PHOTOGRAPHY / Early developers: McDermott and McGough focus entirely on the past. Jane Richards talked to them

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The Independent Culture
DAVID McDERMOTT and Peter McGough were unfortunately unable to appear at the opening of their first London exhibition at Hamiltons Gallery in London last Monday night. But then it's a long way to travel, across the Atlantic ocean by steamship, just for the sake of a private view and maybe one or two newspaper interviews. If they could have flown it might have been easier. But that would be difficult - they're Edwardians.

As David McDermott explains, 'The only way that we're not living as Edwardians is the fact that we are physically living in the 1990s.' They're certainly doing their best to ignore this fact. They choose to live without electricity in either of their homes, a flat in Manhattan and a house in the country, because, they explain, 'both homes were constructed in the 1830s and 40s - not intended to house electricity'. However, their studio, an enormous converted bank in Brooklyn, does have electricity, because 'it's all old electricity, installed in the 1880s - so we didn't go to the trouble of tearing it out.' Here, also, they have a telephone - an Edwardian model.

When Tim Jefferies of Hamiltons Gallery visited the studio to discuss their first London exhibition he found David McDermott in a state of some excitement, having discovered in the attic a box of old glass globes filled with fire-retardant liquid which would have been positioned above the doors of the bank in the 1880s. He was busily re-installing them. McDermott and McGough are happiest with their pony and trap in the countryside but in the city they rely on their 'old motorcar' (a 1913 Model T Ford) - their 'time-machine'.

David McDermott was 13 years old when he decided to become an Edwardian: 'I think it was when I was watching television that I became aware of other time periods beyond the one I was living in.' He took to wandering around some of the older parts of the city, mainly down-town: there he noticed old stores, run by European immigrants who had come over during the war, which were 'virtually stuck in a time-warp, selling the same merchandise they were selling 50 years ago'. He decided that he was not going to 'fall into the trap of living in the illusion of present time'. He chose the Edwardian era as an example of 'the positive past - an enlightened time' when there was less cynicism and an enormous focus on discovery and innovation: 'This was the time when man was learning to fly, for instance.'

His first move was to start dressing the part: he remembers buying his first pair of high-laced boots - 'considered pretty radical, even in the Sixties' - and by the time he met Peter McGough 12 years ago, when they set up as a photography team, he was a fully-fledged Edwardian. Now, immaculately turned out in top hats, frock-coats and high, starched, detachable collars, they vehemently deny the charge that this is all a clever marketing ploy: 'I don't think you can say that we are a gimmick,' insists McDermott, 'because we are particular about everything.' And they certainly weave an eleborate charade for the sake of a gimmick, if gimmick it is: they refuse money-making television appearances, deny themselves the comforts of modern travel and endure the daily inconvenience of cooking over cranky old stoves and reading by candle- light. They tried employing servants but have had difficulty finding anyone with the same degree of commitment. A butler who attempted to serve them tea while wearing shorts was fired immediately.

Even if the lifestyle is an affectation the effect on the artwork is undeniable. Using old plate cameras and 19th-century printing processes, they produce exquisitely crafted prints - platinum palladium (brown-tinted) and cyanotype (blue- toned) - in heavy mahogany frames. 'All our photographs are back-dated from the 1920s,' says McDermott.

Stylistically the pictures are eerily (and intentionally) reminiscent of the early work of the Photo Secession, founded in 1902 by Alfred Stieglitz 'to compel the serious recognition of photography as an additional medium of pictorial expression'. McDermott and McGough's own images, which they describe as 'conceptual', skilfully employ light and shade and an attention to form in the manner of their mentors. Witness a misty seascape, a watery, surreal reflection, a shadowy portrait and (in a lighthearted dig at the Edwardian preoccupation with the occult) a portrait of a ghost descending a staircase. But here also are echoes of the later work of the Photo Secession, realist pieces, with a cleaner, modernist style - a triptych of detachable shirt-collars, for instance.

There is something determinedly quaint about this harking back to an 'enlightened era': we are reminded of the inventions of the day - an early telephone model, for example, and an array of light bulbs. But most amusingly, a series entitled 'Experiments', recreations of a series of Edwardian parlour games, are copied from original engravings found by McDermott in a French book: 'Scientific parlour books were very popular at the time, designed to encourage ordinary people to experiment in their own homes: it was like, hey, try this one out and amaze your friends]' Included here are a glass precariously perched on three knives extending from three other glasses; a series of dominoes built up in a tower (titled 'Experience Relative to Inertia, Executed with some Dominoes'); and two glasses joined by a length of cloth ('A siphon formed with a small band of cloth, 1884').

McDermott and McGough already enjoy cult status in New York: 'We take a lot of commissions to photograph people as Edwardians,' says McDermott, 'mainly artists, art dealers and photography collectors - and their families and children.' Willis Hartshorn, of the International Centre of Photography in New York, attributes their success to the current taste for nostalgia in New York: 'People are obviously responding to a revival of old-fashioned values in these recessional times.' And if there seems to be something a little bit tacky about all this - after all, you can get an Edwardian portrait done at most theme parks these days for a lot less than dollars 3,000 a print - it hasn't affected McDermott and McGough's social ambitions. They'd like to photograph the Royal family. As David McDermott flutters, 'They'd just look so perfect in Edwardian costume.'

'McDermott and McGough' is at Hamiltons Gallery, 13 Carlos Place, W1 (071-247 9195) until 27 March.

(Photographs omitted)