Sunday, 1 February 2015

On the Wall

It was a  cold, crisp first afternoon of February today, so we decided to drive over to Mottisfont Abbey, knowing that there is a photographic exhibition on there at the moment, which is as good an excuse as any to get inside when the cold gets too much.  So we made a perfunctory tour of the grounds -- a lot more repairs and renovations seem to be under way -- and headed gratefully for the gallery.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was amazed, on stepping inside, immediately to recognise the work of Susan Derges and Garry Fabian Miller, two of my personal favourite artists, both of whom work in the territory of "camera-less" photography, and whose books I have collected for some time.  However, the initial excitement was followed by a gradual disenchantment.  On the wall, the work was considerably less impressive than it is on the page, and for the usual simple reasons:  it is too big, and uses ugly, shiny paper.

Now, to an extent, Derges and Miller are stuck with their end-product, which is generally a one-off resulting from a unique interaction betweeen the natural world (or, in Miller's case, light sources) with light-sensitive materials, and these processes may well require the use of tough but ugly, shiny paper (I have always hated Cibachrome with a passion).  Digital technology -- scanning, for example -- could overcome this problem, but they presumably have chosen not to make use of it.  Fair enough.  But the other photographers in the show have no such excuse. Images from (I presume) medium-format colour negatives which would have had fullest impact at about 10 inches square on a semi-matte paper have been blown up to several feet across on a glossy, reflective paper stock that screams, "this is just a photograph!"  I hate that.  Especially when the price tag is £950 (so cheap!  The Derges and Miller items were £10,000 each...).

In fact, I am aware that I am feeling a certain  level of disenchantment with photography in general.  There's simply too much of it about, and too much of what gets shown (and the way it gets shown) is not to my liking.  By contrast, a small room of portraits in another room of the Mottisfont gallery, all made with pencil, charcoal, and paint, were really engaging: even the bad work (and, boy, was some of it bad -- hands are clearly very difficult to get right) has expressive, eye-pleasing qualities that reward close attention.  The fact that all the marks have been put there purposefully by a human hand and eye, albeit with varying degrees of skill and intention, counts for a lot.

Critics of photography as an art medium often say that it's too easy, and too mechanical.  There is some truth in that.  Consider either of the two images here:  taken around 3:00 p.m. today on a digital camera, with single clicks lasting 1/250th of a second, I had processed and printed the files to my satisfaction by about 7:00 p.m., and then made the small JPEG versions incorporated into this blog post, which was written this evening, and which was probably the part that took the longest.  Job done!

Frankly, I'd feel dishonest, charging £950 for a print.  Obviously, 30 years of experience and eye-training went into those clicks, and my digital processing and printing skills are excellent, drawing compliments wherever they are seen -- probably another 15 or more years of experience there.  So maybe £750 would not make me blush, were anyone ever prepared to pay that much (did I say I sold not a single print at my last exhibition?  And at a tenth of that price)...  But compared to painting or drawing the same scenes -- which I probably could not do, to my own satisfaction -- that's a very short time indeed from seeing to final product, with very little labour involved.

Which may explain why I've been fiddling around with pencils, pens and paper recently, and spending too much time gawking at stationery-porn sits like Cult Pens ...  Although I'm acutely aware that Henri Cartier-Bresson himself, later in life, after a career of unparalleled achievement in photography, hung up his cameras and returned to his first love, painting and drawing, saying, "All I care about these days is painting -- photography has never been more than a way into painting, a sort of instant drawing".  Needless to say, HCB's paintings and drawings are awful.


Unknown said...

1. I think most photography looks better and is better suited to the book.
2. It has ALWAYS been difficult to sell photographic fine-art prints going all the way back to the beginning of photography. But yes today there are far to many photos taken without any editorial gate. I think flickr uploads more images in an hour than most of us will take in a lifetime. And even fewer will be worth but a microsecond of our time.
3. HCB drawings and paintings really do suck. Also when I saw a show of his work at the SFMOMA I realized they even looked better in a book. And it was a more enjoyable experience.

Mike C. said...


Yes, HCB's paintings are shockingly bad, aren't they? You'd think he'd have been able to see that...


x said...

I too became disenchanted with photography and took up drawing about a year ago after reading Andrew Marr's 'short book about drawing' (a 'why' rather than 'how' book). Yes-hands are difficult! I was once into 'camera club' photography which is fiercely competitive and mainly male. From my limited experience art clubs are non-competitive and mainly female.


Graham Dew said...

I wouldn’t worry too much about not selling prints at an exhibition. I’ve taken part in many group exhibitions over the past thirty years and hardly anyone has sold at any of them. When I was involved with the Arena Seminar I had the good fortune to spend time with many excellent professionals, and all of them (apart from Martin Parr) made no money at all from their art photography. It was only commercial work, an academic post, or family wealth that kept them afloat. Better to take the pictures you like and see if you can find an audience in print or online. You should be proud of the following you have with IH; I enjoy your pictures as much as the writing and expect the same is true for others. It’s a lot better than a shoebox of prints under the bed.

Mike C. said...


I'm not worried, in principle, it's just that at my last show at the same venue I set a record for sales -- between 30 and 40 prints, I recall. It just seemed odd that, having put a lot more efort into the production (including turning up and giving presentation) I actually sold zero prints. Go figure...


milldave said...

Dear Mike,
I attended your first show in Innsbruck (living in Ingolstadt at the time) and I bought 12 prints.
Now I live in Edmonton, in the Great White North (Canada), I couldn't make the second show.
Blame me for not igniting the sales!

Mike C. said...


Wow, well, I'm really pleased to hear that -- thanks very much! Those prints were made by Rupert Larl on their in-house printer from my files; they were OK, but the ones in 2014's show were made by me on my own printer, and shipped out to Austria. They were pretty darned good -- even Rupert Larl was impressed -- hence my surprise at not selling any!