1 December 2011 - 14 January 2012

Pieter Hugo

There's a Place in Hell for Me and my Friends

STEVENSON presents a new series of photographs by Pieter Hugo on the curated exhibition What we talk about when we talk about love.

Aaron Schuman writes:

In There's a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends (2011) - a recent series of portraits that adopts a stripped back, close-up and confrontationally direct approach - Hugo explores similar territory [to his earlier series Looking Aside] but from practically the opposite angle. In this case, the subjects are simply the photographer and his friends, who represent an array of ethnicities but are not particularly atypical, abnormal or 'unusual' in a genetic sense. Instead they are rendered unusually, portrayed in a heightened monotone with their skin transformed into a range of exaggerated black spots and dark tones. As Hugo explains it, 'The process used in making these pictures involves turning digital colour images black and white, while keeping the colour channels active. In this manner one can manipulate the colour channels and emphasise certain colours within the grey scale. Melanin, the pigment responsible for skin colour, appears in two forms: pheomelanin (which appears as red), and eumelanin (which appears as a very dark, yellowish brown). In the case of these images, the red and yellow colour channels were darkened to a point where nearly all of their information was rendered as blacks and dark greys, and they were therefore brought to prominence.' Hence, within these photographs even the slightest pigmentation in light skin is converted into charcoal tones - Hugo himself appears as an ebony bust, only his pale eyes glistening and giving the game away - and the viewer is again quite literally faced with the awkward ambiguities, inaccuracies and contradictions inherent within racial distinctions based on the surface of skin alone. Furthermore, by harnessing and transforming the photograph in its most contemporary digital form, Hugo paradoxically invokes the technical essence of the medium and cleverly involves it directly with notions of race. In a sense, if one were to consider photography at its most basic and fundamental, one could argue that throughout the course of human evolution skin itself has acted as a kind of extremely low-sensitive photographic negative: in some cases, subjected to the strongest of sunlight over the course of thousands of generations, it gradually produced more melanin and therefore became darker in appearance - or 'overexposed' - whereas in other cases, exposed to lower levels of sunlight throughout the generations, it produced less protective pigment and gradually became paler - or 'underexposed'. (To take this premise one step further, one could propose that, collectively, humanity today represents an ever-developing photograph of the entirety of its own existence.) Nevertheless, as Hugo's images reveal, within all skin there are traces of pigment, of colour and of exposure; although at first glance we may look 'black' or 'white', the components that remain 'active' beneath the surface consist of a much broader spectrum. What superficially appears to divide us is in fact something that we all share, and like these photographs, we are not merely black and white - we are red, yellow, brown, and so on; we are all, in fact, coloured.
Extract from 'Beholder', Aaron Schuman's essay in Pieter Hugo's monograph (Munich: Prestel, 2012) accompanying his retrospective opening at the Fotomuseum den Haag in March 2012.