Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Provincial or metropolitan?

... local or exotic?

Over the years I seem to have built up a fairly strong conviction that much of the best photography is not done in exotic locales, but rather in ordinary places - not because we tend to know them best, but precisely because we don't know them that well. Most of us (taking N. America and much of Europe for a broad swath) don't live in ancient hill towns or on the edge of a slot canyon - or even in a lovely country village (sure a few do, but probably not the majority).

Rather we inhabit suburbs or messy cities, with strip malls and housing estates and waste land and often not very well kept parks and canals (Manchester Ship Canal not the Grand Canal...) and so on. Now certainly a lot of those places are actually quite pleasant to live in - satellite extra-urbs with wide clean streets and fenced lots and local playgrounds for example. It's not all dark satanic mills - not these days (okay I have a massive oil refinery less than 10 minutes away). But neither is it a villa in Tuscany.

Yet we are often drawn to travelling to such "exotic" places to make photographs. Certainly it can and does produce beautiful and fascinating work (Geoffrey James' Italian Villas and Compagna Romana for just two). But so can focusing on that which is often right under our noses, yet which frequently falls below our level of perception. Indeed I have a feeling that such work is often more rewarding.

The Guardian L.S. Lowry lecture - The proud provincial loneliness of LS Lowry - has sparked a few discussions (here and here) about provincialism and art which seems to intersect with all this at some points:

"It means making an artistic decision to be out of step.... See that through to its logical conclusion and provincialism becomes an artistic strategy: not a misfortune of birth or temperament, but a wilful rejection, not simply of metropolitan fashion and facility, but of the very idea of a gravitational centre. You haunt the margins because the margins are where independence and originality are to be found...

But there is a price to be paid for this particular ambivalence. Where you do not attach an unambiguously, not to say transparently high value to yourself and to your work, others will have difficulty locating it. It is a sad fact about readers and lookers that they need to be told what a thing is worth and will often take art at the artist's own valuation. Lowry did not hold his work in disesteem, but in its presentation, in its apparent subject matter, in the titles he gave it, in the contrary and sometimes dismissive narratives in which he obscured both his ambitions and his achievements, he not only refused all suggestions of the highest seriousness, not to say grandeur, but made it difficult for others to see or describe that grandeur for themselves.

Only think of the artistic strategy of the conceptualists - a Damien Hirst title, say: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living - and compare it with Landscape in Wigan or Industrial Scene, Ashton Under Lyne. It's true that Hirst punctures his own inflated self-importance with irony, but in an age of irony that only adds to the self-importance. Just because conceptualism plays with portentousness, that doesn't mean it is not portentous. And because it says it is about ideas, it ipso facto IS about ideas.

Thus is seriousness in contemporary art, simply frivolity in another guise. Lowry was the polar opposite of this, making modest claims for what he did, presenting himself and his ambitions in a way that belied the real accomplishment of the art itself..."

I wrote all this a couple of days ago, and today read this on Mark Hobson's Landscapist about his loathing of the quest for the idealised form:

"...But, I have come to understand consciously what I have always understood intuitively - that what really gnawed at my craw was/is the fact that most of the pictures which pissed me off had nothing to do with 'real' life. Most of the pictures, in fact, stood/stand in direct contrast to 'real' life.

In wallowing in the fields of "idealized forms', they refute and devalue the realities of everyday life.

You know the life I mean. The one which you live each and every day. The one with the dust balls under the bed with the sagging mattress. The one with toil and trouble. But, it is also the one with joy and happiness which comes from 'some things money can't buy' - things that can be experienced only by looking life square in the eye and, for lack of a better term, embracing and dealing with it.

Now, when it comes to picture making and picture viewing, many seem to think that pictures which depict 'real' life are somehow 'ugly' and 'depressing'. They fail to make even the slightest effort to find the beauty in truth. Better to escape into the realm and easily grasped false hope of 'idealized forms' than to 'work' at finding true hope in all which surrounds one's self."

which also seems to tie into this whole thing.

(Struan Gray)


mikepeters said...

Tim, thank you for a great blog and enlightening discussion.

The bulk of my personal work over the past 30+ years, 99%, was shot within 20 miles of my front door. I have often felt that it is the greater challenge to shoot what you live instead of constantly travelling to exotic locations and events.

I am dedicated to seeing and being moved by what others are unconscious of on their daily rounds. When I do travel, I eschew the obvious and look for the mundane. To me the prize is when I can see under the surface and grasp the common and real. Then I know I have something.

I suppose that this says more about me as a person and photographer than I can truly articulate. I embrace who I am and strive to be authentic, and concede originality to those with a greater need to be noticed.

Anonymous said...

I'm definitely another believer in the idea of photographing the ordinary. I've become increasingly suspicious of the extraordinary (which I think, for example explains you discomfort with Burtynsky).

But somehow the interesting photographs always have some kind of ability to find something exceptional within the ordinary.

BTW: I assume the first photograph in this post and the photograph in the 'Democratic Image' post are yours? Both are superb examples of finding that something 'interesting' in the ordinary.


tim atherton said...

BTW: I assume the first photograph in this post and the photograph in the 'Democratic Image' post are yours? Both are superb examples of finding that something 'interesting' in the ordinary.

thanks - yes they are

btw, you can click on the one in this post now for a slightly bigger view

and I haven't seen it yet, but there should be a spread of some of these in the new edition of (artists) "Notebook" that's out in Edmonton this week (no idea how well they came out as I missed the launch party and seeing a copy yet...)

Stan B. said...

It really depends on what you're attracted to. I grew up in NYC, the envy of millions of photographers worldwide, and great as it is, I grew increasingly frustrated and claustraphobic there. I lusted for an horizon line, some semblence of three dimensional space, an expanse of sky wider than a two degree strip-not that I'm Ansel Adams mind you.

Even Lee Friedlander made mention of how you must throw out your conventional compositional guidelines when photographing there, for much the same reason(s). And I'm happy to say that my photography has, in fact, increased since moving to San Francisco, although traveling anywhere (and I do mean anywhere- even Jersey) gets my mind and instincts revitalized and energized to see things anew...

Ed said...

Great topic! Sometimes I like to remember that whatever we think of as local at a particular moment could be seen as "exotic" to a lot of other people in the world. It just depends how you look at it. I love it when you have the feeling that you're traveling in an unfamiliar place when you are in the town that you grew up in or any place that you may have thought you knew everything about.

Anonymous said...

I agree that photography done in ordinary places is often more rewarding than that done in exotic locales. When I began with photography, in the early nineties, I admired the work of photographers like Koudelka or Salgado. As years went by, my attention gradually gravitated towards another kind of photography, which can also be thought of as documentary, but which doesn't follow so closely the tradition of classic photojournalism (with its love of the exotic). I may be wrong, or perhaps that's just what happened to me, but I think it's easier and more straightforward to fall in love with Salgado or Cartier Bresson, and that you have to have been some years absorbing the medium before you really grasp and enjoy and fall for the work of the likes of Eggleston and Stephen Shore. That's the place were I am right now.

I echo Ed's comment that what we think of as local and mundane can be exotic to a lot of people, and add: it can also become exotic to us. It certainly involves a lot of looking. I guess that taking our own surroundings for granted is necessary to survive, whereas looking every single thing that comes across as if you had just fallen from Mars can be a bit overwhelming. But I have found that a little of the latter is quite liberating. I tend to switch "modes" as the occasion requires...

Anonymous said...

BTW, nice pic, Tim.