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'Pity is akin to Love,' Michelle Munn, City Gallery, Birmingham, 22nd Nov-8th Dec 2005

From: Charlotte Levine
Category: Art, Exhibitions
Date: 30 January 2006


Theorist Roland Barthes believes within a photograph there is substantial evidence of the existence of the past. The camera divides time into instances as well as creating an object. These ‘captured’ experiences are not necessarily comments on time and its passing but rather pieces of it. These pieces are then held for eternity with the potential for being used for reflection, evidence and truth, “Born as a machine offering a novel grip on time, fixing it, freezing it, immobilising its ineluctable flux, the camera expanded its claims by reconstituting times ‘living flow.’” However, an opposing view from John Tagg determines the photograph as being material history for use within investigations of the past, rather than it being actual evidence. Photographs allow the past to become an object. Clips and pieces of a past reality are confirmed of their authenticity because they were immortalised in a photograph, “Life is not about significant details, illuminated in a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.” The photograph merely gives an essence, aura and trace of a subject, a starting point for the viewer to then embark on a journey through their unconscious self and create coherent sets of memories. A photograph is not a result of memory but was an invention brought about to enhance it.

What then when a photograph is used not for reflection but reinvention? Michelle Munn is a painter from the West Midlands who rediscovers forgotten photographs, reclaims them from market stalls, bric-a-brac sales and on-line auctions. She then breathes new life into them by removing the captured subjects from their original context and rejuvenates the models by repeating their images upon canvases. However, though Munn’s technique is virtuous and established I believe the more interesting question behind her work is that of its history. What do these images mean? Why they are so familiar? Why do they captivate their audience immediately? And the answer, I believe, lies in the heritage of the original subject matter: the photograph.…Memory is simply a repetition of events within the conscious and unconscious mind. Photography’s aid to memory is clouded, photography complicates it; “To picture is not to remember.” And Michelle Munn capitalises on this, though the initial reference point is the photograph, a concept she invites viewers to be aware of, she ultimately makes no other reference. Allowed, are we, to know all her secrets and subjects, we are however not allowed to know her meanings upon them. Each piece holds within itself a whole world of meaning ready to be unlocked, and we are each privilege to be holding the key to unlock them

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