Photgraphy as social documentary has remained current and vital throughout the twentieth century, despite its oscillations and trials in recent years. Perhaps today, in the age of artificial and technocratic globalisation, its role has been even further enhanced. This may be due to the fact that, now,more than ever before, the social tissue of marginality has widened and branched out. Another reason may be that, despite the crafted charm of the electronic image, the type of reality that documentary photography helped create remains too attractive a convention for it be so easily abandoned. The photographs of Greek-Australian Emmanuel Angelicas derive their power from this valuable ideological and aesthetic heritage which they in turn attempt to enrich.
His subjects are varied, but always elliptically revolve around the human figure, the human body. Fertility ceremonies with phalluses in Japan, prostitution in late-night Bangkok, eccentric scenes in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville. It is true that in most of these he searches for a type of extreme intensity, not an inventive snapshot or a neutrally charged scene. Night offers more fertile ground and Angelicas slips into its precious gardens, smiling before the dual appearance of the world and the self. He does not enter indiscernibly. He is not a secretive or fleeting observer. His presence is inescapably felt through the flash he invariably uses. Even so, there is no trace of a vexatious presence in evidence. No sign of a code violated. Subjects offer themselves without guile before the lens, or remain unperturbed in its presence.
The basic vocabulary in Angelicas’ images is characteristic but also simple, often calling to mind Diane Arbus. The square format ensures the basic convention of neutrality – two equal directions, no particular dynamic in the initial shape of the frame. The composition is economical – nothing superfluous, only an elemental and functional geometry. The subject is usually revealed in the one shot that is always identically close to the lens. The black and white tones and their austere contrast contribute to the urgency of the image. The subjects appear direct, frontal, but never final. They contain both a mystery and the potential to explode. Like Arbus’ photographs, a certain obsession regularly arises with the strange, the weird and the differentiating lines of hunan behavior.
What seems to pervade most of his work, from Greek Men, Mykonos (1983) and Bad Boy of Marrickville, Marrickville (1996) to In Search of the Miracle, Tinos (1996) is a thrill for life. For life that flows, transfuses, twists, that is shaped through traditions and idioms, underground cultures and movements. For life that asphyxiates in the seriousness of official society’s frames, but which finds ways to dodge or overcome them by offering libation to the unpredictability of human idiosyncrasy. “I photograph reality because there is nothing more unreal than reality,” Brassai once said, offering a sibylic explanation of his work. Angelicas would probably wholeheartedly agree with this view. Either way, he bears on his shoulders a fair part of Brassai’s heritage and the latter’s many years of photographic wanderings in night-time Paris of the interwar years with marginalised characters, creatures of the night. Similarly at certain times his work echoes that of Weegee, where New York police bulletins, the dark night of the metropolis, become the theatrical stage on which the perpetrator, the victim and the spectator are implicated.
The photograph Safe Sex II, Marrickville (1988) is revealing of his intentions. The silhouette of a young man merges with the tousle-haired plastic doll, an ironic scene of artificial passion and safe sex in the half-light of an undefined eroticism where taboo and obsession clash. Here we find Angelicas’ favourite subject – the controversial. The taboo of convention or perversion?
In the photograph entitled My Uncle, the cemetery warder with the portrait and scull of his late mother. Andros (1996) we discern something of the dark aura of David Lynch’s cinematic scenes. Two hands in the dark offer an extreme interpretation of the inner dialectic of the photographic act – the direct juxtaposition of the object (in this case, its organic remains) with its photographic version, the marking of the gap between real time and photographed time. The final photographic image, however, beyond its discernible self-referentiality, clearly indicates the steadily-increasing contradiction within contemporary man – on the one hand, the preservation of the memory of ancient burial customs, and on the other, the acclamation of the constructed image (of any kind) as the guardian of this memory. The critical balance of experience and simulation, perhaps the greatest wager at the dawn of the new millennium.
Emmanuel Angelicas’ photographs, apart from their thrill for life, also demonstrate a childlike sensuality around the conventions of liminality. They refuse the assumption of an absolute coherence as a necessary condition of a series, offering instead, surprises and transitions, and attesting to the fragmentary nature of the photograph. They refuse to moralise in order to sanction pre-conceived social attitudes. They are not by necessity documentary testimonies in the strict sense of the term, given that they look staged (as in the works Safe Sex I and Safe Sex II, Marrickville 1988). We are dealing here with an artfully disrupted chronicle, composed with photographs, which poses questions about the nature of contemporary man, on the pretext that the chronicle is based on the existence of a common photographic reality.
HERCULES PAPAIOANNOU CURATOR THESSALONIKI MUSEUM OF PHOTOGRAPHY 1998 (TRANSLATION: PETRO ALEXIOU)