Working-Class Hero

Going Against the Contemporary Grain With Saul Fletcher

"This is where it all happens," Saul Fletcher says, ushering me into a large, sparsely furnished room on the second story of his house on London's northern outskirts. The 20 haunting photos in his third show at Anton Kern (558 Broadway, through October 14) were taken here or in the adjoining bedroom over the previous year, most of them in front of a long, formerly white wall that serves as both backdrop and canvas. The first floor of the house has been handsomely renovated in the two years since he moved in with his wife and two young children, but this space was left unfinished so he could use it as a refuge and a staging ground for his meticulously planned pictures. When he's not busy executing them, "I sit there all day," he says in his charming North Country accent, indicating an old chair in the alcove of an impressive bow window nonchalantly draped in a white bedsheet. "I come up here in the morning and I sit there with me glasses on and me book and just sketch things and write things down and listen to music. I've never done that before, but it kind of fitted and it got me to where I wanted to be. And I don't go out. I stopped drinking, so I don't see nobody. I don't play golf; I just do this. And it suits."

At 33, barefoot in chinos rolled up at the cuffs, Fletcher has the hushed, almost feral intensity and the reedy body of a teenager. His hair, once long and lank, is shorn to a fine shadow, and a scruffy growth of light brown beard meets an unruly mustache and a goatee that he strokes and smooths when he talks. This youthful impression is at odds with his work, which is dark, hermetic, deeply melancholy, and like nothing else on the contemporary photo landscape. At a time when many photographs are as big as picture windows, Fletcher is practically a miniaturist. The largest image at Anton Kern measures just a bit more than 8 x 6 inches; the smallest takes up less space than a playing card; the whole show would fit into a regular manila envelope. "I didn't do them that size to be different," Fletcher insists. "I did them that size because when I printed them larger, they lost something. There was some essence that was missing, and I just kept going smaller and smaller until it worked."

Fletcher's modest scale gives his photos a remarkable intimacy that intensifies our sense of peering into a fully imagined, if occasionally bizarre, parallel universe—a realm that has more in common with Beckett's deserted stage than with the slacker crash pads of the photographer's peers. Its population includes a soot-faced shaman wrapped in a dark blanket, an androgynous figure on stilts so high it crouches just under the ceiling and dangles a head of impossibly long black hair, a mustachioed boulevardier in a bowler hat who has a slumped-over child—a little doppelgänger—growing from his back, and a hunchbacked ogre whose extended left leg ends in a jagged splint of wood. Fletcher's father and brother play the first two roles (his mother appears elsewhere, reflected in a mirror shard wearing only a bra); the artist himself inhabits the last two characters; the child is his four-year-old son, Tim. Fletcher uses his family because they're convenient and "accommodating," but his own role in the pictures is rather more charged. The wooden-legged hunchback, for instance, is a reflection on his life as a drinker, one he put behind him when he moved into the new house. "I was a fucking ogre," he says. "I was an awful person."

Peering into a parallel universe: Untitled No. 123 (2000)
photo: courtesy Anton Kern Gallery, NY
Peering into a parallel universe: Untitled No. 123 (2000)

Still, the work is as extravagantly metaphoric as it is personal, and many of Fletcher's images look like bits of captured dreams. In one still life, a dead rabbit and two spread-winged birds are joined by three flowering stalks and a manelike fir branch in a poignant tableau attached to that dingy studio wall. In another, the artist's black suit hangs empty, a poem torn from a book pinned to its chest. One frame is filled end to end with an angry tangle of dead flowers and vines—an exploded wreath that he gathered from the side of the road and from neighbors' gardens at night. A nearly leafless branch; a small, handmade wooden cross; a row of tiny, dangling nooses; an empty picture frame; a skull—Fletcher's world can be melodramatically dismal, but the artist's anguished mythmaking and the art he's wrenched from it feel not only genuine but somehow redemptive. Though Fletcher's rich emotionality may be as unfashionable as his compact print size, he's turned it to frequently astonishing, understatedly gorgeous ends.

No one could be more surprised than the artist himself, who grew up in the Lincolnshire river town Barton on Humber, where his parents still live, and never figured he'd amount to much. Fletcher dropped out of school at 15, got thrown out of the army eight months later for attacking a superior officer, and moved back home to work on the local docks, loading and unloading cargo ships for the next six years. "That was my career," he says now. "That's where I should be; that's what I should be. This is not what I should be doing. This is somebody else." But that somebody else picked up a camera ("I don't know why. We never had one in our house") and joined the local camera club. "It was full of old men taking pictures of flying swans and stuff," but when he entered their competition (with a nude self-portrait, holding a flower) and won, he was encouraged to enroll in an A-level night class in photo technique. He discovered Robert Frank and Mapplethorpe (still the only influences he'll cop to) and began lugging fashion magazines to the docks. "They'd all be reading these porno magazines, and I'd be reading Vogue. They thought I was completely crazy." But Fletcher was studying the credits—photographer, stylist, makeup artist—and preparing to make his move. Someone had told him that successful photographers had assistants, and he set off for London to be one.

Though he wound up working with two of that city's most respected young fashion photographers, David Sims and Juergen Teller, Fletcher has nothing good to say about the experience. "It drove me absolutely around the fucking bend. I used to have me dinner in a different room; I couldn't bear to be around it. The money, the waste. They treat you like shit; everybody's got an ego. I hated it, but I did it." He met his wife, Miranda, who still does makeup for photo shoots, in the course of his work, but in the end assisting only frustrated him. "I knew I could take pictures. That's what I should be doing—pictures for meself." In 1995, in the sobering aftermath of a drunken fight that almost landed him in jail, he quit fashion and began doing just that.

His early photos were stark, taut, enigmatic, and not so different in spirit from the antifashion pictures that were beginning to fill the more avant-garde magazines. Five of them turned up, along with work by Teller, Sims, Catherine Opie, Steven Meisel, Nan Goldin, Cindy Sherman, and other art and fashion photographers, in Camilla Nickerson and Neville Wakefield's definitively of-the-moment 1996 book, Fashion. But even before that book came out, Fletcher, against all odds, had gotten himself a gallery in New York. "I just walked around to every gallery," he says, amazed at his own determined cluelessness. "I honestly thought that was how you did it." But he clicked immediately with Anton Kern, son of the painter Georg Baselitz, who says Fletcher's work "changed my world."

Making photographs has never been easy for Fletcher; he works slowly and methodically, sketching everything beforehand, and conceives of his shows as a whole. Orchestrating images is, for him, "like writing songs for a record: Is it going to fit on this album or not?" For now, he's especially pleased to have produced 23 pictures in 12 months (three didn't make the final cut at Kern). "That's one a fortnight," he says. "It's like double the usual." Having accomplished that, he's ready to relinquish his studio and proceed with the renovation; Miranda wants the space for a bedroom, and, anyway, he says, "I'm not sentimental. It's served its purpose." Which was not exclusively photographic: "I've really done some thinking," Fletcher says, his voice softening. "I guess I'm trying to get things out and work things through."

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