An Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Scotland
The exhibition ‘Coming Clean’ (Nationalgalleries.org,2017) by Graham MacIndoe is showing at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. It consists of 25 photographs taken by MacIndoe when he was suffering from drug addiction in the USA. MacIndoe was born in Scotland and moved to the USA and then became a much admired fashion and portrait photographer, however he developed a drug addiction, initially to crack cocaine and then to heroin. He said in an interview “I’ve gotta be honest and say I wasn’t concerned, because I was so far down that path with crack cocaine at that point that it didn’t seem to make that much of a difference to me. It was just throwing something else into the mix that I thought could enhance it and make the experience better — which is a crazy way of thinking about it. But I thought, I’m keeping myself level. It’s like people who drink and get all slurry and do a line of coke to straighten themselves up. It was a counter of that. I needed something to level me out, and alcohol is never going to do that because you’d have to drink too much. Heroin did that efficiently, but it leads to heroin addiction — or it leads to a duel addiction, crack and heroin.” (Stellin, 2014). While he was an addict and no longer able to work, he decided to take photographs of his daily routine of drug use age and it is some of these images that are on show together with a brief video describing his thought processes.
A more detailed story of his life while a drug addict and afterwards when he ended up in prison, is in a book by MacIndoe and his partner Susan Stellin, Chancers (Stellin and MacIndoe, 2016. In the book, Stellin describes how she discovered the MacIndoe was an addict and also how she found a collection of these images on-line ‘Every photo is tinged with despair. Hopelessness. Waste. Maybe the point is, “So you wanted to see? Here it all is.” And then we’re supposed to feel sick over our voyeurism, because maybe we didn’t need to see that after all’.
MacIndoe talks about his life in Riker’s Island prison and says ‘I’d love to be able to photograph what it’s like in here. Not just the shitty parts about being locked up, but there are times when you can still appreciate the way flashes of lightning illuminate the dorm or the sun comes through the slats of the windows. Like tonight—the sunset is casting these bands of orange and yellow light across the walls and the shadows of people passing by make it look almost like a painting.’ He also talks about being an addict ‘Coz to be honest, I’m tired of being an addict. It’s not something I ever thought I would be & it surprises, angers & saddens me to see how it got me and where it took me. I had no idea that it was so powerful.’
MacIndoe ‘describes the presence of an “innate, built-in thing that you have to record stuff and see stuff, I still saw and visualised like a photographer or artist. I saw light, environment, what I was going through in the abstract, sometimes in the third person. A lot of the pictures involve looking through mirrors or me in a non-direct manner. To me, it was totally instinctive. I was looking through things on computer screens, and really looking at myself. There’s a picture in the National Portrait Gallery, that’s actually a desk with an old, crummy laptop on it. So I’ve taken a picture of me on an old laptop in the apartment I was staying in.”’(Benmakhlouf, 2017) and in an interview in the Scotsman “I think it’s really important for me that it’s this body of work. The pictures always resonate with people, and people always come away changed in some way. I think that’s what art and image-making is really about. It’s been a long, long time in the making, and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge.” (Mansfield, 2017).
This a stunning exhibition in many ways, the images are raw and shocking, surprisingly powerful. While I was there a group of teenagers were also there, clearly horrified and covering it up by giggling among themselves. It makes one think of the impact of drug addiction on the user, rather than the more usual response which is to think of the impact on society.
In the book, Chancers, MacIndoe carries on to tell how, on his ‘release’ from Riker’s Island he was immediately picked up by the American Immigration Authorities and re-imprisoned, while being threatened with deportation back to Britain as he was living in the USA on a green card, and had committed a crime. During that second prison stay he underwent an intensive programme of drug rehabilitation and ended up clean.
He has gone on to do a body of work related to this experience, ‘American Exile’ where he photographs and tells the stories of other families who are being deported, often for minimal reasons.
This interested me for personal reasons as, in a little-known piece of USA history, (Nolte, 1979), during the 2nd World War many Germans and Japanese were interned and then deported together with their whole families. My grandfather was one of these Germans.
Images posted with permission of, and thanks to Graham MacIndoe
Benmakhlouf, A. (2017). Graham MacIndoe on his new Edinburgh exhibition: The Skinny. [online] Theskinny.co.uk. Available at: http://www.theskinny.co.uk/art/interviews/coming-clean-graham-macindoe [Accessed 22 May 2017].
Grahammacindoe.com. (2017). [online] Available at: https://www.grahammacindoe.com/ [Accessed 2 May 2017].
Mansfield, S. (2017). Interview: Photographer Graham MacIndoe. [online] Scotsman.com. Available at: http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/art/interview-photographer-graham-macindoe-1-4406856 [Accessed 2 May 2017].
Nationalgalleries.org. (2017). Graham MacIndoe | Coming Clean. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/graham-macindoe-coming-clean?destination=exhibitions/current [Accessed 2 May 2017].
Nolte, H. (1979). The Rejection of German Ethnocentrism in the United States. Thesis, Princeton University
Stellin, S. (2014). My Addiction, Through My Eyes. [online] NYMag.com. Available at: http://nymag.com/news/features/heroin-graham-macindoe-2014-2/index1.html [Accessed 2 May 2017].
Stellin, S. and MacIndoe, G. (2016). Chancers.