Today’s choice of picture is for anyone who (like me) has the builders in at the moment. It is Toby Glanville’s photograph, Plasterer’s Mate, which was taken in the summer of 1992 in a basement flat in Notting Hill. I first came across this extraordinary and rather unsettling picture thanks to a friend, the late and deeply lamented Bruce Bernard, who was commissioned a few years ago to choose and acquire exactly 100 photographs, from all periods of the medium’s history, for the collector James Moores. Plasterer’s Mate was one of the few contemporary photographs to catch his sharp and sensitive eye. He added it to the Moores collection, which can currently be seen, in its totality, at the V&A.
In some notes made not long before he died, Bruce wrote that “Nothing can be such an abysmal failure in photography as portraiture, but nothing so magical, in the sense that it can make a person seem almost fully alive, even after decades…” I suspect that this particular photograph was on his mind when he wrote those words. He had only recently acquired it and thought that it was one of the most impressive photographic portraits he had seen. Bruce said he felt he could almost see the boy’s nervous system in the picture.
I recently went to see Toby Glanville. He is 41 years old, lives and works in London and is not yet as well known as he ought to be (although I suspect that will change with the imminent publication of the book of photographs on which he is currently working). He told me about the circumstances that led to the picture reproduced here:
“I’d been taking pictures of people at work for a while. It was a kind of ongoing series that had begun with a commission from one of the colour supplements to photograph French food-producers – sausage-makers, cheese-makers and so on – but then took on a life of its own. One day an architect friend of mine rang me up and said that there was this fantastic father-and-son plastering team that he had been working with, and now they were helping him do up his own place, a basement flat in Notting Hill. He said I should really come and take their picture. The father-and-son team were Joe and Frank Greaney, plasterers. This is obviously the son. I can’t remember if he’s Joe or Frank. I think he’s Joe. I’d taken some photos of them both together, then I moved and took this one photograph of him on his own. It was pretty dark in the basement, plus I was shooting with a slow film, 64 asa, so even though I was on a tripod it had to be a very long exposure. I timed it with my watch, and I think it was six or seven seconds.
“As a rule I don’t really direct anybody. I didn’t ask him to take his shirt off. It was hot, it was midsummer, he’d just taken it off to work. There was all this plaster dust in the air. He was covered in it. That was just chance. There was a stillness about him. He was totally unbothered by the whole notion of having his photograph taken. It was just this one frame that I took, so there was a lot of luck involved there too. When I got the film back, there it was, this picture. I looked at it and I thought ‘Jesus’. I really did. I can’t describe it, it’s like turning a corner and meeting somebody.”
The raking light falling from the side, which throws the boy’s veins and muscles into such strong relief, seems to produce a kind of nakedness beyond ordinary nakedness. It reminds me of some of the single figures enveloped in shadowplay painted by Caravaggio. The plasterer is framed against an abstract rectangle of his own recently completed work. The composition has a measured beauty about it, even a kind of rectitude, which suggests the photographer’s sympathy for his subject. This aspect of the picture reminds me of Chardin. Chardin and Caravaggio: what a strange, but powerful, combination.
I suspect Glanville of looking at the Old Masters rather a lot, by the way, and for all his modest emphasis on luck his own artfulness should not be underestimated. Working in relatively low light, many photographers might have chosen to use faster film, which requires a much shorter exposure, thereby reducing the risk of blurring if the subject should move. But Glanville stuck to his 64asa, which meant that the boy in the picture had to look into the camera, keeping perfectly still, for six or seven whole seconds. That might not be as long as the Victorians had to keep still for their photographers, but it is a long time none the less. Six whole seconds of someone’s life is a lot to have preserved in a single photograph (most, after all, are taken at exposures of one-sixtieth of a second or less). I think you can sense the heaviness of that time in the picture, feel the intensity – and intimacy – of a stare that goes on for that long.
And then of course, there is that fine layer of plaster dust, which I think Glanville was quite right to see as a strange gift from who knows where. It enhances the transience and poignancy of this moment and dusts the image ever so lightly with a layer of metaphysical suggestion. It makes this boy, alone in this room, resemble a ghost. Which of course is precisely what he is, and what every photograph is: a ghost of someone who will never be that same person, at that same moment, ever again.