James Collins

James Collins, Study for Domestic Dialogue 3, color photograph, 77 by 102 cm., 1977. From "James Collins," Giancarlo Politi/ICA, 1978.

The films and photographs that James Collins produced in the 1970s were very much of their moment: like other proponents of so-called Story Art (an overlooked movement that deserves more attention) such as Bill Beckley, Mac Adams and Peter Hutchinson, he created explicitly narrative images in a photographic-based practice. At the same time, a lot of the things Collins made and said in the 1970s are strikingly prescient of art and attitudes that would emerge in the following decade in the work of artists such as Richard Prince and Jeff Koons.

In other ways, however, he was dangerously out of step with the artworld of the 1970s and the subsequent decade. After a brief phase as a Conceptual artist, the British-born artist (he moved to New York in 1970) ran afoul of Art & Language who accused him of betraying Conceptual art through the “sycophancy” and “opportunism” of his early ‘70s writings for Artforum. From a feminist perspective, Collins’s ‘70s work, which consists almost exclusively of films and photographs of the artist staring at attractive young women, can look like one long, unapologetic, unredeemable celebration of the male gaze. It didn’t help that Collins’s modus operandi was to approach attractive women in the street, introduce himself as an artist and ask them to participate in his work. In a neat case of coincidence or zeitgeist, Laura Mulvey’s influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” which critiqued the operation of the male gaze in Hollywood films, was written the very year (1973) that Collins commenced his voyeuristic, fetishistic pictures and published the year (1975) of his first solo shows.

Page from "James Collins," Giancarlo Politi/ICA, 1978, details from three 1975 color photographs reproduced in black and white.

A typical Collins image of the time features the artist looking at a woman who in turn is looking at the camera. Usually the photo or film is framed to show only the head and shoulders of both figures, who are nearly always separated by a large spatial interval. The settings sometimes involve red or blue walls (consciously inserting the image by this lapsed painter into the history of abstraction), custom-built shelves for carefully chosen objects (display was as important to Collins as it would be to Haim Steinbach) and framed pictures arranged in a grid. In his exterior shots, Collins tends to abut disjointed views of the space between himself and his female subject to create a kind of still-image jump cut effect.

The photographs are prints made from individual frames of Super-8 films. Collins did some of the color processing himself, to keep down production costs. In a fascinating essay titled “The Importance of Not Being Earnest About Photography,” Collins describes operating processing drums and his ambition to make “house-size photos.” He also notes how grainy images and artificial color are among the  “delightful consequence(s) of big color prints enlarged from Super-8 film.”  As obsessed with the esthetics and technology of advertising as he was with beautiful women, Collins may have been the first artist to annex the kind of glossy media imagery that Richard Prince is usually credited for appropriating. I can’t help wondering if Prince read the paragraph in “The Importance of Not Being Earnest About Photography” praising Marlboro cigarette cowboy billboards as “20th century photography of great emotional power.”

Collins often combined projections and photos into freizelike compositions. A 1976 installation titled Watching Lauralee on the Beach (one of several works with a similar title) involved six super-8 projectors and a six-panel photowork of stills from the projected films. In an interview with Sarah Kent, who curated a 1978 Collins show at the London ICA (the catalogue, copublished by the ICA and Giancarlo Politi, is my chief source for information about Collins; there’s also a good essay on him in Robert Pincus-Witten’s 1977 book Postminimalism.), Collins sounds like Jeff Koons avant la lettre: “My intentions are to make an art which is accessible; which deals with a recognizable content, which doesn’t use opaque verbal language. . . . At the moment I’m after international recognition both in and out of the artworld, so that I can have outlets for my work and financial recompense. For me money is energy—money allows me to work, and buys me time—and assistants—to do more.”

In 1978, very few artists were speaking so candidly about money, about their desire for it; and very few were appropriating the visual language of fashion photography; or making big color photographs, and glamorous-looking film projections. It may have been James Collins’s bad timing to be a premature postmodernist. Yet his work is not only of interest because of what it foretells; the works are visually and conceptually complex, and, along with the work of Marcel Broodthaers and Cindy Sherman, perhaps the most interesting attempt to engage cinema in visual art in the 1970s. As for Collins’s potentially embarrassing voyeurism, it may be its very blatancy, the fact that the voyeur is compelled to include himself in every image rather than rely on an implied male gaze, that saves it from being a mere exercise in objectification.