Matthew Sleeth – Survey
The relationship between the photographic image and the world around us has had an inconstant history. From Fox Talbot’s conceptualising of photography as an extension of drawing to Weston’s strict specifications for the ‘purity’ of a truthful photographic image; from Cartier-Bresson’s belief in the collapse of narrative into a single ‘decisive moment’ to Baudrillard’s obsession with a ‘world of hallucinations’, the making and reading of photographic images has been a matter of continuing redefinition.
Matthew Sleeth is very much a man of his age. He deals with the external world, and especially its social constructs, while understanding the tenuous relation between the mechanical tracery of the photograph and the direct perception of experience. “I want my photography to move past the constraints of aspiring to a transparent objectively; to depart from the orthodox traditions of the documentary,” he explains. “I want to engage with my times – to make pictures that grapple with social and political ideas.”
His visual language is one of dynamic design, uncanny juxtapositions and telling marginal detail. Witty and with a strong sense of style, his apparently relaxed ‘snapshots’ involve a complex and at times unorthodox visual syntax. It is always a good idea to check out the very edges of Matthew Sleeth’s photographs, because this is often where the key to the image is to be found. In Opfikon, a middle-aged couple passes with steadfast gloom before the camera, oblivious to the glorious evening cloudscape behind them. In the lower left of the picture, barely making it into the frame, pokes a roof. Plain, pitched, isolated it speaks volumes of a life of long winters and short summers, of loneliness and piety.
In Tour of Duty, we see a mighty military helicopter precariously guiding its pendulous payload to the dusty soil of East Timor. On the extreme left, a hand grips a camera, resolutely recording the event for the media. For this prodigious aerial manoeuvre, while billed as a humanitarian act, is first and foremost, a media performance – defence, aid and even war being simply grist to the mill of mass communication.
What raises Matthew Sleeth’s images above the simple interest-value of their subject matter is his willingness to engage with the beautiful – a recently much mistrusted quality. Not the aesthetics of classically beautiful objects and people, but the coaxing of beauty from the chaos of the everyday. In this, he is very much in tune with the new generation of practitioners who, disillusioned with the downward spiral of postmodern intellectualism, seek to engage with the world through the language of popular culture, fashion and, especially, design. In Red China Sleeth employs the simple graphic device of a linking colour through which to compose a series of images that elegantly comment upon the negotiations between consumerism and communism in contemporary Beijing.
Above all Matthew Sleeth’s photographs are about the social, political and cultural landscape and those who inhabit it. “I am interested in photographing people and places in a way that informs a broader reading of the subject as part of a cultural group and also as an individual”, he explains. Cognisant of the limited ability of a photograph to reflect a singular stable truth, but not painting himself into a relativistic corner; embracing the aesthetic language of popular culture and design without becoming trite; spiking his images with wit without sinking into the sardonic; Matthew Sleeth creates images of depth, subtlety and lasting value.
All quotes are from email correspondence with the photographer.
This catalogue essay was originally published in 2004 by Josef Lebovic Gallery
More information about Matthew Sleeth here.
Images (from the top down)
© Matthew Sleeth Untitled #8 [Beijing] 2003 from the series Red China
© Matthew Sleeth Untitled #6 1997 from the series Opfikon
© Matthew Sleeth Untitled #66 1999 from the series Tour of Duty