grøndahl has chosen a completely different angle.
Truth and arrangement are perceived as complementary aspects of the same endeavour, the same confrontation. No one deserves pity here and it is uncertain who is looking at whom. Even the viewer may for a second feel exposed to the confrontational gaze of a stranger.