By today’s standards I came late to photography, growing up in the days before cell phones, I never had that immediate access to a camera like we have now, and so I didn’t think, or ever could have dreamed, that a photograph could ever be just a slight, throw away digital file. I began to “make” photographs when I was about eleven years old mainly using a small, very cheap, camera that I bought from Boots the Chemist which costed about the same as a hardcover book. It was a miraculous object, using 35 millimeter film, having all the essential controls; a focus ring on the lens, choices of aperture and shutter speeds through spindly aluminum knobs; it had the essence and characteristics of a real camera, if not the quality, and was soon to become an invaluable learning tool. The price for all this education could be high sometimes and it wasn’t unusual to get the negatives back only to find half of the pictures were over or under exposed, and sometimes in a complete blur. But that was the point, it was almost a toy, and mistakes were a necessary component of the learning. Quite quickly I assumed the cloak of a sophisticate, particularly with regard to the deliberately (or not so deliberately) out of focus ones, ridiculously I claimed artiness, and made the effort and paid the relatively high price of having them enlarged rather than discarded, doubling down on pretentiousness. It’s a practice that I still employ, my favorite photographs are the ones I understand the least and trouble me most, they exist on the cusp of being moved to that little trash can on my computer screen.
In those days, you didn’t just take photographs, you made them. Thanks to a light proof bag in which you broke apart the film canister like you were breaking an egg, rolled the loose film inside the spiral interior of a processing tube and then poured into it developing and then fixing fluid washed out with plenty of water before revealing your black and white negatives. These would be excitedly scanned, searching the small images revealed by a back light for some form of visual magic. Edwardian in its ingenuity and equipment, the chemical smell is unforgettable and the mix could be precarious, the dexterity required led to a sense of achievement each time the process was successful. No longer needing these skills takes away big part of the enjoyment away, and it’s not so surprising that some younger artists now are re-exploring film and older artists never moved into the digital world.
It seems like audacity to say that even at that young age I recognized that photographs didn’t simply record memories, but were also capable of capturing moods. I quickly got bored of the photograph-as-a-record, an image of a place visited…and I was left with endless black and white photographs of chateaux’s taken over the summer holidays and the grimy streets of Paris without knowing what to do with them. Sure, I could show my bored friends and paste them into a book, but what then? In time, and on future visits to France, I took pictures of that city with a deliberately slow shutter speed so the result would be unclear, out of focus, revealing chance unplanned movement. These accidents could be wonderful in their way and it was not difficult to elevate them to something special, at least within the rudderless, dreaming, drifting confines of my own mind. But who did I think I was? A little later, as a teenager and then as young adult, I would be back on the Streets of Paris, once or twice with a girlfriend in tow, but I preferred being alone with my camera, now elevated to an Olympus OM-1 declaring my seriousness to the world.
Evenings in an English suburban library had exposed me to the great mainly French and American Street photographers and I allowed myself to be seduced by them, what could be better to wander through the urban underbellies, casting sophisticated judgement, capturing a moment of time…and it seemed so easy. Part of the allure of street photography was it gave travel a purpose, something to do as I walked endlessly through city streets, exploring their rougher working class districts and dangerous alleys, critiquing their apparent danger and authenticity. If you had asked then, that one day in the future – thanks to Mary – I would be riding the Parisian Metro with a large box of cookies with the prominent bold East European handwriting broadcasting its consignee; Henri Cartier Bresson, I would never have believed you.
It was a romantic idea, to be a photographer, but it was also a corny one. Not so long ago I saw a Woody Allen film called Vicky Cristina Barcelona which featured a character played by Scarlett Johansson, a budding photographer who had illustrated her credentials by ditching digital and adopting film camera’s instead, and who rambled through the lovely, apparently endlessly photogenic streets of that city randomly stopping, pointing the camera upwards and earnestly capturing an image. We were told by the voice over that she was a “talented photographer”, and therein lay the problem for me, what was she taking that was so interesting? We all do it now, reach for our phones when we see something out of the ordinary or iconic when we travel, but for what? Share it on Instagram or Facebook as yet another boast of the mobility, wealth and fascination of our lives I suppose. It doesn’t make us talented photographers though.
Like most art forms the practice of photography splinters and mends itself almost continually. There are the photographs which are simply tools to support a larger conceptual narrative and there are the photographs which are the end in themselves, objects of beauty, whatever that may be. Taking an interesting photograph gets harder and harder, we have all become curators, we learn to sensor ourselves based on content and volume, particularly when we decide to post them in front of the harshest judges around, our friends. Strange things happen. We acquire “friends” that we have never met, nor are likely to meet, and lose friends. We don’t see them anymore in the real world, instead now only through their much more glamorous exploits, seen through the little oblong portal in our hands. The images we create and words we write risks unwanted communion, not just the woman with the perfect body, revealed in greater detail as the summer progresses, or too little, a message or comment ignored by a close friend. Worst of all is when posting an arresting image that gets little to no response, I hear the sniggering and discouragement, and conclude it is best not to enter this minefield unless you are strong willed, thick skinned and willing to learn how to navigate it, but I delete followers like a professional assassin and take a solitary walk full of pugnacity and emptiness, forgetting to ask why all this might mean so much.
The photographers I admire are those who manage to trigger memories, tease out emotions and take risks. Typically they do this by pushing new ideas and expanding our understanding of beauty, which is a combination of visual intelligence and intellectual inquiry, helping us to understand the world a little better.
The first of these is Saul Fletcher whose show at Anton Kern I was reluctantly taken to one late spring afternoon, already tired and having seen enough art for one day. When I left the gallery the world shifted a little on its axis. His work is relatively small in scale but packs huge emotional power, the images are varied, they are sometimes of himself, sometimes small tableaux’s that might include commonplace objects or dead animals, others might contain a dog or a girlfriend, and typically with his rough Twomby-esque studio wall as a backdrop. He is a self-taught artist whose first photographs of Lincolnshire are in possession of despairing moods, in some cases they may represent the simplest of images but are never the less completely relatable, they capture the English countryside with their heavy, dense blocks of land, wisps of tree’s, a sky with clouds pregnant with rain. The still lives are equally as forlorn and contain the slightest objects that seem to swell in stature, their morbid associations and fragmentation suggesting the loneliness and interior life of the artist. There is sophistication in his strategies and alchemy, big themes emerge from these small scale pieces; fear of death, the rawness of love, food, loneliness, life’s building blocks. The show haunted me, and his work still does, it is intelligent and sensitive, if one day I take a photograph half as good I will be happy, I left his show paradoxically full of both optimism and envy, with a new resolution to try harder, and to endeavor never to take photographs which would obviously be a second rate versions of his.
Masao Yamamoto is a Japanese photographer who also creates moody, lovely images. He is known for his small scale landscapes and interior shots. Quite often there are images of birds and his small black and white images of Owls, at least partially, inspired me to photograph the same, but admittedly with different motives and very different outcomes. His work is particularly Japanese, celebrating its modesty and imperfections; he is known to carry them in his pockets so they become aged and creased, and at other times he adorns them with hand applied gold paint. Like Fletcher they are frequently small in scale – forcing you to look closely, creating, or demanding some intimacy with you.
Inexplicably I’m rarely angry at photographers in the same way that I can be with artist using other mediums, and cannot name too many that offend me. I love the landscapes made by Richard Billingham on a medium format camera, breaking away from his previous intense body of work centered round his own working class family. The wide ranging and forward looking experiments and body of work by Wolfgang Tillman’s is courageous and wonderful. I’m drawn to Nan Goldin’s for much the same reason as I am to Peter Hujar, for being unfortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time in history and to document it with insight and sensitivity. I’m less moved by artifice and intellect; the Gurski’s and the Jeff Walls that we are all supposed to like, the brainy but cold school of Bernd and Hilla Becher.
My own photographs (I will never call them “work”) are all over the place, or at least that is what I used to think. It was only over the course of a few days, when I selected a few of my favorites for a new space on the internet, http://www.nmanson.com did I find that they have formed patterns and adapted themselves to categorization which oddly gives me both hope and concern, as this is what is demanded by the outside world. Hope, because I might one day join a club where an image, or grouping of images, becomes recognizable as my own, and doubt for the same reason, creating self-imposed boundaries. At the same time I am questioning myself, do I really have such ambitions? my inner critic scoffs even at such minor goals. But all this is reductive, I must confess to no real understanding of how photography is seen in the academic world, which I know exists. Photographic theories are pronounced, books are written and symposiums created to reveal motives, to understand and predict impulses, to make stars out of its critic’s. I Just take pictures without asking why. If I am pushed (I am not) I might say that my own impulses are rather simplistic, moving in three directions; landscapes which are typically dominated by an empty road or path ahead, street photography capturing images of the homeless and undone, then images of birds that are either in the wild or in an interior setting. But how to begin to rationalize, to explain (let alone promote) such romanticized, cliched imagery?
The landscapes have two things in common, they are depopulated and they have a path or road ahead offering a question; is it an optimistic, hopeful image suggesting good things ahead, or could it be a despairing image, one of leaving something bad behind? A slice of movement, a sense of forward motion has always been a catalyst for my own creativity such as it is; I need to be pushed and pulled in order to write, any self-critique or contemplation seems to require the assistance of a train, plane, and a country footpath or city street. At first I thought of these images of paths as a coincidence, never purposefully setting out to take photographs in this manner, but I realize more and more that it is our subconscious pressing the shutters.
The pictures from the street, whether they are torn posters, newspapers in gutters or drunk and homeless people are problematic. I’ve already set them forward to be judged in the courtroom of the internet and have been found guilty. There is a moral conundrum that prevents us taking pictures of homeless people on the street, those distressed feeling no hope, those hugely vulnerable…..and the idea that a comfortable, middle class photographer would be stealing something else from them is more than a little horrific. Yet there is something comically performative in this dubious, incorrect behavior on so many levels, fearful of offending and sometime failing spectacularly, receiving disparaging looks from both the subjects and passerby’s. I am too amazed by the abandonment, a lack of social filter that permits them to be lying on the burning sidewalk on a scorching summer’s afternoon, using the little money they have to buy some gin or vodka and be indifferent to the world around them, being present in their own squalor, an outsiders status; I feel something close to envy. I’m also alert to the timeless visual beauty of the pose, and I suspect that I’m ridiculed when I say that I see Caravaggio, Rubens and Manet when I walk down 38 st, but the truth is that there is elegance to be seen in the figures on the streets and on the faces of the people. I see this also on the torn bill boards and fly posters pinned to city furniture. They suffer the fate of time, of wind and rain, of city workers clumsy attempts to remove them and so they gain a rich patina. I only recently learned about the photographer Lee Jeffries who has made a career out of living amongst homeless people and taking arguably quasi-religious images of them, wisely he shares some of the money he makes supporting homeless causes, he knows how to do the right thing. His work walks a weird tightrope, with exceptional on one side and overly sentimental on the other
Finally, the birds, and owls in particular, here the ambiguity is less difficult to decipher. Just as horror and bewitchment can be found on the city streets, hope and despondency within a country path, life’s enigmas are even more apparent in the wild. I am always amazed at the reaction to an image of an owl which for many of us, schooled by a cities safe nurturing, seems cute or charming. They are killing machines of the highest order and terrorize woodlands and fields. I have seen for myself the breathtaking sight of an owl fly directly at me and land on my thigh, digging its claws through my jeans but not quite breaking my skin. It is redundant to say they are extraordinary creatures or to comment on their physical perfection, it is enough to say that there is a reason they occupy such spiritual and fearful positions within ancient societies. Also interesting is the fact that several people have told me recently that they live with an owl nearby, rarely seen, but always heard and they are comforted by its soft hooting calls at night and in the morning. These sounds, we are told by naturalists, are both a warning to keep out of its territory or an invitation to mate, this academic hedge I sense illustrates just how little we know of their mysterious ways.