Friday, 17 June 2011

The Inner Slacker Speaks


There have been fewer photographs on this blog recently. Occasionally, I find my need to get out and take photographs declines, and the last month has been such a time. It doesn't usually last long, but such fallow periods are usually the result of a temporary victory of my Inner Slacker over my Inner Puritan and his work ethic.

Photography, as an art medium, has a core problem of being thought to be too easy. Let's be honest, photography is easy. The difference in the level of skill, time, and dedication that is required to practice, say, watercolour painting to the same level of representational adequacy as even the crudest snapshot is enormous. Photography removes those elements -- let's call them "investment" -- from the equation. It's a low-investment medium. People tend not to value low-investment activities, however, and so artists using photography -- wanting their work to be valued -- generally go in one of three compensatory directions.

Some make photography difficult. For example, the investment in exposing large-format film, processing individual sheets by hand, and printing the images out onto hand-coated paper using various complex (and hazardous) "alternative processes" is quite large. But this is "technical" investment. The core process -- letting light in through a hole to expose a light-sensitive medium -- is still the same in its essential simplicity. And concentrating on process, and using recalcitrant mechanisms like tilts, shifts, and tripods, can -- shall we say? -- remove the photographer's attention from the image-making. Difficult photos are not necessarily good photos.

Some make a virtue of that simplicity. Photography is a good match for certain art-philosophical concerns about agency, intention, craft and "conception vs. execution". Skill and talent have had a bad time in the contemporary art world (what, you hadn't noticed?) and using a camera in "idiot" mode neatly sidesteps such embarrassments. "Look", the artist can say, "I am curating, not creating, these mechanically-made images, which do not have any undesirable ideological or aesthetic agenda imposed on them from within my brain. There is no craft fetishism here! They are simply the world as it is". If you are so inclined (and can afford a good lawyer) you can take this a logical step further, and "appropriate" photographs made by other people. Yes, we're looking at you, Richard Prince.

Others rely on subject matter. The kit may be simple to operate, but it can be used in situations that are intimidating or inaccessible to most people. For example, approaching (or confronting) complete strangers is astonishingly hard to do, especially if they are hostile, and/or armed and unpredictable. Placing oneself in a landscape and waiting for the right combination of light and weather requires planning, persistence and patience. Even carefully composing and lighting a portrait or still-life is beyond the capacity of 99.9% of camera owners. The work of "subject" photographers has an obvious "wow" factor. At its best, you have documentary work like that of Sebastiao Salgado or insightful explorations of landscape like Richard Misrach's; at its worst, you have the exquisitely dull, self-described "fine art" landscape photography of any number of calendar-art photographers.

I don't consciously do any of these, but have to say that, for me, the low-investment factor of photography is a big attraction. Not for any ideological reasons, but because I have tried a number of high-investment media, and know that I am too lazy to achieve anything worthwhile in them. I suffer from an urge to make pictures, have a reasonable degree of picture-making talent, but am totally lacking in application. Take etching, for example. I love the look and feel of intaglio prints, and some while ago decided to learn how it was done.

First, you must prepare a plate. The simple technique I was shown involved cutting, polishing, bevelling and degreasing a zinc plate, then heating it and applying a waxy coating or "ground" to the plate. You then make your drawing using any tools that can make marks through the ground to expose the metal. When you have finished, the plate is immersed in an acid bath, to etch away the exposed areas of plate ...

No, I'm sorry, I've already lost interest, and so have you, I can tell. It can take weeks to finish a decent plate. Suffice it to say I only ever managed to make four or five etchings in total. The end result (depending on your skill at both drawing and making the prints) can be very seductive -- check out the work of Leonard Baskin, a frequent collaborator with Ted Hughes -- but it can equally well be very dull, as such a complex and time-consuming procedure encourages a conservative approach. Spontaneous it ain't.

Like most people with a persuasive Inner Slacker, I'm a great one for trying things, and dropping them. Over the years I have made drawings, painted, etched, made lithographs and linocuts, but still couldn't fill a halfway decent portfolio with my work. But, since starting to photograph seriously around 1995, something clicked, and damned if I don't find I have now exhibited locally and internationally, self-published a dozen or more books, and have made enough coherent bodies of work to rival the output of all but the most prolific artists. How did that happen?

Sometimes my Inner Puritan worries that making photographs in this low-investment style isn't difficult enough to warrant the embarrassing attention-seeking that "art" entails. That's OK, counters my Inner Slacker, we don't want that much attention anyway. Otherwise, how can we take the odd month off? Relax...


12 comments:

Bronislaus Janulis said...

Mike,

Nice post, and accompanied with your usual superb photos.

Bron

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Bron -- even in Slacker Mode, I can't let a good skip [dumpster] go to waste...

Mike

Martin H. said...

I pointed a friend to your blog, a few days ago. She wrote back to me, "Spent a happy half hour looking through his pictures and realising I should LOOK more. Some days I notice little details around me and other days I see nothing."

Mike C. said...

Martin,

Thanks! I can see I'm destined to be a Guru to people with bruised shins:

"Ow!! How come I didn't see that??"

"Just look, grasshopper, look..."

"But... It's so simple..."

"That'll be £500, please"

Mike

Martyn Cornell said...

I, too, suffer from an urge to make pictures, but unfortunately I have no degree of picture-making talent at all. Still, I DO have the ability to recognise what's good when I see it, which does at least enable me to enjoy vicariously the activities of people who ARE, like you, Mike, good at making pictures. And being in the audience means I can have a large part of the pleasure of the creator in the work, with none of the responsibility and very little effort - huzzah! (or "win!", as I believe the yarng pepple put it nowadays …)

Mike C. said...

Martyn,

Thanks, but back atcha on the beer front -- I'm still smiling about your taster's notes on "The five worst beers" (at zythophile.wordpress.com -- check it out, people). I can't tell one beer from another, being anosmic and having ruined my palette with fags and spicy food, but I'll know to avoid John Smith's Extra Smooth. "No thanks, I'm told it can taste like foaming brown sick..."

I still can't believe someone would try to bottle and sell a chilli beer. I can believe some stoned freak would think it up, and maybe even brew it in a basement somewhere, but...

Mike

Steve. said...

There's definitely something in this idea of making photography more than it is. Perhaps to seem legitimate or more legitimate. But the problem with all this is that people don't realise this effort until you tell them and then you're a bore. Who cares if you slogged for 2 hours in the darkroom or sat freezing waiting for first light, or even spent 4 hours reading a photoshop manual? Only the photographer cares. Cruel world!

Mike C. said...

Steve,

In the end, people respond to skill, not process, I think. You're right that no-one cares about the difficulty -- we want to see the miraculous effortlessness of a goal headed from a corner, not the hours of practice that make it possible.

A good picture is a good picture, whether it was an accident, or the result of a week's planning. Same if it's a bad picture. Sometimes, though, it takes a high degree of sophistication to realise when a picture is good.

Quite a lot of those "wow factor" pictures in, say, the National Geographic have had a lot of the pictorial equivalent of MSG added to them. It takes an educated "palette" to appreciate the Real Thing, and part of that appreciation is an understanding of process. Most people seem to prefer to eat at MacDonald's -- they're welcome to it!

Mike

Tony_C said...

"something clicked" - ha ha.

Martyn,

"can't take a picture"

Cracking pic of Mike at Knebworth - after he'd met the man in the harlequin, I fancy.

[Checkword: kiessest - most kiess]

Kent Wiley said...

This is a really finely written piece, Mike. Since process obviously doesn't matter to the audience, probably what we need to do to make the maths work is remove them from the equation. Are we really doing this for the recognition it brings us? No doubt, for some... Do I automatically become more complacent in my work because I devalue the needs/desires/expectations of the viewer? I don't think so. But it does allow for some inner peace of mind.

Slackers Unite!

Mike C. said...

Kent,

I hear what you say and, as I've said before, in this game the "audience" is mainly other practitioners, anyway.

That said, it's been my experience that simply imagining that there might be an audience "out there" has made a big (positive) difference to what I do. That dialogue with an ideal, imagined audience is important to me, and the endless questioning from the audience in my head -- Do I really mean this? Can I really get away with that? etc. -- helps refine the process into something I have no difficulty standing behind.

I'd hate to stumble into fame and fortune on the back of work I didn't really believe in. Though if anyone knows how to do that I'd be interested to hear about it...

Mike

Kent Wiley said...

I'm probably splitting hairs. Your "inner audience" is of course what I/we refer to when we try to get right with what works for us as process oriented creators. "They" have to be satisfied first. Or, in more vernacular terms, "Has my shit detector gone off?"

Hopefully somebody else will chime in with something about fame & fortune. I dunno nuthin'.