In a back corner of Richard Prince’s exhibition Early Photographic Work 1977-87 at Gagosian Grosvenor Hill are five photographs of the artist’s studio setup, taken between 1976 and 77. It comprises a single table, where he would lay out magazine pages, and a tripod holding a camera, with which he would photograph them from above.
To reach these studio shots, you have to walk through rooms filled with the photographs that he took at the table. They are closely-cropped, often oversaturated images of subjects including models, rock bands, cowboys, fountain pens, cigarettes, make-up palettes and watches. It is a showreel of late 20th Century America. There are nods to beauty, violence, endeavour and transgression appropriated from advertising, fashion and film. One image - it might be a naked body, a grinning mouth, a hand toting a gun or a cigarette - is followed by the next before getting a chance to fully imprint itself on the viewer.
It’s dizzying. Prince seems to play a trigger-happy shutterbug, frantically attempting to archive a never-ending conveyor belt of disposable imagery. Today, our attention spans must be shorter and the images we are exposed to more disparate than the artist could have possibly imagined in the 1970s. In the 50-or-so years since he set up his photography-photography studio, the conveyor belt has accelerated, but the overloaded feeling that he evokes here is deeply familiar. Impressions move in and out of view quickly; blink and you’ll miss one.
But for Prince, standing above the table in his studio, they don’t move at all. There’s a sense of stillness, stasis. “I would put the camera in front of [the page] in the morning, and I would look through the lens,” he explained in a 2019 interview, “and I would come back and I would look through the lens again, and the image of the cowboy that I was looking at four hours earlier hadn’t changed a bit.” In the world outside of the artist’s studio, then and now, things are in constant flux. At his table, he could take things in as slowly as he wanted. As a viewer, once the initial rush of being surrounded by Prince’s images wears off, it is worth trying to take things in slowly too.
In W.G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn, the narrator embarks on a walk around the Suffolk coast, recalling personal stories and historical anecdotes triggered by his surroundings. At first these musings seem unrelated, his subjects ranging from recession-hit seaside towns to the 19th Century Chinese nobility - but as they accrue, they begin to form a fragmented history of human life. Most of the accounts are defined by decay and ruination, together telling a sad story. “Life,” one character explains to the narrator, “is just one great, ongoing, incomprehensible blunder.”
Whether he means too or not, Prince is also offering a history. Its telling is more sporadic and its remit less vast than Sebald’s but, taken all together and given some time to settle in, his photographs tell us something about what Prince’s world was like for that ten-year period, most of which he spent working in Time Life magazine’s advertising department, on the frontier of American culture.
Where does Prince see himself in this history? You might spot him now and again in the exhibition. He is always slightly obscured or hidden, not depicted in the brazen, saturated way that most of his subjects are. In two photographs, he and Cindy Sherman pose identically with hands covering mouths, wearing matching auburn wigs and suits; playing the same androgynous character. Elsewhere, he is present in the form of a note that he has written in pencil on a mountboard: “true or false?”
These incognito appearances aside, surely the place where Prince really belongs is the back corner: in his studio, rifling through magazines, laying them out and photographing them at his own pace. Cowboys gallop, models pose, American culture moves along at an increasing speed and the artist remains at his table, taking stock.