Center is a small project space that is more window than wall or floor. The cramped, zigzagging interior, hemmed in by plate-glass windows along one side, encourages off-balance installations. For his solo exhibition, Till Megerle, however, produced a classical hang of 12 photographic diptychs. The effect was to liberate and transform the space. Glass reflected glass; the foliage in the images reflected the sway of trees beyond the windows. The gallery became a two-way lens that seemed to both expose the pictures and function as a metaphor for photographic exposure. Photography is, after all, an ambivalent medium. It creates distance from its subject; and yet the obverse of this distancing is the medium’s notorious prurience: it is intrusive, a tool of evidence, exposure and self-exposure.
The trees that appear in Megerle’s images are in the back garden of his parents’ house in Bayreuth, in the southern German state of Bavaria. Each diptych consists of two glossy colour prints, which show Megerle’s extended family gathered around his parents’ home. If these documents make reference to the photographic trope of the anthropologist’s record, then we are viewing the semi-affluent Western European family in its habitat, among the plush sofa units, the kitchen sets, the vinyl patio loungers. But Megerle intimates the strangeness in the mundane. The diptych is a traditional form that serves to insulate both viewer and artist from the intimacy of the photographs, by keeping their emotional content at a formal remove. And yet, Megerle’s diptychs bring to light the primal, extra-cultural function of this formal arrangement as disguise, evasion and repression.
Megerle’s father is a fitness fanatic in his sixties, who is typically pictured straddling an exercise bike, or striking exaggerated aerobic poses on the living room rug. In one image, he is caught striding though abook-lined anteroom, wearing a skin-tight top, white underpants and knee-highsocks, and raising a pair of dumbbells aloft. The way Megerle captures his family’s eccentricity recalls Richard Billingham’s early work, which revolved around the antics of Billingham’s alcoholic father and hisdown-at-heel family. But Megerle’s documentary is less theatrical than Billingham’s, or even Juergen Teller’s, whose self-consciously irreverent pictures of his own family were taken in the same German county, Franconia, as Megerle’s.
In contrast with both of these photographers, Megerle’s pictures would not look out of place in a conventional album of family snapshots. The compositions seem unstudied and unpremeditated. Whereas an out-of-focus or off-balance passage in a Billingham set piece would serve the drama, Megerle often seems simply not to have been paying attention. But the suggestion of an amateurish democratizing of art photography is deceptive. Look again, and the diptych conjunctions engender sophisticated formalistic twists that are predicated on these apparent flaws. Two photographs of Megerle’s grandfather in the same pose, side by side, are distinguished by fading natural light in one and full flash in the other, like a Martin Creed light switched off and on. It is as though the camera is there, and then not.
Despite this self-reflexive strain – and, indeed, the autobiographical basis of the entire series – Megerle’s mediation of his home environment remains self-effacing. The alchemical spark on which the diptych alignments depend returns us more forcefully to the subjects, while concealing the art that enables it. This is how metaphor is ideally supposed to work. A picture of a shopping-mall fountain beside an image of a leafy back garden makes the garden seem Babylonian and the fountain look like a marooned spacecraft, while the mutual outlandishness of both allows us to forget the arbitrariness of the twinning. Similarly, a window frame appears to cross the divide between two separate halves of a pair of images, while impossibly bridging scenes of sunbathing and snow; but all we see, at least to begin with, is a formalistic symmetry of lit glass, which abolishes the temporal divide between the images, and even the temporal literalness of photography itself.
First published in Issue 150