Spirit Photography (2014) H. Newall

‘history never grows too old or out of date.’

                                                               Jill Enfield, Online

I began this blog with a single image of a lit chandelier hanging in a blue forest. There was no commentary because it was an accidental post while I learned about blogs, but then I left the image there… This is happenstance. I chose the image at random.

This blog has turned out to be about history: even from the start, I was aware of Phylogeny recipitulating Ontogeny because, to look at myself as a practising artist, I felt I had to go back to all beginnings, not only of my first encounters with photography, but back to the beginnings of the thing itself, and Fox Talbot and his shadowgrams. This historiographical approach helped me to untangle in my own mind what I felt, what I knew, and what I wanted.

I’ve always been interested in the paraphernalia of old science. I have an old brass microscope and several old bellows cameras. None of them work, but they represent a time when things weren’t virtual, when they were solid and real and well-made. Reading about the old physical processes began to parallel my extant desire to get my hands dirty and scratch marks into real surfaces. I’ve not done that yet – I’ve been too busy making an exhibition and performance projection for The Snow Queen, but I’ve had a chance to meddle with things in my digital sketchbooks, and experiment with the Christmas Light Drawings and the Victorian Silver People. As a result, I now know I want to explore the possibilities of camera free photography and try out sun prints and the processes used by Martha Madigan, Floris Neusüss, Pierre Cordier, Garry Fabian Miller… so many people so little time…

I’ve found I want to explore, or maybe even exploit the past, while avoiding whimsical vintage, floaty reconstructions, because my work isn’t about the past. The past is a foreign county, and while they’re busying doing things differently there, I’m mining it of its resources. This is unashamed chrono-colonialism: the past offers me things I can use; knowledge of chemical processes, processes which are thoroughly contemporary in the hands of artists like Madigan and Neusüss; it offers me vocabularies and found image content in the form of forgotten photographs. I don’t want to illustrate the past. I want the past to illustrate the present and the future. This is a form of postmodern bricolage. Perhaps that’s why I like composites and collages, because they are the concept made tangible.

I am a postmodernist (with cultural materialist tendencies): the work of Annu Palakunnaku Matthew is thus also very appealing, especially since her methods recapitulate my ongoing desire to explore fakes and hoaxes… cf. The Yellow Wallpaper (2010) in which I made performance photography for a production which never happened, and Dying Swans and Dragged Up Dames (2013; 2014), the exhibition of reconstructed dance photography. Part of this blogging process has involved engaging with old friends such as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag, Philip Auslander, but from new angles. Before, these writers were lenses through which I examined fiction, or other people’s photography and performance documentation. Now, they are the voices of the anxiety of influence (to borrow Harold Bloom’s phrase) as I myself make work…

And I’ve realised throughout this process what I feel about photography as art. And why street photography is art; and why holiday snaps aren’t. And I’ve also learnt a lot from reading about the pursuit of technical excellence that sometimes perfection is less than art. Art lies in the discourse between imperfection and aspiration; art can be found in the novel uses we put things to, not in perfectly formed and perfectly framed artifacts. Art is risk, not a safe bet.

Finally, it has been reinforced that there is beauty in chance and happenstance. There are latent histories and unspoken narratives, both cultural and critical, to be explored in broken things: there are, as yet, lots of unwritten fairy tales.

And so I finish with Goodrich’s quotation on Moriyama, whose work I looked at when it rained and rained.

Daido Moriyama is a master of imperfection, his skill with ‘misuse’ of a camera is unsurpassed. His images sometimes lack focus, may be overexposed, too grainy or blurred. But it is for these reasons that he remains a legend amongst photographers.

(Goodrich, 2008: online)

Goodrich, A., ‘Learn From the Masters: Daido Moriyama, the Master of Imperfection’ Japanorama, 1 November 2008,, Online

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