I have long since forgotten what my original idea was to introduce the gallery of photos (the views through the camera’s viewfinder). Not being able to write lightly I have written many pages of utter rubbish on my notebook about seeing and looking, of the parallel questions of ‘what is art?’ and ‘what is life?’ and the relative meaning of photographs as well as a few lines about the photograph as an empty sign and the camera as a loaded gun. I cannot deny my education but I cannot succumb to its creed either. I am at loss about how to articulate where this leaves me.
In Art School there are a few things one learns never to say about photography, one’s own or someone else’s. One of these things is that ‘the photographs speak for themselves’. There is no such a thing. That is however exactly what I am about to do; let the photographs speak for themselves.
Because I am clearly only repeating myself.
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A few months ago I was walking around Chelsea, looking for photographs. Red brick buildings, mews, alley ways, antique shops, bakeries. It is very lovely in there. I cannot remember what I looked at when I realised that I was photographing wealth. In that split second I saw the problem with the archive I was collecting. I was photographing a dream, that quaint idea of London and Britishness. It was a reality for some but not for many. Certainly not for me although I was privileged enough to walk around there and enjoy it without an inch of jealousy or anger. In that split second I remembered what else I knew of London, what else I had seen. The struggle to have a life, the council estates (I live in one), the struggle between the classes. Poverty in many levels of human life and how London is trampled by capitalism and consumerism, in many levels. I am often overwhelmed and this was definitely a moment of being so.
I realised that I would have to photograph more widely. Council estates and their surroundings. The trouble with this subject matter is that they are always portrayed in the same way. Dead pan, straight frontal shots. If there are any people in the images they always look the same. They pose and do so defiantly or disinterestedly. They stare at the camera. There is always text with the images telling the story of its context from a critical point of view. The assumption is that if I photograph council estates I am making political art. But unlike photographers like Walker Evans who documented poverty in North America during the recession in the 1930’s and unlike Charles Dickens who wrote about the poverty in London more than a century ago, this kind of political art doesn’t raise awareness and therefore call for a change. It serves the gallery going crowd and at its worst only provides a point of intellectual and self-righteous discussion. That is my problem with most political art, that their subjects wouldn’t feel welcome in the art galleries. From this point of view I understand the Arts Council’s insistence of funding only art that reaches out to parts of the community who wouldn’t normally engage with the arts.
I however felt that I couldn’t exclude this part of London from this project. (I think that at this time I started calling it ‘a project’ instead of an archive.) I have to admit though that despite the zeal I feel for socialism I wasn’t particularly looking forward to a stroll in Plumstead with my camera. But I would betray myself if I didn’t. I decided to keep to my original guidelines of taking photographs of anything that appeals to me but think twice before the taking the shot. There is such freedom in that which makes my wanderings around the town so rewarding. I would photograph those council estates and such in the very same way I would photograph Notting Hill and Hampstead; in the quiet light of the morning and late afternoon. I would look for details and views that appeal to me. I would grant them the same privilege as I would to Knightsbridge and the City: to be considered only aesthetically. Corners, lines, texture, colours and light.
I don’t know how I got so tied into the pressure of making a certain kind of a series, far from the equality of the approach that I had envisioned. I didn’t even realise that I was so tied up until I got the rejection email from the Arts Council. I had had to write to them in a certain way and answer questions like ‘How does your art benefit the audience and what long-lasting effect will it have on them?’ Jeez. Despite my bewilderment and amusement towards the Arts Council I lost my original idea somewhere in there. I thought that I could bluff it, talk about my work in that particular way which was alien to me but still be true to my vision, as inarticulate as it often is. It turned out that I cannot. Words matter. Vocabulary matters.
I am not able to ignore the Art School way of thinking entirely in search of a new, or my own, vocabulary. I would be deluding myself if I thought that I could find my way in a vacuum of some sort. In their view of the art my lack of 'critical thinking' and my emphasis on the aesthetic would be very 'problematic'. Their view of art however is not mine and I try to stay away from fighting a battle of words that is futile.
This photograph is taken of the council estate tower nearby where I live. I go past it every day I run and walk past it every time I come back from grocery shopping.
I am always a bit anxious before finding the first photograph. It is not something that I like to admit but which I have had to learn to understand. I am restless and grumpy. After the first photograph, even though it might be the only one for that day, I feel better. Exhilarated almost.
And it is always about finding the photographs. Stumbling upon them. Then when and if I do I ask myself whether I should take the shot or not. Is it a photograph or not? Like I asked with this one. I feel that I have gone quite far from where I started with this project (I don’t like calling it a project for a start) and this decision, whether to take the photograph or not, nowadays comes with different expectations and priorities than it did in the beginning. I was uneasy and uncomfortable and yet I almost believed -and in doing so almost sentenced myself- that the reason for this change was because the project had developed.
When I took this photo I hesitated because it told a story. Two bottles of beer underneath a bypass, against its concrete column tell of a human presence which always alludes to a story. Who, what happened, why, when, where? I quickly read that two guys have been sitting there, having a beer. Instantly we are in the fogginess of my assumptions and prejudices. How differently would a person from a different background to me read this view? I have gendered the view as male, presumed that they must have been fairly young and assumed that there were two people when any other possibility could have been true as well. It could have been just one person, male or female, having two beers underneath the bypass, two women, a man and a woman and they might not even have sat there but simply had decided to leave those bottles there. I just don’t know. And yet this image contains a story.
I was drawn to it or noticed it because of those two bottles. I have walked underneath that bypass many times but not stopped to photograph it. I had not noticed the texture of the concrete, the lines, the symmetry, the shades of brown and grey. I composed the image looking down the viewfinder but still wondered whether to press the shutter or not. In the end I did but that hesitation revealed much to me.
I have since seen just how tangled I am in the Art School way of thinking. Post-structuralism, research-based art, conceptual art, critical thinking. It suffocates me and it does so by placing me in a position or a role as an artist that is forced and unnatural to me. Sadly I have already learned its language and the way it thinks. I think that way, on their terms although I disagree with it all. I originally wrote a couple of paragraphs about it, my rambling defense against those demands and charges, but decided to not to include them. I have said it a thousand and one times already. I realised that unless I investigate everything that I do with a different vocabulary, a different creed almost, I will only keep stirring the pot of the literal, conceptual view of the Art School. It is essential that I should turn away to something else but what it is I don’t yet know. I don’t believe that I would find that solely from within myself either. I am not that big of an Artist.
It all boils down to what I think Art is, with a capital A, a question that overwhelms me as much London does. It is a question with no satisfactory answer.
All that for two bottles of beer that I didn’t even drink. I wonder what their conversation was about.
Preamble to the London Archive Articles
I asked a few friends and members of family to choose a photograph from the London Archive they would like to know more about. As this premise is my own devising, I have taken the artistic liberties necessary in answering this question. Bar a few exceptions, the result is a series of short essays combining a brief outline of historical information, consideration of photography as a medium as well as an account on how I ended up taking each particular photograph.