As a parent of two wonderfully exhausting children, aged 2 and 4, I can attest that our home is overrun with scraps of paper, magazines, colouring books, hallway walls, backs of armchairs, the odd paperback book and table-tops littered with the visual musings of small hands: the graffiti of doodles, portraits of family members, animals and general streams of consciousness as perceived and transcribed by pre-schoolers.
As indelible as the ink they are sometimes scrawled with, these drawings are naive, primitive, simplistic, ambiguous and often requiring interpretation or explanation from their originators. At the same time, they express a free-hand, innovation of form, unburden with historic or stylistic influences. All in all, they are what every parent delights to see and experiences in the Early Years development of their children. And of course, we can all expect that little has happened to change both the artistic output of, and emotional responses to, a child’s art/drawings/visual commentaries with each passing generation of children.
But for all that, I was struck hard by the painting shown here, ascribed to the Veronese painter Giovanni Francesco Caroto in 1515. With sharp intake of breath, I experienced a compression of time unlike any other I can remember in recent memory. Within the pages of an art book in the corporate-lit shelves of a well-known bookstore chain, itself located on the sanitized grounds of the financial centre of London, is a family keepsake painting of their son portrayed with one can assume to be something of his characteristic smile and handiwork. Here is a painting, 497 years old and counting, which equates with many images that many parents would recognize, either taped to fridge doors, pinned to Mummy’s office cubical wall or included as Grandpa’s token Christmas card insert.
The painting resonates for several reasons. Primarily, the incongruity of its subject matter against the tradition of oil painting, and certainly Italian painting, of the 16th century. There are no mythological allegories, no religious connotations nor figures, no kings nor courtiers, no monied estates, no hunting scenes, no Bacchusian revelry, no still lifes. Just a child and his drawing. The lack of formality too, separates this painting from the mainstay of the time. There are also no subliminal messages inserted from extraneous items or motifs – there simply are none present. At heart, it offers a personal visage of someone loved and cherished, an inner-circle memento of a passing stage in a small life. It might even have been a post-mortum relic of a dead child. Whatever the intended use and commissioning (and let’s agree that such paintings were non-trivial items of expense and required some familial status in society), it is a powerful and emotive connection across so many passed years.
The only other notable sense of a historical life – whose, I will never truly know – that I can recall was upon seeing the hollowed, amorphous shells that once enclosed the bodies of the people of Pompeii. Seeing their fleeing, cowering, defensive poses, and understanding the pyroclastic wave that swarmed to engulf them, triggered the same sense of immediacy within me and to feel their presence, as readily as had I felt that uncomfortable warmth of a seat newly vacated by a stranger on a crowded commuter train. In both the painting and Pompeii, I lost the dissociation of time; the numbing gap of prior generations.
As aware as I am of my antecedents, from my family and those beyond any hope of tracing to my lineage – otherwise known as Everyone Else Who Lived – the idea of their prior existence is often divorced from the thought of their lives, fears, wants, loves and losses. This lovely painting has reminded me of the pasts happenings, as immediate and simultaneous as I find them today, as undoubtedly they shall continue into the future – in short: without time to age nor alter. And without changing, this defines timelessness.
I use film cameras and wet darkrooms; lit red with safelights, I stand before pools of chemistry, each allotted a coloured tray and tongs, each measured with some accuracy, all waiting in their respective ordering to receive the latest latent image-laden sheet of paper from the activities of the enlarger.
The process of using films, developing, proofing and editing, then printing out is all part of my value chain which culminates in a photograph on paper, which interests me emotionally or stimulates some other response. The process and the image are intertwined in a nexus of artistic effort, which I relish; a creative and emotional exercising of some pent-up urges. The images that result are often unrecalled; strangely familiar yet, altered in some ways beyond my experiences – I never feel that I saw that, or knew that moment (partly a result of time passing, while I accumulate rolls for a large single development session; partly a separation of direct experience of the moment recorded).
Instead, the photos show me something intimate and near to my experience, but as though they’ve passed through a sequence of overheard conversations, to become altered by inexact iterations and interpretations. This is somewhat akin to the oft-quoted line from a Garry Winogrand interview: “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”. I have discovered that I shoot and am shown what the photograph is once printed out; I see what the photograph looks like (accommodating my darkroom interpretation, controlling contrast, tonal ranges, etc) as a new viewer, as fresh to the image as a stranger.
In this realisation, I see my children as I have not experienced them in our day to day; my wife as another woman; the world as a new place constructed from familiar shapes and forms.
It seems nonsensical to try to invoke the same feelings in others: Garry can no more convey his understanding of the things he sees in photos, comparing them to his real world understanding of things, as I can bring my realisations of my photographic processes and their results. We can only tell another person what other people learn in the magic of photographing things, and only then from the first person perspective.
Now, with the photos made, my perceptions tweaked by what they show me, how to show them to others? Scan and post is a clear process: the results are the clear dissemination of what the paper holds. But the photograph is a flat paper surface, that suggests the real world it reflects. It would seem that photos of this paper reality are more fitting to convey the truth of a printed photograph, or rather not to hide or obscure the physical limits of them as simple paper products. When one sees photos in exhibitions, we suspend belief in the physical nature of the object we gaze upon, accepting a projected reality where none exists. Few displays offer the chance to recognise the photograph itself with its image (which defines it): examples are displays of early photos, of daguerreotypes for example.
As contrived as the title to this note appears, the sentiment is pure: my honest naïve question on what it means to learn from something else, to be internalised and expressed within my photos. What values and boundaries exist in cross-fertilised ideas between art forms, or more generally, venues of human expression from speech, writings, visual arts, music, design, etc.?
Inspiration can come from any source; I think that’s likely to be a true statement. But how manageable is this process? Can one actively cultivate a sense of awareness and fusion of Things Out There (I’m thinking of the art objects, the writers, the films, the political ideas,…) that bears fruit in changing, whether by osmosis or direct cognition, the ideas and ways in which I create photos?
This is a non-trivial question, so let’s be clear at the start – the answer is not written below. What I hope to develop in this commentary is a clearer idea of the problem and how it might be resolved. My problem is that I perceive my photos to lack energy and values that can be seen in others work, that I feel there is a need to reassess my thinking. And part of that assessment is the understanding that I don’t understand much about a lot, artistically speaking. The question is then: does this dearth of Art History and Contemporary Ideas 101 map to the gap in values in my photos? If I know more, have more references, see more ways of doing things, more ways of thinking and feeling about things, does it follow that my expressions – and Photos – will change (and I am allowing myself an assumption of improvement)?
Right… ummm… where do we begin to address this? One can point to the general population of Artists of Yore: all seem to have exposed themselves in greater or lesser extents to the works of others; painters on painters, writers on writers, playwrights on playwrights. They derive and expand, copy and remake anew, iterate and restate. What is less clear is the degree of influence from one genre to another: How did Jazz and Bop influence Kerouac novels? How did Picasso influence Miles Davis? How did poverty, segregation and intolerable blights on countless love-lives influence Delta Blues music? How will Piet Mondrian influence my photos?
As hard as it is to write about music, or imagery, it remains a valid purpose in order to express the inner thoughts of the listener, or viewer, who feels a need – emotional or economic – to communicate their sensory experiences in some other, presumably, more comfortable form; writers like to write after all. And so it seems with these other cross-format relationships: the valued input from some experiences that a Person senses are, for the suitably inclined, repackaged to greater or lesser degrees, and output in an alternative format. That format being the preferred, more familiar or primary form of expression of that Person.
But is this repackaging a knowing act or does it carry some middling degree of intentionality or purely subconsciously oozed? Can one read Samuel Beckett and willingly draw more abstractly or with greater interpretive meaning, on demand? Or does one immerse oneself in Art and enjoy a resultant productivity which is both altered (if one could measure oneself as if not having the preceding immersion, then deduce what has changed!) and somehow better?
Ultimately – and perhaps this is a leap of faith in the process – I do think an immersion and exposure to new ideas, other art forms, different thinking, different values and possibilities yields changes and betters the output of others. The timescales may be years, or maybe just a few days of conscious activity and experimentation. It is certainly easier to say that changes happen a posteriori with attentive and diligent application of the new ideas; in short, the willed change in behaviour leads to a true change, directly from the new experiences.
What is less clear is influence from experience where the only effort imparted by the Person is the acceptance of the new experiences: listening to that new album, going to that art show, trying the opera rather than football on Sunday. There may be no noticeable new outcome in my photos when I do not actively express those new ideas.
And maybe that is the final conclusion: the cross-fertilisation and alternative experiences of Art can only be assured of having effect when the new experiences are received openly, considered, then intentionally expressed by that Person in their chosen form of statement or announcement: their (new) dance, their (new) photos, their (new) poetry.
The nebulous notion of altered output by association – through sheer proximity to new ideas and experiences – seems altogether harder to judge to have taken effect. It certainly does not seem to occur in the sort of short timescales that a conscious effort to change will enjoy. Indeed, Art degrees are three years long for a reason! So, developments in style, taste, composition, subject matter, medium, exposures, camera formats, darkroom processes and portfolio editing would seem to prove hard to directly tie to an enlightened exposure to new things with the sort of timescales that people carry around with them to record notable events. People don’t notice their aging, just as tastes age or mature or fade.
The fact remains: to change oneself, one needs to want to change. Perhaps that is enough conscious effort that needs be applied to move to a Better place in ones productivity or output or World View. I do want to experience my changes. Towards this, I will continue to learn about others, learning from them, learning about myself. And perhaps, this chain of events will be revealed with some trace of the influences I’ll have absorbed, in newer, fresher, more energised and better-to-me-photos.
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.
Show and tell. This was a memorable activity in my school days. Bring in an object or share an experience with the other classroom children: standing up front in the class, by the blackboards, heart racing with adrenaline and shared something that interested and excited me. Questions rose in the minds of the audience, and answers were provided. A fulfilling cycle of communication on a topic I enjoyed. That made an impression – share interests and passions with others.
But as time passes, we put away such childish things. The adult emphasis to internalise ones pride and sense of accomplishment or base thrill of something dulls the senses and leaves one as an island in the great sea of Humanity, unable or unwilling to connect with others, especially in so sensitive an area as ones predilections or choices in Art, Expression and Comment.
Inner voices are hard to ignore. They present the truer self, more closely aligned to ones aspirations and goals than the exterior self on show for the masses. And my inner voice articulates my urge to regain my childhood avenue of expression. My Art, my Vision, my Expression – to share them is to be truer to others as never before in my adult life; openness of my inner expressions in this way seems to satiate an appetite for therapy and closure.
How: how to make real this desire to share with others when no formalised avenues of display or space for ones Ideas and Insights can be attained – who am I to ‘get wall space’ when I am a single unknown voice? Fame and money open doors and recognition: I have none. Cultural gatekeepers selecting and parsing ones oeuvre to filter and dilute the offerings and messages and feelings cannot be permitted. The experiment that is No Gallery offers a way forward, and one that I am delighted to be associated with.
In the coming weeks, sooner rather than later, No Gallery will attempt to make the communication of individual artists possible: a democratised presentation of the Emotions through their chosen mediums. What will happen is unwritten, like any good adventure. Rather than ‘watch this space’, No Gallery aims to make you ‘watch your space’ for unfolding events.
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
- Having the gall, but no gallery...