Brian Griffin 'The Black Country'
Brian Griffin is an almost mythical creature - a long-time British photographer who is truly world-class. Not that you would know that from the general disinterest shown by the big-ticket London art venues in this country. You would have to take a trip over to continental Europe to find that over the years the highest accolades have been accorded to this visionary UK artist.
But The New Art Gallery in Walsall recognises a 'local lad done good' pitch and spares two of its rooms up on the second floor to display a selection of old and new photographs, reference materials and personal items. In some respects it seems to be an obituary show.
I recently heard about a young-gun American art photographer visiting London a few years ago who'd been asked for his thoughts on British photography. He simply laughed and replied, 'What British photography?' His amusement, while cringe-making, is understandable - but there have been a few worthy exceptions over the last 150 years. Brian Griffin is a man slipping over that cliff edge of obscurity that has done for others here, just holding on by his fingertips, clearly weakening in his resolve to hang on when finding that no-one seems particularly inclined to make an effort to pull him up to some sort of safety.
He's odd, quiet but approachable, a bit of a clown and morose in a post-Americans, Robert Frank kind of way. He dresses like a Teddy Boy and has a stocky but almost gentle manner of a retired steelworker or man-in-black preacher man.
A lifetime ago he came to the medium with technical engineering and graphic design skill sets - and something to prove to his family, that he could support himself as a photographer after giving up on a proper job. It is also worth noting that he grew up in a church-going family with a strong manual work ethic. His pivotal black and white works are exceptional, an alchemy of staged deliberateness, smooth, flat-lit delineation and sudden wild flashes of surreal spontaneity.
The pieces on show here - and the accompanying biographical materials (including children's' comic annuals) - re-iterate key themes that still invigorate his core vision - the fundamental respect for people faced with the challenge of work, inventive referencing to painting & sculpture and the use of religious symbolism within the vernacular.
On the surface he may be regarded as the poor man's Annie Liebowitz, a commercial portrait photographer coming up with style shots for magazines or supplying quirky but cool illustrations to smarten up lifeless annual company reports. He's far more challenging, nourishing and revelatory than that. In the vast web of acknowledged voices I'd say he touches base with everyone from Nadar, Andres Serrano, Anton Corbijn and perhaps even Manuel Alvarez Bravo. While there are sensibilities he shares with each of those but, importantly, he has forged his own unique path. He is a surreal, child-like magician when it comes to picture-making.
His debt to a provincial 50s-60s West Midlands, Black Country upbringing resurfaces particularly strongly in several of the new works, such as the large, carefully staged deep colour pieces; the leather clad speedway rider with rapier, the woman chain-maker forging red-hot iron or the factory workers with arms literally dripping black oil.
While there is fire, strength, pride, everything in this gallery feels overwhelmed by a sense of loss, memories of the strong family of childhood now gone. His mother's box brownie displayed now as a mysterious and almost holy artifact.
At 8.30pm the gallery staff anxious to get off home began to herd the crowd of friends, fans and well-wishers out into the cool April evening. Griffin seemed to reflect on it all for a moment before catching up and shepherding everyone on to the local pub, the Blacksmith's Arms.
The Black Country ends 18 June 2011.