Be Original Or Die!
So what have you been reading recently then? Me, well my head has been struggling to deal with words and I’ve been immersed in picture books.

Firstly there’s the catalogue for the Edward Hopper exhibition at the Tate Modern. Now I don’t know what you make of Hopper, but for me he’s always been someone of interest, ever since I saw one of his paintings on the cover of an old Penguin publication of a Carson McCullers novel. Introductions are important, they help set your personal context, and that is so crucial in creating lasting relationships.

Of course so many of Hopper’s images have become iconic, but they deserve it because they are fantastic paintings and terrific pictures. Naturally most people see the picture and that is fair enough. Not everyone cares too much about painting after all and why should they? It was interesting walking in the gallery looking at the paintings in the flesh and listening in on conversations. Almost all of the discussions I eavesdropped concerned the content of the pictures: musings on the relationships between the characters, imagined narratives behind the lonely individuals. Who, why, wherefore and what if… It was slightly strange, because I guess I’ve been there, done that, don’t really care about it any longer. By which I suggest nothing other than the fact that, well, I’ve been there, done that, don’t really care about it any longer. No judgements.

Of course Hopper has a way in to my heart just through the content and the context of the moment in history and geography of many of the paintings. The mediation of America of the ‘30s through the ‘60s has such a delicious pull. Particularly urban America. So step up the aforementioned McCullers, the magnificent Chandler, Hammett, Kerouac, John Fante, Hitchcock, John Huston, Bogart and a host of others: All of them in one way or another adding to a mythic imaginary past and place.

It’s Hopper’s urban paintings that appeal to me most. As pictures they are great stories of the Blues: what is left unsaid or unseen being as vital as what is portrayed. What is left out is often more important than what is put in: a lesson many could learn in so many disciplines. But whilst I adore the whole aesthetic, what I enjoyed so much this time about seeing his work was the actual feeling of falling in love with the paintings as opposed to the pictures.

Structurally, compositionally they are exquisite. His use of shape and colour is gorgeous, his manipulation of space seductive and tender. The rhythms of the city surface in the paintings time and time again, in the Mondrian grids of windows and doorways, in the spacing of the bar stools in ‘Nighthawks’. The more you look, the more it becomes apparent that this isn’t painting as a means of recording time or place, but rather painting that uses recognisable contexts as a means of exploring the essence of painting itself. It’s almost as though all the other things that make Hopper’s work so appealing (the mystery, the potential narratives, the emotional electricity) are coincidental side effects, and that’s fair enough after all.

Oh, and I’m aware of course that my approach to these paintings is the opposite to the one I normally take in relation to other art forms, and specifically music. Is there a fundamental difference between the forms that demands this, or is it just a kind of snobbery at work? Is it because I simply do not understand the structural and technical aspects of music that I shun approaching it in that way? And does it really matter at all?

As for the catalogue, well, it’s good but of course as is the nature of these things, the colour reproduction misses much of the subtle vividness of the reality. The exhibition is on until September 5th, so if you are in London do yourself a favour and go see it.
Still on painting, I picked up a slim White Cube catalogue of paintings by Koen van den Broek recently. There are echoes of Hopper like space in this Belgian artists’ paintings of the US landscape, particularly in the images of isolated highway bridges, but it’s his studies of road and sidewalk details that really appeal to me. These are beautiful paintings that tread the line between figuration and abstraction, highlighting the fantastic compositions of line, tone, colour and texture that are around us all the time if only we could/would open our eyes and see them. I’d love to see some of these in the flesh.

Of course the motif of urban details is one that I am personally interested in, and so I was excited to pick up Burhan Dogancy’s Walls Of The World. The celebrated Turkish painter / photographer has been documenting city walls with his camera for several decades now, and this collection catalogues a wide selection that organises the images into categories such as ‘faces’, ‘political issues’ and ‘hearts and other universal symbols’. It’s a good way of making a sense of the collection, and creates a sense of a peculiarly cohesive and convergent world culture as elements weave themselves across continents and time. When I first looked through the book I got a strange feeling that I was looking at my own photographs, and I started to wonder if my own work in this realm was therefore irrelevant and pointless. But then I figure that everything has been done, so why worry about concepts of ‘originality’, and just because others are interested in the same things I am, are recording the same kinds of pictures I am, it doesn’t mean I should just give it up. Right?

The collection also raises the eternal question that will always be raised by such pictures: where does the ‘art’ lie? When the image is that of another’s handiwork and/or the effects of architecture and natural urban decay, whose is the ‘art’? As a photographer is my eye for the picture and the interest in the idea enough?

Madame Yevonde had a different opinion on the idea of originality. ‘Be original or die!’ she said. But it was the 1930s and postmodernism was yet to rear its head, so in such a context its more than understandable. It reminds me of that great Fire Engines slogan: ‘boredom or Fire Engines, you cant have both!’ and that’s a good thing of course.

I said before that introductions are important, and I was introduced to Madame Yevonde through the fantastic early ‘90s single by Animals That Swim. “If we’re going to have colour photographs, let’s have a riot of colour” sang the Animals, and that’s a great way in to Madam Yevonde, the great pre-WW2 champion of colour photography through her use of the aptly named Vivex colour process. It’s Yevonde’s work from the ‘30s that remains the most resonant, and her magical portraits of English socialites of the era dressed as goddesses are rightly regarded as classics. Track down the National Portrait Gallery’s 1990 catalogue and you’ll be treated to the entire ‘goddesses’ collection and lots more besides. Personal favourites of mine would be the gloriously rococo still life compositions and the double page spread of ‘Portrait Study ­ the Ear-ring’ of 1932 and the 1936 portrait of Vivien Leigh, both of which positively explode from the page with their brilliant red backgrounds.
William Eggleston has a thing for red too. I mean, who can ever forget the image from the back of Big Star’s Radio City album? It’s there right at the start of the excellent Ancient and Modern collection, along with a commentary from Eggleston saying how on a dye-transfer print of the image it’s like red blood that is wet on the wall. I remember seeing a print of it in the New York MOMA some years ago and being struck dumb, although its only recently I’ve noticed those strange Kama Sutra posters on the wall in the bottom right corner. And since we’re on the music reference trip, elsewhere in the collection there is the 1980 ‘Troubled Waters’ image that graced the sleeve of Primal Scream’s Give Out But Don’t Give Up set.

I love all of Eggleston’s photographs but I particularly like his shots of isolated figures, like the wall mounted booth juke-box control from Los Alamos in 1967, the white ceiling fan from Washington D.C. in 1990 (like a ghostly partner to the Mississippi red ceiling) or the dusty old telephone from Kenya in 1980. They have a peculiar grace and a compelling hint of the sinister, and I love them madly.

The 2 and a quarter collection from Twin Palms is also worth investing in. It has some gorgeous shots of automobiles and trucks, from a rusting shell turned over on its roof to a beautiful pale custard yellow sports coupe parked in the evening light in front of a similarly coloured metal siding, with electricity pylons above. The red pops up in this collection too, in the centred rectangle of a lady’s handbag in a rare full-on portrait; in the almost centred stencilled ‘auction’ on a white block wall; in the ‘hattleys’ sign hung out over the street; in the vivid body of a truck seen from low down.

I mentioned the Los Alamos juke box a moment ago, and it’s there again of course in Scalo’s publication of the Los Alamos series. This is a hefty book, but it’s magnificent and I can’t stop looking at it. Eggleston rarely photographs people, but they do crop up in Los Alamos and they are invariably great shots. The cover image is sublime, and very early ‘70s, as is the classic shot of the grocery store boy pushing shopping carts. Elsewhere it’s all classic Eggleston and what more could you ask for?

There’s a good essay at the back of the book by Thomas Weski in which he considers that he finds a photograph interesting when ‘a difference between our respective perceptions occurs’. With regard to Eggleston this is the opposite of how I feel: I feel like Eggleston’s photographs are saying exactly how I view the world ­ it feels like I have a strong affinity with these images, share some kind of kindred spirit, and that means a lot. He doesn’t particularly open my eyes to new things, but rather makes me feel less alone, makes me think that there is so much scope in this kind of consideration of the things we see, and the way in which we form those things into images.

There’s something of Eggleston in Stephen Shore’s work too. Something of Edward Hopper, also (check out the shot of J.J. Summers Agency in Duluth from 1973 and tell me it isn’t so), and that’s no bad thing. Looking through his Uncommon Places book, I’m struck by what feels like a last gasp of a dusty decayed ‘50s / ‘60s innocence lost, soon to be replaced by the glossy boom of the ‘80s. Looking at these images too I’m struck by something Carrie used to say about visiting Scotland from Canada in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, about how it felt like coming to a third world country. It strikes me that going out into America might have felt the same ­ Shore’s photographs certainly give it that grimy, slightly soiled edge: a glimpse of the crumbling reality behind the façade of prosperity.

Of course there is irony in the collection’s title, because these are photographs of what appear to be very ordinary places indeed. It raises the question of how we label things, and it comes back to the idea that we can find something of interest in so much if we can use our eyes and our minds. There’s also something intriguing in the whole idea of the quality of place, and the value we put on place as individuals. It’s something that intrigues me, and Shore’s photographs draw me in and make me wonder.
Naturally for someone living in the heart of Devon there is something faintly exotic about all of those American artists, so it’s a bit of a jolt to the system to turn attention to Stephen Gill’s Field Studies. It’s a terrific collection though, and stuffed with great shots and intriguing ideas. The reverse of billboards particularly appeals to me, being all about getting behind the façade and looking at the things that usually go unseen. Gill is typically British in his fascination with collecting, or collections, and I love the way he will produce a series of shots of ladies with shopping trolleys or do portraits of people with personal stereos (and hey! One of them is playing the Field Mice!). And whenever I look through the series of portraits on the train down to Southend I think of John Carney, and think that the Rail Authority should do something with some good contemporary photography or art that celebrates the railways. Maybe someone will take the hint.

More peculiarly British images come courtesy of the slim English Candies collection by A J Wilkinson that I picked up recently. The premise of the exhibition from which these images are selected was to shoot portraits of people whose lives were changed in some dramatic way by Punk. So we have a range of portraits of individuals, all late thirty somethings at least, I would wager, in a variety of poses and situations, most of whom seem only oddly familiar in a vague way, but then I’ve always been bad with recognising people anyway, so what the hell. I do recognise John Robb, however, and both he and Jon Savage (who might also be pictured, but to be honest I wouldn’t really have a clue what Jon Savage looked like) contribute essays, of which Savage’s seems to make the most connection with the photos.

Finally, then, its back to the US, and to New York, for the work of Laurie Simmons and her In And Around The House collection. This is a fantastic book, and it’s given me some great ideas for things to do with my photography students in school. Basically this is a collection of set pieces that Simmons created between 1976 and 1978 using old wallpaper, fabrics and dolls house furniture. The black and white photographs are gorgeous explorations of light and composition, and are intriguing near-surrealist tableaux of domesticity. And when Simmon’s introduces a single doll figure into the scenario, it all takes on a strange social-political edge, becomes an odd commentary on the nature of the domesticated female figure in American culture. It’s a bit like Cindy Sherman’s film stills, only with a doll.

These photos are carefully constructed and manipulated compositions and are far from the kind of images that usually thrill me, yet thrill me they most certainly do. Perhaps I will spend less time out in the streets with my camera this summer and more time in the attic constructing situations to explore with the lens...

I’m off to look for dolls house furniture on eBay.

© 2004 Alistair Fitchett