Visual Resonances

by Karin Bareman

English Essays

La Vie En Rose – A Take On Leo Maguire’s Project ‘Rosa’

Studying the images included in Rosa, I started to idly ponder the relationship between photography, voyeurism, and the military-industrial complex. As Roger Hargreaves points out: “Many of photography’s technological step-changes have emerged as commercial by-products of military funded research and development, lending the medium an added edge of intrusiveness.”[1]

Infrared film, for example, was developed by the US military during World War I to improve aerial reconnaissance. As soon as it became commercially available, photographers pounced on it to capture often illicit scenes taking place at night or in dark surroundings. An early adopter is Weegee snapping lovers in New York cinemas in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1973 Kohei Yoshiyuki recorded voyeurs in the parks of Tokyo spying on couples having outdoor sex. Kenji Hirasawa captured the rising body temperatures – caused by their excitement – of visitors to Madame Tussaud’s using a thermographic camera. These three bodies of work are fascinating and perturbing in equal measure, as a certain level of intrusion, stealth and subterfuge is needed to create these images. More importantly, the viewer cannot judge these pictures solely in aesthetic terms. Wittingly or unwittingly, they are considered in the light of how many saucy details they contain.

For his ongoing series Rosa, British photographer and film maker Leo Maguire employed a military imaging company to customise a small digital camera to capture infrared and ambient light. He subsequently used it to record people engaged in dogging, British slang for public sex in parks or woodlands. Maguire had been trying to capture the dogging scene since 2005, as developments in digital photography had made low light exposures without flash possible. However, the artist felt that the resulting images did not do justice to the scenes he witnessed and the emotions they evoked. He started researching alternatives: “During the Iraq war, some photographers began shooting through military night vision goggles, rendering the world a sinister sickly green. I started experimenting with this technique, but quickly felt it had all the hall markings of a covert military operation.” Maguire’s discovery of the aforementioned series by Yoshiyuki led him to explore the possibility of infrared technology. Ultimately, it proved to be a breakthrough. But instead of opting for the ghostly pictures produced by black-and-white infrared film, Maguire preferred his digital output to contain colour. By manipulating the white balance on the camera, the artist created the monochromatic images included in this portfolio.

Even though Rosa can stand alone as a photographic body of work, Maguire’s fascination with the subject led to the commission of a TV documentary called Dogging Tales, broadcast in 2013 by Channel 4. It seems exemplary for how Maguire operates. His breakthrough project Gypsy Blood started as a photographic project on bare-knuckle fighters from the Traveller community. Over a period of two years it evolved into a full-length documentary film mapping the complex bonds between Traveller fathers and their sons, and the role fighting plays in the upbringing of Traveller children. Shooting film rather than photographs enabled the artist to add texture and depth to the project. In many ways, Maguire is a classic story teller, using whichever medium he feels is best suited for shedding light onto particular groups or phenomena, be it film, photography or nowadays even sculpture.

Even though the images were taken at night with the aim of capturing illicit sexual acts, they are surprisingly ambiguous. Solitary figures, often seen from the back, are standing around in the woods or sitting on park benches. Without accompanying explanation, the scenes could mean anything. If nothing else, the pictures exude a loneliness not usually associated with sex.

But back to Rosa. Even though the images were taken at night with the aim of capturing illicit sexual acts, they are surprisingly ambiguous. Solitary figures, often seen from the back, are standing around in the woods or sitting on park benches. Without accompanying explanation, the scenes could mean anything. If nothing else, the pictures exude a loneliness not usually associated with sex. The rose-tinted imagery hints at a melancholic, and possibly naïve perspective on love and relationships. Equally the flower, to which the title of the project refers, has long been associated with intimacy and everlasting love. The title further reminds me of Edith Piaff’s La Vie En Rose, a searing love song. Is this then the contradiction embodied by people engaging in dogging? That they are on a private quest for love and intimacy, but end up finding only public sex? Ultimately, the photographs of Rosa are discomfiting and unfathomable. This is because description is conflated with representation, information with knowledge, evidence with sight.[2] The viewer is left to draw her own conclusion about the scenes witnessed.

Leo Maguire (b. 1981, Bristol) is a film maker and photographer based in London. He studied documentary photography at the University of Wales at Newport. He was awarded the Getty Images Grant in 2007. Maguire participated in the Joop Swart Masterclass organised by World Press Photo in 2011. His first documentary film Gypsy Blood (2012) won the Best Newcomer at the Grierson Awards and was BAFTA nominated. In 2013 Maguire released his second documentary film, Dogging Tales, and in 2015 his third, Breaking into Britain: The Lorry Jumpers. Rosa was exhibited as part of a group show at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art (2015).

This essay was previously published in Foam Magazine Talent Issue no. 45
[1] Roger Hargreaves: ‘Kenji Hirasawa: Celebrity’. In: Photoworks, no. 17. 2011/2012. pp. 62
[2] Freely after ‘Skin Flicks: Pornography, Ethnography, and the Discourses of Power’. By Christian Hansen, Catherine Needham and Bill Nichols. In: Discourse. 11(2), 1989, pp. 64-79.

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