PRINT October 1976

Mac Adams: The “Mysteries”

THE MYSTERIES OF MAC ADAMS present the narrative photo-sequence in its most succinct form, two or (less frequently) three photographs, side by side, or one above the other. For Mac Adams the reintroduction of narrative represented a reaction to the erudite austerities of Minimal and Conceptual art. He wanted his work to be more accessible, and yet it reveals its anchorage in the stringent tradition of the ’60s, partly in its formal sparseness, but also in the way his “narrative” seems not so much to tell a story as to question the possibility of a story locating itself around his photographs. A deeper sense of human values emerges obliquely in the persistent preoccupations of the questions—which eventually turn back self-referentially on the structure of the images through which they are conveyed.

In one photograph a sailor stands talking to a girl in the street; she is wearing a striped scarf. Below is a view down into water; a striped scarf hangs caught between the quay and the stump of a wooden pile. It is all very clear; the sailor is just home from the sea and sexually deprived; the girl is a casual pick-up, probably a prostitute; he has raped and murdered her, and then thrown the body in the river. So much for Mystery #3. But on what evidence do we suppose that to be the case? Might not the scarves just be similar? Is it inconceivable that the man and girl should be husband and wife, brother and sister, or just good friends? Just because the man wears a sailor’s hat, must that imply a connection with that particular stretch of water? Could they not be ten years and a thousand miles apart? Would it stand up in a court of law?

There is no explanatory text, only the title in the catalogue; but perhaps the one word “mystery” is enough to evoke a context of detective thrillers, to set us looking for something amiss and then, remembering the false leads in all the best mysteries, to turn a suspicious eye on the array of clues provided. The crucial factor turns out to be the placement of the images themselves.

The still photograph is ambiguous as to action, but we infer a narrative connection when two are mounted together on the same board and when the scarf in the lower print comes exactly underneath the scarf in the top one. Through that interrelationship the visual images become literary, and it is in response to the linguistic convention of the printed page that we infer the bottom print must depict an incident later than the top one. This is quite irrational; it does not follow that the upper half of a page must describe events earlier than the lower just because we are required to read those words first, but the pressure towards a left-to-right (Mystery #4) or top-to-bottom sequence is very strong. An early pair of photographs by Mac Adams inverts that situation, because the direction of the action of the man carrying the tray in the right image asserts its coming before the dropped tray with broken cups at the left, but in sequences like Mystery #3, interpretation according to the order of the printed page touches levels of sexual fear and sexual guilt that rivet that reading on our attention. Reverse the sequence and it might mean the sailor had found the scarf in the water and taken it home as a present for his girlfriend. That would be embarrassing if she ever found out, but the alternative strikes resonances of an altogether different depth, the sort of crisis that might ruin his life and extinguish hers.

The paired photographs are of unequal psychological weight. The dominant image is that of the sailor and the girl and it is a very straightforward shot of an utterly commonplace situation, three-quarter length figures conventionally framed with the focus of attention toward the central area, the sort of scene we might pass by a hundred times in the street.

The evocation of the commonplace is the primary characteristic of the first photograph. The role of the second is to undermine its comfortable familiarity. Formally it is quite different, an oblique perspective, a centrifugal composition with the crucial feature of the scarf at its outer edge. It is the sort of view one’s eyes do not easily adjust to; it has to be hunted out. It is secretive rather than private; forms are fragmentary and difficult to identify. Alone it means very little, but it induces a sense of the furtive to the upper image. We notice the letters NLEX (or is it NLEY?) on the wall behind the girl and we peer into the darkness of the shop window behind the man. Most of all we look at the faces of the man and the girl. Is that the face of a woman who might sell her body to a sailor in the street? Is his the face of a murderer? Of course, we know they are models posed by the artist, but what is surprising—and not a little frightening—is that when we look with those questions in mind we discover the indications readily enough.

Many of the Mysteries work out like this. In #4 a pair of shoes by deck-chairs at the waterfront passes unnoticed during the day, but raises suspicions when it is still unclaimed at night. In #6 the top image shows a hand dropping a capsule into a glass of wine; beside it on the table is a poison bottle. Below two men and a girl chat and joke while drinking from glasses with the same etched leaf pattern; at the left an arm reaches for a glass; the arm in the upper picture was wearing just such a watch. #7 shows a black gloved hand reaching through a partially open door toward a bracelet on a dressing-table; precisely below, it appears on the wrist of a girl talking to a man in front of bushes. (This is perhaps the most tersely expressive, also the most formally refined of the entire series.)

In some of the later works the formula varies. #17 shows only confined secretive spaces, but the final frame differentiates itself from the first—though it is formally similar—through the social and moral connotations (within the genre of detective fiction) of high-heeled shoes as opposed to black leather boots, sheer stockings as opposed to striped tights and of full, mid-calf-length skirt as opposed to one that rides high up above the knee. The man in each instance wears crisply pressed pants bespeaking middle-class respectability. In the center frame he pushes (or pulls) a trunk up (or down) stairs; from it protrudes a striped garment. It is a structure out of stereotypes of plot and prop whose material basis is secondary to the language of symbols that conveys its human significance.

Mystery #13 is superficially like the early works. In the top photograph people are standing around at a bus stop; the sign says “Cardiff buses.” In the foreground a girl in jeans and a white halter top has her back to us; to the right a man with a striped tie and a jacket draped over his shoulder is just removing his glasses. In the lower photograph a girl with similar curly hair and holding a white halter top stands with her back to us, nude except for a pair of black panties, in front of a lace curtained window. She is exactly beneath the girl in the upper image. Around her are strewn the man’s clothes—striped tie and jacket—and spectacles on a low table still peer from the same angle at the girl. Superficially a story of seduction; the second image an account of consequences that retroactively invests the first with that potentiality. But (even granting the paucity of the evidence) I wonder if that is really the impression it conveys. As the man lifts the glasses from his nose, is he using them to ogle more effectively at the girl or to withdraw into a psychological reality as the material world goes out of focus? And within that psychological reality (if such be the case) is the nude girl a symbol of sexual gratification or his own engulfment? Her stance, in fact, is very much a typical life-class contortion, but when we still find ourselves projecting human significance, it reads equivocally. She is stretching herself after the exertions of a lusty romp in the hay; but is there not also a sense of triumph, of conquest and of her flaunting of that conquest through the thin veil of the lace curtains? And the one article of clothing, the black panties?

There are indications throughout the Mysteries that engender a larger symbolism of the artist’s own involvement. Not just that they give evidence of the mind that conceived them, but more specifically that their content parallels the role of the photographer himself probing the recesses of human life. The lenses of the spectacles in #13 are analogous to the lens of the camera; in Mystery #18 a repair man peers through an eye-glass at the workings of a watch when a gloved hand touches him lightly on the shoulder; the early Mystery #5 had a man spying through binoculars at a couple making love. The photographer’s role is one of privileged voyeurism, and it retains the pervasive sense of shame and guilt. Shadows figure centrally in several works. In Mystery #9 the shadow of a man behind a girl in the street follows her to the far side of the park. In Mystery #8 the shadow of a man with upraised hands falls through the window across the table in front of a girl; later it threatens to engulf her as she stoops before a bowl to wash. That image is almost all shadow, and the thought follows that every photograph is a sort of shadow, a shade of darkness cast on the virgin purity of the paper.

If there is something puritanical about the sparseness of Mac Adams’ means, there is a more explicit puritanism in the concept to which they are applied and for which they become a symbol: the name of that concept is “sin.”

Eric Cameron is director if the graduate program at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.