This is my favourite Frank Zappa quote*. The implication is, of course, that writing about music is pointless.
I used to write about music a lot, reviewing CDs or live shows mostly, but when it comes down to it someone either likes a piece of music or they don’t. Simple as that. When you really analyse Zappa’s words they’re self-defeating. By saying those words HE is effectively writing about music. So Zappa himself is saying that what he’s saying is pointless.
Is making photographs about music pointless?
Photographs are inherently silent and music inherently not. I started out in photography shooting musicians and music. Oh dear.
Here’s a photo I made of Erik Satie’s piano piece ‘Gymnopedies I’:
You can hear a recital here.
I love Satie’s work and wondered if I could somehow capture its essence visually. He’s long dead, there’s no way I could photograph the man himself, even if I wanted to. His work is mostly for solo piano, there are no words and the patterns in it seem complicated but very natural. It seems very abstract. The nonsensical titles which he shares with Aphex Twin and many modern electronic artists only add to the sense that the music is very pretty but not really about anything.
When making the image I likewise thought I was being very abstract, making a pretty pattern based on my experience of listening. I shot a few images and combined them in several ways to see what felt to me most like Satie. The simple, single image above is the one that felt right to me. Then I discovered that Gymnopedies (there are several in a numbered sequence) in turn were (probably) based on a French poem by J.P. Contamine de Latour which translates as:
Slanting and shadow-cutting a flickering eddy,
Trickled in gusts of gold to the shiny flagstone,
Where the atoms of amber in the fire mirroring themselves,
Mingled their sarabande to the gymnopaedia.
I was surprised, because to me, subjectively, that seems to be a pretty good description of the image I made. Somewhow there seems to have a communication of information going from poem->music->photograph
Am I seeing a similarity that isn’t there? I don’t know. I made several drafts when working to the above picture, one of my rejected images had reflections in it, and mirroring is mentioned in the poem. The one I selected seems to fit the poem best, but I didn’t even know there was a poem when I selected it. Here are a couple of the rejected photos (click to see larger).
Is writing about photography pointless?
Finally we get to the real entry point for this discussion. What got me thinking about this question was an exhibition I saw recently at The Great Big Empty Shop. Lots of info here. I went partly because it seemed to be in some ways a similar idea to No Gallery. I think there are far more differences than similarities but that’s another topic.
There was an exhibition of some of The Atrium’s photography student’s work and a collection of quotes by famous photographers put together by Andy Pearsall, a lecturer at the uni. (And in another coincidence I see he has some light trail photos on his Flickr stream. I wonder if they’re truly abstract?)
My two favourites there are:
“It’s one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it’s another thing to make a portrait of who they are. ” - Paul Caponigro (coincidentally most of his photos seem to be of inanimate objects).
“All photography is propoganda” - Martin Parr.
Not on the wall but a few of my favourite quotes by others are:
“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” - Henri Cartier-Bresson
“Of course it’s all luck.” - Henri Cartier-Bresson
“I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.” - Garry Winogrand.
This last is probably my favourite.
I’ve met Martin Parr, very briefly, but all he said to me was “We like flash.” Not one of the great lines, but pretty good.
While we’re on the subject, consider this image:
Let’s ‘write about it’ by giving it a few possible titles:
‘Off The Leash’ – by Martin Parr
‘Think of Llandudno’ – by Carlos Salvatori
‘Martin Parr’ – by Mei Lewis
So, what do you think? Is writing about photography pointless?
I’ve been thinking about how to display the next batch of frames we use for a No Gallery show. I thought of making cardboard stands and I’ve had a go at a prototype. (The marks inside the stand in the pictures are because I made this from some scrap paper that had something already printed on one side”.
This version is printed on photo paper which in the current design is a bit flimsy but still surprisingly strong. The advantage of using photo paper is we can print directly onto it and then simply cut around the design, and we can print the photo title/information at the same time. That’s what the rectangular panel at the front is for.
I think if I found some slightly thicker paper, enlarged the plaque area and made some of the bits, particularly the part that supports the lower edge of the frame, wider, then this may be strong enough.
A disadvantage is a piece of tape is necessary to hold the rear edges together. I thought of making some kind of tongue and slot but I don’t think the thin photo paper is sturdy enough to support that and make a good join.
The stand works in both portrait and landscape orientation.
We bumped into Alex Springer in Trafalgar Square while travelling around various bits of London distributing No Gallery Zero. We’d only placed a few pieces and were still eager for any feedback or encouragement on what we were doing.
As luck would have it Alex is also a photographer and was also just setting out on a photography related art project – ‘London Camera Style’ where he spots people in public with interesting cameras and shoots them for his blog.
Matt has a rather nice Leica M6 which caught Alex’s eye so he came up to us and rather nervously asked if he could shoot it. His shot of Matt’s camera (but not face!) and my shoe in the bottom left showed up on his blog here.
And here’s me photo of him taking the picture!
It was great meeting Alex, it made me feel No Gallery is part of a sea of interesting art/photo projects and other people really do care about this stuff.
No Gallery Zero was a success.
Less than a week ago all the pieces of an idea that’s been running around inside my head for years finally clicked.
I drifted into photography. I got a camera one birthday when I was a kid, took lots of photos (film was cheap!) but got few of them developed (developing was expensive!) and quickly gave up on my little shiny silver plastic 110 camera. It’s probably still in a box at my mum’s house with rolls (cartridges?) of undeveloped film. Even before that I remember my dad taking family photos on caravan holidays by the sea, setting the camera’s clockwork self-timer then running to stand in the photos himself. Magic.
At university I had a friend who was obsessed with photography. One day on a road trip he showed me his Minolta SLR and explained what the hundreds of buttons and dials did. It seemed impossibly complicated. Actually, perhaps my friend was obsessed with cameras rather than photography.
I bought my own SLR and within a few months I was taking photos for the university newspaper, experimenting in the darkroom and arranging jellybeans into pretty patterns to photograph.
Then I gave up. Then I started again. Then I got serious. Then I quit my job to pursue it as a career. Then, and only then, I fell in love with it.
I used to be a nerd. I still am. I like science. I like maths. I thought about becoming a research physicist but never quite got around to it. Perhaps my favourite ever book is an instruction manual for a computer programming language. I liked art at school but was steered into more academic subjects by my teachers. Years later I walked into an art school to meet a friend and instantly had, not quite an epiphany, but some kind of realization that there’s all this stuff going on and all these people and all this experimentation and play (I love play) and hey, why wasn’t I a part of this? Who tricked me into doing actual work work?!?!?!?!?
I’m trying to explain what it is I find appealing about having a gallery. A gallery (even this No Gallery) is a means of distribution. One of the joys of doing work for me is getting it out there. It’s not even the having people see it, it’s just the getting it out there. If you do the work and if you get it out where it can be seen then you’ve done your job. Whether anyone appreciates it, well, that’s up to them and frankly if they don’t like it then screw them.
You don’t need anyone’s permission or approval. It might feel like you do, but you don’t.
This is what we (me, Matt) did:
- Bought some cheap photo frames.
- Printed out half a dozen quickly chosen photos each and put them in the frames.
- Stuck labels to the back with name, title, date and a very short (too short) explanation of No Gallery.
- Travelled around London for the best part of a day on foot and by tube, dropping off the pictures at places that seemed good at the time.
- Had fun.
- Gained a new energy and enthusiasm for art generally and our own work.
Sure, it was a trial run, there were plenty of things wrong with it and there’s lots we’ll do differently next time. Part of the reason for using our own work was I wouldn’t want to exhibit some else’s until we’ve shown the worth of the whole project. And of course we both wanted our own work to be seen. Now we’ve both done our first exhibition.
No Gallery Zero was a success!
Murat Harmanlikli is evidently a photographer, poet and lyricist to the music of the soul. Uncovered on the popular Flickr.com site, his photographic images have continued to inspire me to look further and accept more in terms of subject matter, awareness to possibilities and technique. It is this last point that I feel inclined to note in this blog: his common use of blur, grain, contrast and kismet, an appropriate term for the Turkish artist.
He includes many elements that suggest freedom of movement, camera shake, slow shutters and blurred subject matter such as panned shots. His is a form of image creation where the happenstance of ‘mistakes’ and the unplanned can lift a composition to a great photo. Thinking through the visually rich selection that he permits the world to enjoy, these traits in many of his images requires me to step back and reassess my processes, my measures of success and my tolerance towards the unknown.
To comprehend the hows and wheres in his prints and to emulate or interpret them is to allow space for mistakes to enter the process. I have to release control to allow a portion of the image to take form through exactly the parts of the process that I have relinquished. There has to be a tolerance and wilful neglect towards the capture of the moments - the many instances that are implied by his images. I can think of it in practical terms: a fast shutter speed limits the window of time for uncontrolled elements to affect the image: longer speeds would permit a person to blink, a smile to fade, a light to streak and rain to fall.
For me, the act of lessening my conformist and entrenched learning that sharpness of subject is important, that balanced exposure is important, that camera shake is to be avoided, etc…. is brave. Just as my young son has recently taken his first steps without holding a hand – brave. Harmanlikli shows how one can step away from the safety of the edges and shallows and experience the flowing, swirling middle where boundaries are no longer literal containers of the resulting image. Rather, they are now merely points of reference from which to depart, from where one can grow knowing that one is not safely at home but on some darkened path through another neighbourhood where things are different.
This relaxing of control is liberating and seductive, provided it remains productive. The line between creative control and creative uncontrol is blurred – how apt. The regimented thinking I have inherited from my closed world has led me to think I see and control all when forming a photograph: previsualisations, tonal studies, spot meters, zoom lenses, juxtapositions and poigniant decisive moments. Outcomes are set before the shutter is tripped, indeed before it is thought about being tripped and the image’s fate is sealed. These confining rules towards image making as a photographer contrast with sublime genius: let the conformists define the boundaries whilst you consciously move away from their choices, towards the deep, exotic centres of creative uncontrol, careful to include carelessness.
The Zero exhibition closed last weekend, moments after it opened – as planned http://nogallery.org/zero. The process of placing objects of the participating artists in public spaces, spaces that were selected only by a desire to access a receptive audience, was tinged with excitement, tentativeness and frustration.
Engaging in such a direct way with the public, in the inverted notion of exhibiting art to be discovered and retained by the viewer, bringing the typically observational, enclosed and intimate meeting of object and viewer outside into the strangely non-gallery surroundings, had been thrilling. Yet moments afterwards, with the release of each image as an uncaged bird, each object failed to take flight immediately. They each chose to remain steadfastly static, unmoved and untouched by the masses. Patience is a virtue. Let the tea steep for a few minutes. Yet I am a thirsty man; a puppy straining at his leash. When will it happen?
The uncertainty of the unfolding event in the eyes of the viewers is part of the excitement. Had someone left these frames by accident? Was it some forgotten fruit, to be consigned to the rubbish by civic-minded anti-litterbugs? The tentativeness and reserve of people may have demoted the Found Art experience to a lesser one of Noticed, But Unengaged. Therein lies the frustration: has the experiment failed?
Certainly, a more pointed ‘instruction’ may be required on the reverse of No Gallery objects. To eliminate any suspicious adjectives of ‘lost’, ‘forgotten’ or ‘fly-tipping’, a clear pronouncement of ‘You have found this Art’ seems necessary. Add oregano, stir and serve. Instruct on how to enjoy the item.
Emboldened by the more-than-a-thought-exercise and inner stretching that No Gallery offers to the aesthetic couch-potato, the endorphins aroused in this human have shown how the availability of an audience can make ones Art worth pursuing. Expression requires Reception – private air guitar is empty without the warm pulse of a viewer. My equivalents to air guitar have been sampled, and that is enough to suppress my inner-doubts and allow me to continue to risk failure.
What Is This Blog?
News about No Gallery, details of exhibitions etc.
I’m going to try to be as open as possible about the No Gallery process so a lot of work-in-progress will be shown here.
Recent Blog Posts
- How art can define timelessness
- Photos of prints that are photos
- Reading into Paintings, Drawing from Poems
- "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture."
- DIY Art Stands V0
- Interesting Person #1: Alex Springer
- No Gallery Zero: the perfect is the enemy of the good
- Creative control : an oxymoron?
- Post-visualising the Zero exhibit