Published by Stanley/Barker
Ltd edition of 1000 £45
Special edition of 35 (Clamshell Box set with a signed print) £400
By Guy Sangster Adams
The high white cover of Karen Knorr’s beautifully produced new monograph, Belgravia, echoes the resplendent stucco of the grand terraces of this exclusive area of London. Much of Belgravia was built by Thomas Cubitt, commissioned by the then Viscount Belgrave in the 1820s and predominantly still owned by his descendent the 6th Duke of Westminster. Belgravia lies a diamond’s throw from Buckingham Palace of which Cubitt also built the east façade which faces The Mall; the palace’s ‘public face’.
Stepping behind the stucco and playfully subverting the idea of a public face, Knorr describes her photographs of Belgravia residents, taken between 1979 and 1981 and collected for the first time in this book, as “non-portraits”. Vanity and verity is the inherent struggle in traditional portraiture, but as Knorr explains her photographs are ‘non portraits’ because “they do not aim to flatter or to show the ‘truth’ of these people”. Equally her sitters are not named and remain anonymous, because, as she says, “the photographs are not about individuals but about a group of people and their ideas during a particular time in history”.
Their ideas are conveyed epigrammatically beneath each image. Reflecting after each shoot on the conversations she had had with her subjects, Knorr constructed the texts – capitalising key words to emphasise the constructed and ironic nature. But the texts are not designed to illustrate the photographs they sit beneath, nor vice versa; Knorr’s intention is that in the space between the two they create a ‘third meaning’ “to be completed by the spectator”. Intriguingly that meaning will differ depending on the spectator’s own background and views. Knorr showed the photographs and accompanying text to all her sitters; some saw her intended humour, whereas, she says, “a lot of them said, ‘yes, that’s pretty much how things are’”.
Beneath the image of the cover star, hair, stance, and clothes so archetypally early 1980s that he looks as though he would be equally at home at a Sloane Ranger Handbook informed débutante ball—which had a resurgence in the 1980s— or a Duran Duran concert, the text reads: “Debs’ Delights are on the list/They wear Gucci shoes/pinstripe suits/and take girls out/to places like/Regines.” Reading which I was reminded of lines from The Jam song, Saturday’s Kids: “Saturday’s girls work in Tesco’s and Woolworths/ Wear cheap perfume ’cause it’s all they can afford/Go to discos they drink Babycham talk to Jan – in bingo accents.”
Saturday’s Kids was on the album Setting Sons, which was released the same year that Knorr started taking her Belgravia photographs. It also contained the hit single, Eton Rifles, which Prime Minister David Cameron, who in 1979 had just started at Eton, has said was one his favourite songs at the time. In response to Paul Weller’s reported incredulity at this, wondering if Cameron did not understand that the song was satirising Etonians, Cameron told Alexis Petridis in The Guardian in 2011: “of course I understood what it was about. It was taking the mick out of people running around in the cadet force. And he was poking a stick at us. But it was a great song with brilliant lyrics. I’ve always thought that if you can only like music if you agree with the political views of the person who wrote it, well, it’d be rather limiting”.
Similarly with Knorr’s photographs the spectator must decide whether the assumed privileged background of the proto-Goth band, the Dulcet Drones, given that they are photographed around a dining table in Belgravia, makes them risible or intriguing/possibly worth a listen… and whether it negates or makes laughable the text beneath the image: “I am part of a group/called the Dulcit Drones/We are basically into Rebellion/into changing Youth today.”
Privilege is, understandably, a key theme of the book. The text, “There is nothing/ wrong with Privilege/as long as you are ready/ to pay for it”, appears beneath a photograph, and is then repeated on the penultimate page, and broken down on the last page to “There is nothing wrong with Privilege …”; the ‘third meaning’ lying in the space between the ellipsis. In her exploration of privilege there is an element, Knorr has said, “of self-critique” in that she “was the product of a very well-to-do family; I had a lot of privilege and I was able to study in Britain thanks to them”.
Knorr’s upbringing was peripatetic – born in Germany, she spent her childhood in Puerto Rico, and completed her education in Paris and then in England. Her parents had moved to Belgravia in the mid-1970s, and when she in turn moved to London she lived with them for a few months, but only a few months because, as she says, “I felt uncomfortable actually being in Belgravia, I couldn’t relate to it”. This provides another layer to her series of photographs, which feature her family and their friends/neighbours, the simultaneous sense of being both an insider and an outsider.
Belgravia is a fantastic series of photographs, intriguing and thought provoking. It is equally fascinating 37 years on from when Knorr began the series to see what seems most outmoded and from another time, in both image and words. The deluxe/futuristic 1960s/1970s moulded plastic chairs, mirrored and chrome expanding coffee tables, now look far more of the past and retro, than the classical interiors. Lamentations about the lack of ‘pink’ – ie the British Empire – on the map is not something one hears whereas, “Every morning I wake up/and do 50 push-ups/I eat muesli and wheatgerm/for breakfast/You are what you eat”, sounds far more now than then. Whilst what sounded reactionary then, “I live in the nineteenth century/the early nineteenth century/I am fascinated by/Napoleon and Metternich/two antagonists”, now doesn’t sound like too bad a place to live…!
It’s also interesting how Belgravia itself has changed in the intervening years. Although post-war many of the townhouses were no longer residential, but were embassies, charity headquarters, and offices, at the time that Knorr was photographing there were still residents of Belgravia to be photographed. With the exponential rise in London property prices and the attendant trend for properties in exclusive areas like Belgravia to be bought by international buyers purely as investments less and less people live there – as Sarah Lyall noted in her 2013 article in the New York Times, A Slice of London So Exclusive Even the Owners Are Visitors, “It seems that practically the only people who can afford to live there don’t actually want to”.
Which makes the rather poetical first text in Belgravia, which in 1979 would have sounded outdated, sound positively 19th century not 20th: “A House in Town brings much/Splendour and Comfort to a Gentleman/who must spend there the time/required for the administration/of State Affairs as well as/Patrimony and Property”.
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