Wednesday, 18 June 2014


North Bank gable end, Innsbruck

During a conversation in the back room of an Innsbruck cafe with Rupert Larl, where we were paging through some of the work I had done that week on my laptop, he asked me who my influences were.  He had noticed, he said, that photographers often had certain other artists they would turn to, when in need of refreshment or inspiration: what we in Britain might call "touchstones".  He had also noticed, he went on, that the work of these touchstone-artists often bore little or no obvious resemblance to the work of those whom they inspired.

I found this a difficult question to answer at the time.  When you are busily creating new work, especially out of context -- cut off from friends and family, familiar surroundings, even your native language -- matters of influence are not uppermost in your mind.  I did occasionally find myself making negative comparisons -- "No, way too Martin Parr", or "Yikes! Sorry, I just don't do Gilden-type street grotesques" -- but in the main I was trying to feel my way towards something that I hoped would be both uniquely mine and uniquely of that time and place.  In my case, that requires shutting off the chattering, analytical mind and letting the eyes do their thing.

However, it is an interesting question.  So here are a few brief thoughts on some personal touchstones.

Raymond Moore and Fay Godwin.  I have already discussed this foundational pair in the post Ray and Fay, so won't expand on that.

Josef Koudelka and Thomas Joshua Cooper.  Among the first two exhibitions I saw in the John Hansard Gallery after moving to Southampton in 1984 were a Koudelka retrospective -- mainly selected from his classic "Gypsies" and Exiles" period -- and a Cooper retrospective covering  his "small dark prints" phase, i.e. the period up to and including "Dreaming the Gokstadt".  I had never seen such stunning work before, and immediately enrolled in a darkroom evening class.

Emmet Gowin.  Gowin's use of the whole, distorted circular image projected by a lens intended to cover a smaller format than the 8" x 10" view camera is magical.  The sometimes shocking intimacy of the images of his wife and her family is still fresh after 40 years.

Harry Callahan.  Callahan is simply the Master to anyone who tries to live the gospel of photography.

Jem Southam.  Jem's preferred austere, diffused yet rich palette and ability to find strong compositions in apparent chaos are a perfect match for the British landscape.  It is always a surprise to me to find that he is not better known abroad.

Susan Derges. She is probably the most exciting contemporary innovator in the field of the "camera-less" photograph, best known for her large, unique images made by immersing sheets of light-sensitive paper into rivers and at the seashore at night.  She manages to capture the stunning, fractal beauty of flowing water.

Luigi Ghirri.  When I saw Ghirri's masterful book from 1978 Kodachrome for the first time, not so long ago, I felt like dropping my cameras into a deep hole.  What was the point in continuing? Then, when I looked some more, the sensation went into reverse, and I felt like going out and finding more, better photographs.  I feel a very strong psychic affinity with his way of seeing.

Pentti Sammallahti.  I have mentioned Sammallahti several times in this blog.  The Finnish dog-whisperer, and wizard of monochrome tonality.  These days, his retrospective collection Here, Far Away is the book I turn to first, to remind me what the point of all this is.

Saul Leiter.  The Leiter of Early Color is, like Callahan, an exemplar of why taking a camera into the street, speculatively and with an open heart, is a form of poetry.

Cathedral of St. James, Innsbruck


Struan said...

The note that touchstones often inspire work which is nothing like themselves is very perceptive. Few of the photographers who give me heart and courage take photographs which look anything like the ones I make myself, even if my making is in conscious response to a particular image. I find it very hard to relate to photographers who cite identikit versions of themselves as muse, even if I like their work.

Still jealous of your ability to find caustics. For me, they are an example of over-thinking: I have had them on my list of interesting phenomena to watch out for so long, that I cannot see them properly.

Mike C. said...

It is, isn't it? Herr Larl is someone who has thought long and hard about photography and photographers.

"Caustics" -- not come across that technical usage before, unless Malcolm Lowry's title "Lunar Caustic" is an example I hadn't understood.

The truly interesting detail in that second picture is the sign -- hard to make out at this scale, but it's a couple holding hands, with a red line through, and hours between which whatever that denotes (heterosexuality?) is not allowed. Odd. And, of course, an almost too-good-to-be-true contrast with the couple in the alleyway...


Struan said...

It's possible Lowry was aiming at a double meaning, but 'lunar caustic' was an old name for silver nitrate - used for cauterising wounds, among other things.

Derges' works could be called lunar caustics, except that I don't see how moonlight and running water would produce the sharp-edged instantaneous caustics of her beautiful works. The exposure time would be too long: you would still get patterns, but they would be like those of long-exposure running water, not instantaneous frozen motion. I suspect a flash is involved somewhere.

The sign is good, in a Picture Post kind of way. Looking at the alleyway - ginnel - I'd guess it is closed during those hours. Do they use the 24-hour clock in Austrian public signage? It's an odd set of hours if they do.

Mike C. said...

Ah, right (on all counts). And there was me thinking it meant "no canoodling in the cathedral precinct"...

Derges' images are a thing of wonder -- eight feet of Cibachrome. I have several times been tempted to buy one, but knowing the archival properties of the material (esp. when dunked in seawater) decided against. Besides, her books can be had at very reasonable prices. Yes, a flash must be involved, though I suspect that some of her later work is also composited. Not that I'm bothered by that.