It’s not often you stumble into a free piece of Art. The single word ‘homeless’ speaks to me among the many leaflets piled up in a dishevelled manner in bookshop News from Nowhere and I open the newspaper to discover Liverpool artist Tony Mallon’s enthrallingly poetic photographic document of Merseyside hostels.
The tradition of photographing the overlooked or discarded has been repeated ad nauseaum throughout photography’s relatively short but colourful, chequered history. And yet here is something different. The overlooked given the ultra-glossy treatment.
Mallon’s document compels because he photographs these forgotten spaces as if he were shooting for a high-end fashion or product magazine. Lucid and unremitting, these pictures are technically faultless carrying the similar Objectivist aesthetic of German photographers such as Candida Höfer or Thomas Struth. What differentiates Mallon and makes him subversive is what he is actually photographing. Not for him the grandness of Höfer’s Louvre, but the interior of Merseyside hostels.
In elevating these spaces he makes you think more deeply about the people who inhabit them. He is also refuting the black and white grainy approach of old documentary photography. He doesn’t need that aesthetic. He doesn’t need the grime.
Devoid of people, these pictures are a perfect emblem of the absence/presence dichotomy in art. A red, plastic chair is laden with white loaves of bread bulging out of a white bin bag. In making the banal sublime, Mallon echoes the cannon of art history. This feels like the 2015 version of Van Gogh’s still life of a chair.
Such a cold, stark, clinical aesthetic serves Mallon’s purpose well. The photographs are even eerier than the grotty places we’ve come to expect in depictions of homelessness. There isn’t decay, but where is the warmth in these transient places?
Perhaps the greatest strength of Mallon’s homeless newspaper is that his bold, objective, unsentimental images are combined with a fold-out booklet of text by the people who inhabit these spaces. But we don’t just have their words, told in an unmediated way, but their hand-writing.
‘90% boredom. 10% fear’ feels hyper real once you see the cursive, elegant hand-writing that accompanies it. ‘Smells of B.O., excrement, urine, rotting wood, bleach’ feels truthful, revelatory, tangible in a way in which the words on their own wouldn’t.
In coupling these neutral, dispassionate pictures of empty, institutional corridors, garish game rooms, un-occupied offices with the very real, hand-written testimonies of the hostel dwellers, Mallon effectively creates a portrait of these places that would be poorer if either element was missing from the artefact.
In a relentless, commodity culture where the throwaway is not given a second thought, homeless asks to be looked at again. I urge you to pick up a copy next time you see one. I can’t quite believe it’s free.
Tony Mallon’s exhibition is on at FACT until 31st May as part of Group Therapy.
For more information visit http://lookphotofestival.com/exhibitions/group-therapy/ and Tony Mallon’s website http://digitintherib.viewbook.com/