A human crib sheet, Bacons model wrestlers, and crime scenes real and imagined a new show at the Michael Hoppen gallery examines documentary photography in all its complexity
There is a quiet power to Simon Norfolks black-and-white study of what looks like an ordinary staircase in a nondescript house. What strikes you first in this photograph which features in a new exhibition called ? The Image as Question is how the light plays on each polished surface: the gleaming handrail and pristine skirting board, the gloss-painted wall. It is then you notice that the surface of each stair is not straight but gently curving, worn by the footsteps of those who have walked down them over the years.
The French thinker Roland Barthes identified what he called the punctum: the crucial, often accidental, detail of a photograph that reveals something deeper. The curve of the worn stairs is not an accidental detail in Norfolks photograph, but the crucial element in the composition that, as Barthes put it, rises from the scene with a force that makes it suddenly seem like a new photograph. Those who walked down these stairs, leaving the imprint of their vast numbers, were heading towards their deaths in the gas chambers at Auschwitz. It is a photograph that evokes horror in the most subtle and affecting way.