Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs, The Photographers’ Gallery, London

Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs, The Photographers’ Gallery, London

Taking Shots is one of three exhibitions currently running at The Photographers’ Gallery which showcase the work of artists known primarily for their work outside the photographic field.

Beat generation novelist William S. Burroughs seems as equally disinterested in the fine art print as he is in photographic formalism or the cultivation of a homogeneous style. The featured images segue from fugitive black and white snapshots, to mixed media collage, to colour images shot with the dead-pan detail of a crime scene.

The general impulse when viewing the output of an artist whose primary reputation derives from achievements in a different creative field is to probe the work for traces of their mythologised persona. Do the images confirm or contradict our notions of Burroughs? Although several depopulated images seem to evoke a sense of Burroughs as outsider; it is in his collages where the surreal and fragmented facets of his writing come to life.

Recalling Jean Arp’s ‘chance collages’ Burroughs practised a literary approach dubbed the ‘cut up’ where text was cut out and rearranged to form new meaning. The collage imagery as well as the serial nature of several other shots both engage with and attempt to re-imagine time and space echoing Burroughs’ comment “you never photograph the present only the future.”

A selection of self-portraits features a synecdochic image of the artist’s legs, his shadow cast on the ground and his face masked by the lens – the camera’s mediating presence is made patent. Burroughs has employed the camera in an experimental, investigatory manner – as a productive rather than reproductive agent – an approach which chimes well with his drug-fueled life quest to expand consciousness.

Taking Shots: The Photography of William S. Burroughs is on at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, until 30 March. For more information visit www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk

Sarah Allen.

1. William S. Burroughs, l Midtown Manhattan, (1965) © Estate of William S. Burroughs.