Reflections and Observations: On looking through the portfolios of John Garrett, Photographer

I have just been looking through the portfolio of John Garrett, Photographer, and I have been transported back to a rock and roll time in our history from which life now seems too safe, dreary and humdrum. For instance,I defy you to read this piece from his cv and not long for a more interesting lifestyle.

1966 to 1970 - Moved to London in 1966 and started my reportage career by illustrating John Pilgers` assignments for the Daily Mirror. Pilger was foreign correspondent at the The Daily Mirror - that was a serious newspaper in those days, fighting for the rights of the working man. The stories were mostly political. i.e. Poverty in Britain, The Berlin Wall, Apartheid demos in London, Enoch Powell’s election campaign etc. The pics were all in black & white.’

But apart from thinking my own life drear in comparison, I know the times he refers to because I’ve seen the photographs. An iconic image of those times - of policemen wearing old fashion ‘bobbies’ helmets scattering in the face of a picket line - is a powerful historical image without mentioning the beauty of the photography. As one who is a bit timid around the raw, the gruesome or unsanitised, I am surprised to say that one of the most beautiful images in content, style and context I have ever seen is a John Garrett photograph for Pilger’s Poverty in Britain. A man sits astride a chair centre-stage-back and fixes us in his grim gaze. He is shirtless but wears a grubby vest and a woman rests her head and chubby hand on his shoulder. Her look is weary, his is more confrontational made more striking by his Christine Keeler type pose as if mocking the scene. Then, there in the foreground juxtaposed against all the lines of balance and symmetry lies the white body of a child. A little blonde, naked body with perfect cherubic shape lies flat face down on the grubby carpet, arm outstretched with wide open fingers as if trying to touch us. We are touched already by the photography, we feel privileged already to witness this scene and to be saved from the whole rotten reality of poverty by the sheer beauty of the composition and the true dignity of the sitters. This work places John Garrett amongst the finest of contemporary artists and finds a natural comparison with the themes behind the work of Josef Herman and even Anselm Kiefer in the search to find “his own, deliberately indigenous set of subjects and symbols that he used to explore the fraught territory of history and identity”.

And for the more fainthearted ,let me assure you it’s not all war and confrontation. The portraiture is incisive. Going back in his portfolio there is a portrait of Natalie Wood, but it is such an intimate portrait of a Hollywood icon. Technically ,it is a brilliant piece of portraiture. The placement of the figure on the canvas/page is the secret to this alluring photograph. The figure sits bottom left nonchalantly smoking a cigarette from a holder, eyes lowered seductively away from us drawing us more deeply into the picture. It’s a lovely portrait – beautiful, sexy, intimate and discreet. All the things anyone would want from a portrait.

Then, there’s a portrait of a ragamuffin kid taken on a hill overlooking a dour terrace (probably from a Pilger documentary) but this kid confronts us like a Hollywood icon – all four years old but Garrett gives him a majesty and beauty as if he’s in the lead role of a blockbuster movie! In this same portfolio there are portraits of Paul McCartney taken in the heyday of The Beatles and celebrities galore sitting for Mr Garrett to the most current - Comedian Bill Bailey posing in a fabulous portrait with his white parrot!

The landscapes are expansive and miraculous. The ballet scenes full of Beauty. The myriad of stars of stage and screen are suitably starry.

The portfolio photographs speak for John Garrett the Photographer but his current work also continues to confront and surprise. A recent collage series brings to mind the torn poster canvases of Dufrene and Villegle from the Paris student riots of the 60’s. They are reminiscent too in their vitality and somehow their optimism; both sentiments which are often sadly lacking in many artworks today.

A ‘Vitality and Optimism’ to me is a theme through the photographic work of John Garrett and all you need to do is read through the list of works published to see that John is one of those rare and generous artists who is able to pass on his unique talents through his books and Masterclasses.

Jayne Sullivan
Curator The Hepsibah Gallery London