Thursday, 5 June 2014

Take Me To Your Leader

At around 19:30 this evening, I will be at the FotoForum gallery in Innsbruck, Austria, for the opening of my exhibition A Tourist From Mars.  I will be reading out a German version of this address:

Good evening!
Happily, I am neither a professional artist or photographer, and am therefore not often obliged to explain myself, or even to understand what I am doing, or why, when I make photographs.  Today,  however,  I will say a few words that, I hope, may help explain my work to you.

I make photographs primarily because I feel a need to do it, not because I have a project to fulfil, a grant to justify, or a thesis to illustrate.  In the words of the American photographer Garry Winogrand:
I photograph to see what things look like when photographed.
This may sound evasive, or even facetious.  But it is why I came to photography.  I, too, like to see how the world looks when it is photographed.

The title of this exhibition might have led you to expect a Martian to be sitting here -- I am sorry to disappoint you.  However, I would point out that your camera is a Martian: it sees and records with the unfiltered clarity of an alien life-form.  Do you know the poem The Blue Guitar, by Wallace Stevens?
They said, "you have a blue guitar,
You do not  play things as they are."

The man replied, "things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."
That's how it is with your camera.  Things as they are are changed upon that blue Martian camera.  So, even if not a Martian myself, I have become a close collaborator with my metal Martian friend, and have learned something of its ways.

It's about seeing.  For example, those of you who are artists may have received that excellent training for hand, eye, and brain known as life drawing.  That is, the drawing of a naked model by art-school students.  Life drawing strikes me as a genuinely Martian discipline.  By means of various defamiliarisation techniques (e.g. the drawing of "negative space") the students learn to transcribe onto a two-dimensional sheet of paper what they actually see, and not what they think they see, or what they expect to see.  Actually, they are simply learning to see as a camera sees.  Ironically, many photographers never learn this lesson.  In the memorable words of that certified Martian, George Clinton of Funkadelic:
Free your mind, and your ass will follow!
Now, I have never expected or attempted to make a living from this activity, and yet it is as necessary and as entirely serious to me as, say, prayer would be to a religious person.  I photograph every day, if I can.  Naturally, it gives me great satisfaction when other people find interest (and indeed pleasure) in what I produce, and I am grateful for rare opportunities like this to show my work.  But my main motivation comes from within.

I once wrote a sort of anti-manifesto, which I have adapted here:
"Self-motivated photography is like writing poetry: if you are after fame and fortune, you are in the wrong game. You do it for its own sake, and the appreciation of a small, dedicated, statistically-insignificant audience, most of whom will be practitioners themselves. Even to be famous within such a small circle is to be invisible to the wider world.  Martin Parr [a British photographer] is as little-known to the general public as Paul Muldoon [a British poet]. But invisibility does have benefits: you're free from the expectations of paying audiences, so there's no excuse for your work not to be "as serious as your life" [McCoy Tyner] or even as daft as a brush, if that's what you prefer."
It is important to emphasise that I regard photography primarily as a process, not as an outcome.  As I say, I photograph every day – in my lunch-hour, or perhaps on the way from the car-park to my office -- in the same way that a musician practices scales.  I do recommend this: try to find photographs where you are, and never wait to be where you wish you were.  As they say, "Wherever you go, there you are".  Save yourself the air-fare.

The 80 or so images you see on the walls here are a by-product of this primary activity of creative seeing, not its purpose.  A relatively small by-product, too.  I show photographs constantly as a "work in progress" on the Web via my blog.  There have been over 2000 images posted there since 2008.  Two thousand: that's an average of five a week.  Again, I recommend this sustained level of productivity: I have come to believe firmly in Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours rule".  Or, as Henri Cartier-Bresson put it long before Gladwell, "your first 10,000 photographs are your worst"...

It is very necessary, for me, to spend time in a "no-mind", creative activity like this.  Unlike many visual artists, I have a highly academic background.  Although I had some talent at drawing and painting I did not attend art school, but studied literature at Oxford University.  I became a professional academic librarian and, although I have an expertise in bibliography and also manage a team of staff, I mainly work with computers and programming.  My rational side is therefore organised, thorough, highly-trained and narrowly-focused.  I need the counterweight of art-making in my life, in the same way as the waking mind needs the balance of the sleeping mind.

I prefer to work in this instinctive, unthinking way.  Scandalously, I often have my camera set to “program mode”.  Well, in the end I had to concede that its judgement and reaction time were generally better than mine.  When I am photographing, I hope to achieve that blankly receptive, absorbed state of mind people call getting in The Zone.  The Zone is that place where one feels most fully oneself, by forgetting oneself.  In the paradoxical words of composer John Cage:
I have nothing to say
and I am saying it
and that is poetry
as I need it.
(Lecture on Nothing, 1949)
Or, in some words of Goethe that I came across a long time ago:
Es gibt eine zarte Empirie, die sich mit dem Gegenstand innigst identisch macht, und dadurch zur eigentlichen Theorie wird.
(Maximen und Reflexionen 509)
[there exists a delicate empiricism which makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory]
Now, those are the words of a true Martian!

Thank you for your attention.  I hope you find something of value for yourself in my photographs this evening.


seany said...

Well done, enjoy the moment,I have been reading your blog for many years and looking at your photographs which I must say I've found mystifying,nothing new there a lot of life is a mystery to me.
I feel I'll appreciate the pictures a bit more now after reading your piece.
Good Luck

Gavin McL said...

A great read and do enjoy the evening. George Clinton & Goethe in the one speech - I wish I was there, though my German isn't good enough to understand it.

Graham Dew said...


This is just about the first ‘artist’s statement’ that doesn’t make want to shout ‘pretentious twaddle’. Nicely put, it all resonates with me. Hope you have a good opening and a memorable trip to Austria.

Huw said...

I hope it goes well, Mike: the address, the exhibition and the subsequent photographing.


Struan said...

Hope things went well, and you garnered plenty of interesting and useful reactions. Sales too, if you're selling prints.

I like the idea of prints being a by product of the photographic process. I might steal that.

Elisabeth said...

So excited to read that your show is finally happening! I hope it is a great success (well, it already is, I would say, just by virtue of the fact that your images are up there on the wall for everyone to view). I trust you will fill us in on all of the details of the night. (On a related note, have you read Blake Andrews' recent blog entry titled, "Questions for Discussion," about a photographer with a gallery showing? ( I imagine you are the antithesis of the character he is satirizing...

Mike C. said...

Thanks to all for your good wishes.

I've had a great evening, up to and including a (subjunctive) proposal of marriage from a sweet elderly lady, who claimed my words and pictures had moved her to wish this could have been so. This may, of course, be an entirely conventional sentiment among elderly Austrians... Or she may have had a little too much of the rather fine free wine.

More later: my job here is not yet done...


Zouk Delors said...

Glad to hear it went down well. I would be fascinated to hear your translation of the phrases: "your ass will follow", "daft as a brush" and "getting in the zone".

PS There is a go* proverb which says, "lose 1000 games to become a master"!

*The ancient oriental board game, also known as weiqi or baduk.

Mike C. said...


Well, luckily a local photographer who is also an English teacher went over my text to iron out the bumpier bits...

"your ass will follow", obviously, is "dein Esel wird folgen". Seriously, though, folks... We went for "Befreien Sie ihren Geist, und der Hintern wird folgen!" Kinda politer, but talk about lost in translation.

Otherwise, the "brush" idiom has no equivalent, it seems, so became "total meschugge", and "getting in the zone" is, remarkably, "in der Zone ankommen".

It was fun to do, if a bit like being back at school, though nobody ever applauded my German unseens back then...


Zouk Delors said...

Haha! If I could have remembered the German for "donkey" when I commented, I would have made that joke too. "Der Hintern" doesn't really work, does it? It ignores the essential synechdoche, as well as the disrespect of "your ass". The whole point when someone says "get your ass over to Vienna" is the the rest of you will accompany your ass, isn't it?

"Meschugge" is interesting, because it's actually a Yiddish word meaning "crazy" with a Hebrew, not German, etymology (see "meshugge" in a good English dictionary).

Mike C. said...


Exactly so. There's also the whole culture of crazy-ass, acid-tinged, far-out weirdness that distinguishes Clinton from your average black American musician -- uncommunicable, really.

As Gavin commented above, putting Funkadelic in the same context as Goethe is my thang...



Zouk Delors said...

Don't really know Clinton or Funkadelic. Don't forget that "you'll be Absolutely Free / Only when you want to be."

The impoliteness of "your ass" is ironic, given that it's almost certainly a euphemism, not just an American respelling of "arse" to match the local pronunciation (cf German,"arsch"): the r's of Americans are all pronounced. As, often, are their arses.

Zouk Delors said...

Strictly speaking, "euphemism" is probably the wrong word for usages like "gosh" and "jeepers", but I can't think of the right one.

Just been reading about Funkadelic and golly, gosh! I've got some catching up to do!

Mike C. said...

Actually, the music is (to the best of my memory) fairly routine funk, compared to the dressing up. They're a bit like Black America's answer to Radio Gnome Invisible, without Steve Hillage but with Bootsy Collins...