If I were to analyse a still life by Paul Cézanne, it would not occur to me to discuss the history of the apple. That we are entering into a discussion on the anatomy of firearms with respect to the photography of Prudence Murphy speaks to a key difference in the medium. How something has been painted is often a more interesting subject than what has been painted but the same is rarely true for photography.

The technical beauty of Murphy’s work, the beauty of exactness, the terrible beauty she evokes from these weapons, so finely-rendered, images which at sudden moments trigger sublime thoughts, or conversely, trigger an almost meditative state, lulling you away from the violence of the intellectual concerns that first preoccupied.

Detective Special invites us to look at guns, to share our love of them and our dread of them. A lesser artist would not have been up to this; there are too many tropes. Art rarely suffers an agenda. It is only through the grace of Murphy’s unwavering gaze that we can contemplate these firearms without a slant. Here is the gun component, deadly yet sculptural, deus ex machina, ever so still. As Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “the condition of true naming, on the poet's part, is his resigning himself to the divine aura which breathes through forms.” Only an artist can hold a subject still enough for long enough to ignite our attention.

Like a non-judgemental parent, Murphy analyses the rifle and the pistol, breaking each gun into a series of parts and photographing the pieces separately. Unmistakably respectful and attentive to her subject matter — as we might do well to be — Murphy explores the luminosity of the thing itself, arranging her compositions with edge and with lyricism. Images of half guns with their barrels removed, negative and positive space held in contention, engaging with the viewer’s imagination to complete the picture. Violence, interrupted. The Yin and the Yang of it all, the pearlescence of the cylinder. Trigger guard, floating in its own vast space.

‘To-day we have naming of parts’ wrote Henry Reed in his poem set amid the context of a rifle lesson during the Second World War: ‘Yesterday, we had daily cleaning. And to-morrow morning, we shall have what to do after firing. But to-day, to-day we have naming of parts.’

Scope, Grip, Stock…

For exhibition purposes, the work installs in sets of twos, threes, fours, and fives. Murphy rearranges the photographs, aligning them in different sequences and snapping them together to form entirely new weapons, the morbidly playful weapons of Murphy’s invention. But despite these strange cuts, dissections and fantastic mutations, the collection maintains its integrity, its wholeness. Formal, ordered, perfectly-proportioned: if the images were not so stylish, it would be tempting to call them forensic. Murphy’s palette shows restraint.

Shot with an analogue, medium-format camera, the creation of Detective Special was an exacting process. Murphy photographed over three hundred toy gun fragments before beginning the procedure of editing, reshooting, and narrowing her final selection.

Detective Special compares well with the body of work titled Contraband by American artist, Taryn Simon (2010). Like Murphy, Simon is inspired by "the old itch to cut into the quick of things, to delve into the dark of what was hidden – to know." (Benjamin Black, The Silver Swan)

Stationed behind the customs barrier at New York’s JFK airport for a five-day period, Simon photographed every confiscated item as it came through. The resulting images are fascinating, not for the way they’ve been shot but for their content: locust tree seed, ginger root, deer tongues, cow urine, Cohiba cigars, 24 packets of Egyptian cigarettes, toy AK-47 with protective goggles, and so on.

Murphy chose not to centre her objects against the blank backdrop as Simon had done, and a comparison of the effects of this decision highlights an important quality of Murphy’s – the element of surprise that she brings to the composition without disrupting any of the lines of the invisible grid that both artists are working to.

I am reminded of Edward Weston’s catchphrase on composition as being ‘the strongest way of seeing it’. Both Murphy and Simon investigate the process of smuggling and yet – even from behind the barrier – Simon fails to draw in close enough. The pleasure and the fear of seeing all the different parts arrive, the effect of the non-sequential series, are they real gun components or are they toys? Detective Special retains its mystery.

Murphy explains that the title for her show came from a broken toy gun she found kicking around the house a few years ago. ‘I always thought this gun was just a toy gun and not based on a specific gun. To discover that “Detective Special” wasn’t a made-up invention for children, that it was in fact a replica of the Colt “Detective Special”, a concealable pocket revolver of the day, introduced in 1927 for plain-clothes detectives - I was so excited to discover this.’

Having viewed one of the initial works for this series, Stock, in the Bowness Prize, I visited Prudence in her studio and was astonished to see how small the original toy guns that she was photographing were, how light, and how plastic. Here in Detective Special they look solid, almost dangerously real, but to pick them up and turn them over, to look at them in the small of your hand, so tiny. Small arms for small arms?

Toy guns are conspicuous by their absence in the U.S. National Toy Hall of Fame, and there are no real guns in the collections of any of the wonderful design museums around the United States either. American museum curators see this omission as regrettable since weapons like the Kalashnikov AK-47 and the 3D-printed ‘Liberator’ have been included in the collections of major European institutions such as the Design Museum and the V&A in London.

Currently, curators around the world are putting together commemorative exhibitions to mark the centenary of World War I. It is interesting to see how the history of toy guns and world wars intertwine. The pop gun was invented during the Civil War in America, for example. In World War I, Britain made more toy soldiers than real ones. We fight. They fight. Germany divides itself into two and reports show that literally overnight, German children started to shoot each other over the garden wall. War games aren’t merely pretexts for running around shouting ‘Bang! Bang!’ and dying in dramatic ways.

By showing us a new way of looking at guns, Detective Special uses the medium of photography at its elemental best. Placing this much white space within each image, this much silence, marks the intelligence that lies beneath the work of Prudence Murphy. This is the part of the gun that goes BANG! And here is the place we fall silent.

Alice McCormick, 2014

Alice McCormick is the director of Rare Illustrated Books, arts journalist and author of The Artist's Lunch.