Shoot! Existential Photography has at its origins a fairground game that rose to popularity in the post-First World War years. The Photographic Shooting Gallery encouraged participants to shoot a gun at a target with the aim of hitting the bullseye, but whereas usually they would win a prize, in this variant at the centre of the target activated a camera and took a photograph of the shooter, capturing the moment the shot fired. The reward was a photograph of yourself in a situation in which you would never usually see yourself; simultaneously a novel keepsake and an edgy take on the ‘you’ you expect to see in photographs.
This concept was of interest to a variety of famous names at the time, from Simone de Beauvoir to Man Ray, and their shooting photographs are on display here. The real interest lies, however, in creative spin-offs from the concept of the game, where later artists took the idea and expanded upon it, this time with real guns and more technically developed cameras. Rudolf Steiner, for instance, installed a shooting rig in his studio and used a gun to shoot into an especially altered camera to create his 1990s series Pictures of me, shooting myself into a picture. Two images were produced from every shot, one from the bullet puncturing the camera obscura and allowing light in, so causing an image to be recorded, and the second from the bullet hitting the film, meaning that another image – this time of the bullet’s impact – was created.
Jean-François Lecourt, Shot into the camera, 1987, C-type print, 180 x 125 cm; © Jean-François Lecourt. Collection of the artist / Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery, London.
The concept and methodology here is technically clever, but Steiner’s works don’t have quite the visual impact of Jean-François Lecourt’s Shot into the camera (1987), in which you see both the artist staring down the barrel of a gun and a bullet hole in the picture’s glass, suggesting that a shot has just been fired at the viewer. Again, this image was created by the artist shooting a gun directly into a camera and triggering a mechanism to take a photograph, and its directness – as well as the implication that he’s shot at you – elicits both amazement and discomfort in the viewer.
The highlight for me was the In Almost Every Picture series, a record of a woman’s life through annual photographs taken at a shooting gallery in the Netherlands. Ria van Dijk began her tradition in 1936 at the age of sixteen and, with only a short break during the war years, she returned to the game every year, now attracting fans as well as her friends and family to her annual pilgrimage, all wanting to join her in the photograph. The images document not only her passage through life and gradual aging, but are also snapshots of social history, documenting changing fashions. She’s now ninety years old and still shooting.
Rudolph Steiner, Pictures of me, shooting myself into a picture, 1997, Fujichrome RDP II, transparencies, 20.3 x 25.4 cm, Presented in light boxes; © Rudolf Steiner. Private collection / Courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery, London.
It’s strange how the perception of guns changes within the context of art. They are still weapons, but when they are used as a means of creating art they gain a positive value, and lose some of their gravitas. Then you remember that they are really tools of war and crime and it becomes shocking to see them in the hands of artists, being used for creative experimentation alongside paint and photographic equipment. It’s unsettling but simultaneously fascinating, posing an open-ended question that is never quite resolved; should weaponry really have a place within the confines of the art world?
(Image on top: Ria van Dijk, Photo-shot, Oosterhout, Netherlands, 1978, Polaroid, 10.8 x 8.8cm; © Erik Kessels /Courtesy Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam /Courtesy The Photographers' Gallery.)