The Poem is Part of the Eye: An Appreciation of Ruth Bayer’s Skipping to Armageddon






What we know of the world comes from our journey through it. What we observe, reconsider or act upon. In Ruth Bayer’s new collection of photographs, Skipping to Armageddon, published by the innovatory Strange Attractor Press, we glimpse a deeper world of understanding, both in terms of reference and intimacy as the book visually charts the friendship between Bayer and her main subject, poet, artist and musician, David Tibet. Tibet is the seminal star of the esoteric underground comprised as noted in David Keenan’s England’s Hidden Reverse, (also published by Strange Attractor) of Coil, Nurse With Wound, Whitehouse and Current 93. The journey between muse and artist, artist and muse starts in 1987 and ends in the present day. Bayer, an Austrian photographer living in Tufnell Park, encounters and befriends Tibet after he has moved into her former room. This sharing of intimacy and to some extent, origin deepens to the point in which Ruth becomes a much prized visual biographer of that entire scene of artists who emerged out of the post punk days of Throbbing Gristle et all, to create and explore new areas of industrialisation, religion and the esoteric in music, visuals and sound.

Tibet’s stare is all encompassing on account of his elegant features and large eyes and the first photograph, a simple portrait of a bare chested David shows a level of daring that one is still not quite accustomed to. The stare is one of both welcome and challenge, a statement of intent and identity and therefore an object which in the purest sense, transcends its birthing form. It is a wonderful way to open a book of photographs, perhaps the only way as the subject addresses the viewer directly, speaking through a closed mouth on the eloquence of the soul. His image is fused with the photographer as author/presenter and the twin messages thereby parent each other.

Photography is often about containment of the subject and the imposition of style, whether it’s the artful but artificial shadows of David Bailey or the all consuming ones of Bill Brandt, but in Ruth Bayer’s work one sees a freeing of the image. A gentility of approach that frames the subject not with lines or borders but with the true language of light. Tibet fills the literal frame as he does in all senses in his other endeavours, but is here placed in a gentle cage (if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron) of friendship, a protective shell which shows him, even at the start of their association as someone to be cherished and held in esteem by the camera’s eye. The light from the right of picture fuses with his shoulder and cheek as opposed to layering over him or coating him with God’s paint and the monochrome nature of the image allows his face to become part of the page as opposed to being just presented by it. It is, at the risk of too much contrivance, an image that speaks in all the codes of introduction and because of Tibet’s physiognomy, is practically Vermeer like in terms of affect and complexion.

As the images accrue – as one does not feel like one is turning the pages of a book but rather journeying through an accumulation of time – Tibet’s fascination and mystery combine with something far more celebratory. A section set in Brookwood Cemetery, with Tibet, Freya Aswynn, and Rose McDowall shows friendship displayed artfully and joyously among the graves. The richness of the black and white imagery creating the impression of feeling, texture and therefore colour without having to display it. Here are people powerfully alive and able to translate a deathly setting into an expression of sanctified renewal by simple gestures of positivism and consolidation. That this section comes after photos of Tibet looking like the survivor of a decadent night, Bayer is showing us both wing and underside of her particular angel. Tibet is a muse for Bayer in a different way that Beatrice was for Dante, or Marianne for Mick (or Keith). He is someone and something that allows her to examine what the stare is for, and how if it comes from the right person, it can guide us towards a greater truth.

Tibet’s truth is formed from his studies of the esoteric side of Christianity and mysticism and his attachment and obsession with Noddy, that great emblem of children’s fiction. The pictures of various Noddy dolls bedeck Tibet like the flowers he clearly sees them as being and it is Bayer’s sincere approach that allows this. Although there are a several colour shots and styles of shot (from fish eye lens to landscape), it is the music that Bayer feels emanating from her friend that reaches us through the page. The poetic surge that powers through love and friendship skips through this book on the wings of light, providing the title and alluding to Tibet and his associates missions of examination and recovery.

What the book conveys above all else is something that John Berger would clearly approve of; the photo as eye itself, rather than object before it. An artistic blend of message, medium and music that makes the best art and fuses the forms. The photograph as poem, birthed by the circumstances that have taken place before the button is pressed, and which then repeat endlessly across the milliseconds it takes for the click to register. Like an eyelid the camera captures, absorbs and transforms, in the same way as the signal does to and from the brain. Light dances from the music made or holds its breath as words form, seen in the first picture of the Crouch End 1994 section, in which a close up of Tibet is infused and half drowned by the night.

As Bayer says in one of the three introductions here (the first from esteemed novelist Michael Faber, the second a wonderfully touching and emotional one from Tibet himself), she does not impose composition or style but takes ideas and inspiration from the subject and the given moment. This is the mark of a true artist. She is someone who does not impose her style on a subject but rather finds her form within it, about it and because of it. There is a famous Orson Welles story he often told about his filming style. He was once asked in interview after reflections on his vibrant invention of what was possible in terms of camera angle and shooting style how he knew where to put the camera. He replied simply: ‘I put the camera where the story is.’ Ruth Bayer in this beautifully rendered book by Strange Attractor does exactly the same. She finds what is real in what is imagined. She dreams and she captures, turning the world all the while. The connection she feels is what her photographs offer. She sees in one man the beauty of friendship. She translates Geoff Cox and John Balance. The poem is there in her eye.

David Erdos 24/10/16




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