"Their work is a celebration of photography’s faux pas."
Andrew Palmer turns the pages of a portfolio to discover the messy virtues of the Douglas Brothers
“Have you seen their studio?” asked Vince Frost, “No? Well it’s just like their portfolio – a mess.” Frost, a graphic artist at the design company Pentagram is exactly the sort of person that the Douglas Brothers should be trying to impress. Looking through portfolios is, according to Frost, a bit like going through a pile of word-processed CVs – the first to get ditched are the ones with the typos – and, by that analogy, the book representing the Douglas Brothers is rife with both literal and grammatical errors.
It is indeed a messy affair – not so much a portfolio as a scrap-book. It comes in the form of a cheapish A2 display book, which is held together at the spine, for practical rather than aesthetic purposes, with a layer of black gaffer tape. The transparent leaves inside are stuffed with carelessly arranged images. A page torn from the New Scientist is sellotaped onto a bit of paper; next to that is an unpublished print which is itself half obscured by a record cover. If you were overtaken by an urge to remove, say, the record cover, you would chance upon a couple more torn pages – a fashion shot and a portrait of an author.
The Douglas brothers are aware that this sort of presentation is not to everyone’s liking. Their American agent, Daniel Roebuck, for example has told them that he could get them more work if their book was “vaguely presentable”. By this Roebuck means a portfolio like those produced by the other photographers in his stable – leather-bound boxes with initials embossed on the lid, containing between 10 and 15 images, all 4 x 5 inch transparencies in black window mounts. And Roebuck probably has a point. A fortnight ago, when the Brothers tried to interest an East Coast gallery into exhibiting their work, they met with short shrift. “We threw in prints, Canon laser copies and tear sheets, and it bombed,” said Andrew Douglas. “Had we handed in boxed original prints, entitled something like, ‘A Writer’s Vision’, we might have had a chance.”
In light of all this it seems only reasonable to ask why they don’t do something about it. The short answer can be found in their diary. The Douglas Brothers’ itinerary for the last three weeks looked something like this: Week One: Portraits of Fay Weldon, Alan Bennett and J G Ballard for Harper’s Bazaar; 12 illustrations for a horoscope supplement in Elle; an album cover for King Crimson; a still-life for an Art and Architecture poster. Week Two: holiday in New York. Week Three: album cover and publicity for D’Influence; poster for Featherstonehaughs and Cholmondeleys dance troupe; portrait of Chrissie Hynde; a film commercial for Granada Leisure; and a Kid Safari album cover. This week began with portraits of Louis Malle and Wim Wenders – and so it goes on.
Even if they did want to change their book, then, the breadth of their work is too wide to be contained in a single pitch. Unlike most photographers (or at least their portfolios) the Douglas Brothers’ work overruns traditional sub-divisions: still-life, portraiture, fashion and advertising. It is hard for a photographer to make it in any of these areas – to succeed in all of them is rare indeed.
The two Southend brothers, Andrew, 37, and Stewart, 10 years younger, actually started out as independent entities – neither notably successful. Five years ago they joined forces, took three months off from the “conservative” work that they had been doing and produced a body of work which they felt was “uncompromising”. That portfolio was sufficiently off-beat to be laughed out of agencies in Britain, but it was lapped up in New York. The picture editor of American Esquire, Temple Smith, took one look at their book and promptly handed them a six-month commission of “heavyweight” portraits, called Man Power. Needless to say, since then, conservative Britain has jumped on their uncompromising bandwagon.
The brothers point out a number of advantages from working as a team in what is traditionally a soloist’s medium. First, they do not both always have to be on form – “Whoever’s bravest on the day picks up the camera first.” More importantly, they claim it changes the power relationship between subject and photographer (one brother is positioned with a camera in front of the subject, while the other “floats”). “Instead of diminishing the intimacy, having two of us seems to enhance it,” says Stewart. “It’s almost like playing good and bad cop; I tell them Essex Girl jokes while Andrew does the serious talk.”
The real key to their success, however, is that everything they do runs against the current standard of photographic development. Their work is a celebration of photography’s faux pas. “There is a certain kind of photography,” says Andrew, “which moves towards more and more polished images as the technology gives you more and more accuracy. We were more inclined to reinvent photography for ourselves – to look at earlier techniques and accommodate the roughness from that era to create a whole new repertoire of transformed imagery.”
The Brothers’ “transformed imagery” comes, more often than not, in the form of camera-shake and blurred images, induced by long exposures. They tend to obscure their subjects or show mere traces or shadows of them. They use the cimberome large-format plate camera – normally employed for still-life or landscape work – for portraits. Conversely, they will emulate the ethos of the snapshot in the conventionally precision-orientated domain of still life. They favour low-speed film in light conditions which demand high-speed film. And they will submit Polaroid as a finished product, while most photographers use it as an intermediary checking device.
All their work is, of course, highly controlled – if there is confusion, it is choreographed confusion. But aside from the obvious rebellious statement of eschewing photography’s pragmatic evolution, they have succeeded in tapping a relatively unexplored area of the mediums interpretative potential – by producing photographic images, rather than pictures of the world. Their portraits, for example, do not always give a very clear picture of what the subject looks like; the aim instead is to produce a sort of pictorial biography of the subject’s emotions.
This technique can sometimes outplay itself. Famous subjects such as Salman Rushdie, Alan Bennett and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are well represented by the glut of mood-enhancing chemicals which the Brothers feed their prints. But in the case of lesser know subjects, the blur, the lith paper, the copper and thiacarbomide tones and the distorted borders can combine almost to outweigh the content of the photograph.
Not that this really matters. The unique selling point of the Douglas Brothers is that everything they do, whether it is the shot of a car, a pop star or a gardening glove, is sure, by virtue of its unorthodox technique and presentation, to be perceived as conceptually important. And this is where their artfully carefree and chaotic scrapbook comes into its own. “We kid ourselves”, says Andrew, “that the people who respond to that mess are the people who we want to work with anyway.” This sounds like a strategic marketing strategy – whatever their long-suffering agent of paternal Vince Frost says (and he has employed the Brothers regularly), a conventional, presentable portfolio might well pull them out of the business.