What do bike messengers, graffiti artists, amateur soccer players, wild deer, and a controversial female photographer have in common? Not a lot, obviously, except for the fact that the American photographer and filmmaker Peter Sutherland has aimed his camera on them. It’s his lens that creates the cohesion. The interactions can be witnessed in GAME, Sutherland’s first retrospective, on view in MU in De Witte Dame in Eindhoven from January 26 up to and including February 25.
Sutherland, born in Ann Arbor Michigan, and raised in Colorado, has since 1998 lived and worked in New York City. A self-taught photographer, he has developed a sensitive eye and a personal style in which street and portrait photography, youth culture, and nature form an organic blend. Sutherland appears to have the gift to capture people, animals, and landscapes in images that are very direct and at the same time unaffectedly documentary. Yet in combination, these images are also capable of relating a wider-scoped narrative.
The core of GAME, Sutherland’s first large solo presentation in Europe, and one in which all the lines in his work come together, is a photo series about the Chinatown Soccer Club. The members of this casual club of young New Yorkers, of whom Sutherland himself is not one of the least fanatic members, get together three mornings a week on a plot in Chinatown to play soccer for an hour or so. Summer and winter, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at least fourteen players are competing against each other, watched by local residents and passers-by, drifters, and the older Chinese who have proclaimed the adjoining basketball court a Tai Chi temple.
Many CSC players, a mix of Americans, Asians, and Europeans, appear to be artists and designers in everyday life. After the match, they fan out to their studios and offices, not until they’ve posed for Sutherland however, because to him the camera is an equally essential part of the ‘game’ as the ball.
Sutherland’s photo series are inconceivable without his personal commitment to the Chinatown Soccer Club, and also his early morning cycle tours to the soccer plot are reflected in his work. Up to now, Sutherland’s most well-known work is Pedal, a by now classic documentary film from 2001 about the raw life of bike messengers in New York. With a mild eye and a warm heart for the maverick heroism of the gritty life on two wheels in the congested streets and alleys of a fast-paced metropolis, Sutherlands tells the story of all those boys (and girls) who hit the pedals day in day out. A mixture between underground culture and livelihood, sport and work, Pedal takes the tradition of the best skateboard films further. This has induced Powerhouse Books to publish in 2006 a box containing this documentary film together with a photo book about the 2005 Cycle Messenger World Championships in New York. In the exhibition GAME, Pedal will be on view in the Netherlands for the first time.
This is also the case with a number of portraits from Sutherland’s first book: Autograf. In the course of three years, Sutherland managed to persuade more than fifty active New York graffiti writers to pose before his lens. Mostly disguised and unrecognizable, all of them, from KAWS to Serf and from Claw to Fanta, agreed to add their tags to their portraits, which makes the link between the person and his work tighter than ever.
While the focus in Chinatown Soccer Club, Pedal and Autograf is on an entire movement, a subculture, Sutherland’s most recent documentary film (made together with writer Jack Youngelson) hones in on only one person and her family. The film, entitled The Mother Project, follows the controversial yet much acclaimed photographer Tierney Gearon over a period of three years of her life. Lasting more than sixty minutes, the film delves deeply into the mysterious bonds between Tierney, her mother, and her children, the things that bind them and the things that drive them apart. Raw and direct, Gearon appears to be an ideal subject. The result is a very personal film that breaks through the conventions of an artist’s documentary: not just talking heads, the work’s supporters and opponents, and a visit to the studios, but a journey beyond the photographs. The camera zooms in on the photographer, her working method and her sources of inspiration, the artistic issues she is struggling with, and the unconventional nuclear family that will always be the be-all and end-all of her work.
Why Sutherland has followed Gearon so intensely and for such a long period can be explained from his own passion for the personal. He too balances in his images on the boundary between the personal and the universal. The theme of his book Coming Home for instance is the rugged landscape of his native ground. Huskies and foxes, deer and fireflies, snow and mountains, hides and lumberjacks evoke an almost romantic image of the American highland, which to him still is home, even after many years in Manhattan. This publication will be followed by a second book entitled Buckshots, in which not the city but nature features prominently. The heroes in this book are deer, not people. Sutherland, however, portrays them with a similar sensitivity; and he approaches them just as closely as he approached the graffiti writers. To him, these animals aren’t just game. They are the non-domesticated, the animals that have remained free. However close they may at times approach civilization, they will never cross the boundaries. They are the ultimate spectators, always vigilant, keeping a close eye what’s going on around them. They are soft and vulnerable, but also elusive. With his Buckshots, Sutherland, departing from a similar kind of fascination, builds as it were on the nightly deer portraits from the collection of Eric Kessels.
On the occasion of the exhibition GAME, a publication containing Sutherland’s impressions and portraits of the Chinatown Soccer Club will be published by MU in collaboration with the Swiss art book publisher Nieves. The book, which counts 64 pages of full-colour photography, will be available at the exhibition.
More information on Peter Sutherland: