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"James Mollison: The Disciples" opens at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
The prints in this exhibition are fourteen feet wide, making the subjects close to life size. This is Mollison’s favored format for presenting photographs from the series.

By: Richard Klein

RIDGEFIELD, CT.- In 2005, James Mollison began a four-year project to photograph not the musicians, but the fans of a cross section of popular music acts in both the United States and Europe. Usually denied permission to photograph inside a concert venue, Mollison, assisted by his wife Amber, would set up a temporary studio on the street outside and invite selected concertgoers to pose for individual portraits. Subsequently, he joined together separate shots from the same concert to create panoramic images that silently captured the zeitgeist of the act’s aesthetic. This exhibition presents seven large-scale prints from the fifty-nine photographs that comprise the series.

For over a decade, Mollison has worked in the territory where photojournalism strays into the world of high art. He has approached his varied projects in the manner of an anthropologist, consistently utilizing a series format to reveal both commonality and subtle distinctions between his subjects. Mollison’s projects have included mug shot-like portraits of great apes (James and Other Apes, 2004), chocolate famers in Cote d’Ivoire (Cocoa Pickers, 2007), and children’s bedrooms around the world (Where Children Sleep, 2010). The Disciples was based in Mollison’s interest in the sociology of celebrity, particularly the power of music to form powerful social bonds, and how these bonds are reinforced by tribal-like codes and signs.

The Disciples inventories the aesthetics of music not through the usual approach of photographing the performers, but rather the effects that a particular performer or genre has on the consumer of artistic experience. Mollison has been selective in choosing the individuals he photographs (not all concertgoers at a Rolling Stones performance look like Keith Richards), and his choice of title for the project, The Disciples, pointedly refers to his particular focus on those fans who go to extremes in mirroring their idols. This level of fandom, however, goes beyond simple idolatry into something much more complicated: the individuals that Mollison has portrayed are not just passive consumers of culture, but rather, through their extreme outward expression, active participants. Most of us have had the experience of being swept up in the powerful emotion of a concert experience, where the distance between performer and audience shrinks and the club, theater, or arena transforms itself from a mere crowd into feeling more like a single organism. At such moments fans like those pictured by Mollison become in the parlance of psychology, “transitional objects,” functioning midway between performer and viewer, an experience that can be transcendent because of the potential for temporary loss of individuality.

If one doubts the active creativity of these over-the-top fans, let us consider Mollison’s photographs of selected concertgoers from the 2007 performance by the British punk band The Casualties at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool, on the coast of northwest England. It might be easy to dismiss their general look as conforming to stereotypes of the punk aesthetic (now nearing its fortieth anniversary!), but each of the individuals portrayed displays a remarkable level of ingenuity, craftsmanship, and attention to detail in their expression of what is now a time-honored genre. Yes, each of them sports a Mohawk, but each head of hair is uniquely different, with four of the fans having wildly asymmetrical coifs and the woman in the middle exhibiting an inventive hybrid 1920s bob/Mohawk style. No restrained minimalism here, horror vacuui reigns, with each fan cloaked in a rich tapestry of textures, signs, and signifiers. The jackets and vests are particularly impressive, animated by studs, patches, stencil lettering, and hand-painted passages. From the beginning, one of punk’s central tenets was an aggressively raw DIY attitude. Other than the screenprinted t-shirts and mass-produced cartridge belts, all of the subjects in Mollison’s photograph have lovingly made their outfits, something you will certainly not find at a jazz or classical concert.

What influences people to become fanatics (let’s not forget that word is the root of “fan”) and subsume themselves in a particular musical subculture? The growth of fandom is linked to modernity and its accompanying urbanization and growth of mass media, a situation where alienation, particularly among young people, has increased exponentially over the past one hundred years. In highly fluid and transient societies, such as the United States and Europe, the basic human urge to belong to something bigger (we are still pack animals) is often stunted by the failure of strong social institutions and the rootlessness that results. As the anthropologist Desmond Morris has written about The Disciples, “So how do we recover that lost feeling which is part of our inheritance as human beings? The answer is that we join sports clubs, learned societies, specialist organizations, street gangs, political parties or some other kind of social group that gives us the chance to dress up in an unusual way and show ourselves off with a ‘display of belonging.’ This sets us apart from the great mass of humanity in which we bravely survive and under the weight of which we sometimes feel totally submerged.”

The issue of establishing individual identity in contemporary culture is a complicated one, and the social changes in late modernity have created a situation where individuals are required to construct their own lives from a bewildering array of choices. It is important to remember that the people portrayed in The Disciples all have lives outside the moments when their photographs were taken, and that they, like the rest of us, belong to multiple and overlapping social groups. The circumstances of this fact occur on a spectrum, however, with some fans donning “the look” only for a Saturday night out on the town, while others come closer to consistently living the dream. Mollison relates this experience of shooting
P. Diddy’s fans: “…The audience for his Miami gig, mainly black and in their 20s, looked ready to audition for his next video. The guys were dressed up in sleek bling shirts and gold jewelry, while the girls were skimpily clad, showing lots of flesh. There was something a bit sad about the occasion. One guy told me, ‘The problem is we wanna live like Puff, but we don’t have the money.’”

In looking at many of the images that comprise The Disciples, I am reminded of the opening lines of the song “King James Version” by the singer/songwriter Billy Bragg: “He was trapped in a haircut he no longer believed in.” The majority of our cultural attitudes and tastes (including musical tastes) are developed when we are in our teens and early twenties and usually result in the gelling of beliefs and aesthetics that last a lifetime. For instance, the subjects in Mollison’s photograph of fans at a Rolling Stones concert are middle-aged and older, unified by not only t-shirts featuring the Stones 1971 tongue and lips logo, but also by rock ’n’ roll hairstyles from the same time period. The black rooster tail on the fellow second from left is pure Ron Wood circa 1974, while the Mick look-alike on the far right looks to be in his mid fifties, sharing with his idol a perfectly styled and dyed shag. These fans are clearly trapped in haircuts they have few or no doubts about, which raises interesting questions about the power (and persistence) of youth culture. Some of us refuse to grow up and an obsessive romance with popular music is a way of extending the heady freedom of youth into the grave. When looking at the youthful fans that Mollison captured at a Björk concert in 2008, one wonders if any of them will be lining up to see the performer during her 2028 tour.

Seen together, Mollison’s images of diverse fan bases speak of social and class differences (how many individuals have attended concerts by both Merle Haggard and P. Diddy?), but also of the power of art to coalesce and unify identity. The artist’s visual inventory of each musical tribe reveals the way that simple style is transformed into culture, and ultimately, history. The images that comprise The Disciples might at first glance confirm biases on cultural stereotypes, but their cumulative effect can curiously create the opposite reaction in a viewer: a self-conscious awareness of the fact that as humans we all conform in varying measure to our individual social group and it is almost impossible to escape from the forces of group identity. Assuming the role of a disciple doesn’t mean being a slave to fashion; rather it’s one of the factors that uniquely define us as being human.





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