Ian Jeffrey: Universal Pictures

[…] we spent the early dusk of the afternoon gathering
materials from the nearest houses; and there was plenty:

a great flock mattress; two carved chairs; cement; chicken-wire;
tarpaulin; a smashed barrel; lead piping; leather of all kinds; and
many small things.

In the evening we sat late, and discussed how we could best use
them. Our tree was to be very beautiful.

Roy Fisher, “Starting to Make a Tree”

Ian Jeffrey's Universal Pictures is subtitled “a directory”. Between them, title and subtitle suggest both universality and functionality, a project simultaneously all-inclusive and rational. One is put in mind of other heroic attempts at introducing order into the world, whether intellectual, like those of Linnaeus and d'Alembert, or photographic, like those of Atget, Blossfeldt and Sander. Universal Pictures, which includes no text beyond the bibliographic equivalent of name, rank and serial number, consists of a parade of full-page vertical and horizontal colour photographs. In the absence of endpapers, title page and even margins, the reader's exposure to the imagery is immediate and unmediated.

Ian Jeffrey being Ian Jeffrey, words do sneak by, in the form of a separate foldout containing laconic descriptions of the photographs, as well as a short text on yet another A3 sheet. The descriptions are simultaneously dead-pan and cryptic. Seeking information about the image of a poster fragment turned blue through long exposure to sunlight, one comes across the following: “A Tiger. Athens, Greece. The tiger looks out from a shop window in the commercial area. Adhesive tape torn to a variety of lengths holds together a number of breakages”. An air of scholarly inconsequence sometimes obtrudes, for instance in the apparently irrelevant note appended to the image of a stuffed or reconstituted rhinoceros in a Polish museum to the effect that “Copernicus lived in Cracow and carried out studies of the stars”. On the other hand, Jeffrey's brief descriptions do not shrink from occasional aesthetic judgements, as in the next photograph along, of a pair of boxers crudely painted on a glass panel in a Suffolk betting shop, “elegantly shattered by a heavy blow”.

As should be evident from these examples, Jeffrey's Directory presents us with a typology not of the world, nor of things in the world, but of representations of things or their simulacra: paintings of tools from a home-made advertisement in Zakopane, Poland; a Red Indian chief riding through a landscape of torn posters in Berlin; a model elephant in a toy village at Great Yarmouth; fish painted across an Albanian shop front; mysterious markings in a small Suffolk church (“in some lights they are hard to make out”). The few landscapes are almost all simulacra, too: a Great Wall of China is a transparency in a Nagasaki takeaway, a scene of Alpine crags the background to a crude electronic shootout game. The only authentic landscape in the book, a view of the Ouse Valley in Sussex, looks just as unreal as the others (for what it's worth, Jeffrey once remarked upon the absence of horizons in post-modern photography).

Of his subjects, the photographer notes that “[they] are things which were poorly made in the first place, because the process wasn't thought through or because the skill wasn't to hand. All these ruined and poorly realised things accrue a poignancy of their own”. Jeffrey proposes a Platonic descent from a prelapsarian “collective of originary images… not quite beyond recall” for his photographs, and the technique adopted, flat and matter-of-fact, is correspondingly appropriate - almost a of degree zero of photography, whose results, however, are oddly fascinating. Universal Pictures has a kind of awkward dignity; it is simultaneously a lesson on how to view the world (perhaps also on how to read its representations) and a muted elegy for that western culture whose remnants, like fragments sinking down to benthic ooze, are here so tenderly privileged.

Ian Jeffrey's Universal Pictures is available from:
The Old Lodge, High Street, Coddenham, Ipswich, Suffolk IP6 9PN, UK.

John Stathatos
European Photography 77
March 2005