Re. The London River

Photographic works by P. F. White

P. F. White in conversation with Leonardo di Faccia, July 1st 2018.

LdiF:       I think of your work as having several streams. There's the flow of works that use texts, that are about narrative and representation...

PFW:       And the contingent nature of meaning..

LdiF:       Then there are the Target works that, to me, seem to be about intention and response.

PFW:       And the pleasure to be found in a release from meaning..

LdiF:       There are also a number of works, that cover a long span of time - right up to this year, that show people on the street. These are always sets of images, usually arranged in chronological order and, although I find them engaging in the way that just watching people go by can be a pleasurable way to pass time, I find it difficult to get a grip on what these works are about. Could you say something about them and why you started doing them, the first was in 1973?

The London River, Oxford Street, December 1973
The London River, Oxford Street, December 1973 (detail), P. F. White, 2018.

PFW:       Yes, the original negatives were made in December 1973. I walked slowly east to west, from Tottenham Court Road, on the south side of Oxford Street in London, clicking the shutter as I went, without looking through the camera viewfinder, until the film was used up. And I think you're right, part of what they are 'about' is the pleasure of watching ordinary people going about their business, not posing or in any way modifying their behaviour for the camera. A few might look at it but, because the camera is not being held up to my eye, they look at in a way that's completely different to the way they would if someone was doing the "I am taking a photograph of you" pose. It's just a glance, with a significance that reciprocates the slight pressure of the finger on the shutter release, which is just a click.

LdiF:       So, in 1973 you were a young art student, studying painting at Winchester. What I am interested in is why, on a painting course, you started taking photos where you were relinquishing control. One might think you would have been trying to take great photos, like Stieglitz, or Bourke White or Richard Avedon. We looked at your boxes of negatives earlier and what I saw from that time were dozens and dozens of whole 36 exposure sheets of 35mm negatives and so many of them appeared to be of totally random subjects, or obsessing on several very slightly different shots of some, usually very mundane, object or view, or these streets scenes, often with nothing much happening in them, sometimes just fragments and often without much attention to the correct focus or exposure and no apparent consideration of composition or design. What was the thought process that brought you to do them? Was it something on the painting course?

The London River, The Crossing, Strand, London, May 1974
The London River, The Crossing, Strand, London, May 1974 (detail), P. F. White, 2013.

PFW:       I'd always been very good at drawing and painting, always the best at school, and from a very young age I'd been interested in photography, and when I got to art school I saw that painting, well art generally, could be very competitive and all about ego. At Winchester there were some really heavy duty painters and some much tougher egos than mine. In recent years I've talked a lot to women who were at art school at that time and they almost all talk about what an adversarial place it was. "Not exactly nurturing" is a typical phrase and, with a few important exceptions, that's pretty much how I felt about art school staff and culture in the 1970s. My interest in photography meant I could side-step and, I suppose, be very adversarial in my own way..... Not all, but a significant body of painters, to this day, are always going on about how painting can do so much more, can show the truth, whatever that may be, in a way that the mere mechanical processes of photography can't, or so they say. And then they produce stuff that is mostly about themselves and about Painting and being a Painter; no matter what their cobbled together critical underpinning or cultural references might be, that's what it's actually about. The artist as Artist. It's all a self reverential and referential power game. And the concomitant of the fatuous attitude of painters is the way some photographers try to aggrandise their work with the tropes of art. You can forgive, almost, 19th century photographers like P. H. Emerson, but I remember sitting in the library at Winchester reading Edward Weston's Daybooks and becoming increasingly nauseated by his insistence on art, art, art and his own importance as an Artist. Nowadays I recognise that there is a lot of good stuff in Weston, and I might not even be able to find what I took such exception to in his writing (and in Ansel Adams and Cartier Bresson et al, anyone from the 'canon' in short, although the notions of 'pre-visualising' and the 'decisive moment' spring to mind as being particularly contentious) but then I was a bolshy young art student with a corner of my own to fight.
        There was also a photographic fashion at the time called 'social documentary', or 'social realism', which I saw as middle class - which in England, you know, means upper class, or at least affluent, educated, professional - people making careers out of the poor and disadvantaged, just like old Emerson had done. I came from a relatively poor and disadvantaged background, culturally and socially disadvantaged certainly, for someone who thought they could be an artist...

LdiF:       You are starting to rant. Can we focus on why you started doing these random, although sometimes quite structured or methodical in the way you made or arranged them, but essentially random street photographs?

The London River, Past, Drury Lane, London, 1974</i> (detail), P. F. White 2018.
The London River, Past, Drury Lane, London, 1974 (detail), P. F. White, 2018

PFW:       OK. I doubted the documentary claims made for photography. I think there's even a case to be made, argued, that photography is not essentially, structurally, a representational medium, sorry I'm digressing again. I couldn't understand why, if photography was such a great documentary medium its exponents relied on design and composition and pictorial devices that came from painting, and from painting of hundreds of years before the invention of photography. If to document meant to record or to provide evidence, the practices of documentary photographers were analgous to an interviewer taking the subject's words and turning them into poetry, making them scan and rhyme. Does that make sense?

LdiF:       Yes, like that picture of the Migrant Mother with all its triangles and lines, like a painting of the Madonna and Child?

PFW:       Dorothea Lang, yes it's a great photograph and it was taken to do an important job, and there's a long story to it. But there is something essentially false about it. Any truth or fact about it has to be a construct, using information that is outside of the picture. It's not as simple as its presentation might imply. For a start, it's posed, it's a collaboration between sitter and photographer, but a bit more complex than the average portrait
       What I was trying to do, and I'd readily acknowledge that my aims were much less worthy and important than the committed social realist and documentary photographers, was to see what would happen if I tried to use the camera, but to not make pictures, in the sense of graphic compositions that derive from the conventions of drawing and painting. So I started to develop a, practice is not the right word, I don't think artists or even students had a practice in the 1970's, I started to develop a habit of taking photographs without intention. There was always a reason, or trigger, for pressing the shutter but at the moment of decision my aim was that all pictorial considerations and apprehensions of meaning were absent.

The Wall: Asteroid
The Wall: Asteroid "Heading for Earth". Regent Street, London. Thursday March 12th 1998. (detail), P. F. White, 2016

LdiF:       So, how does this relate to the street photos? I think I can see, but could you expand?

PFW:       I suppose I'd learned, or been taught, that you should work with what you've got, Like Bonnard with his garden and his wife in the bath. So I got the camera to make its images of the things in front of it, and as it was always with me, or I with it, that was my family home and home town of Ramsgate, and then in later years wherever I've lived, worked or visited, and the streets I've walked through, or traffic islands I've stood on. Linked to this way of working with the camera came the notion of photographing people where neither party - the subject nor, as far as possible, the photographer - was posing. So that's how the street photos came about and I have been going back through the boxes of negatives you looked at earlier to see how I might bring them back to life, and doing a few more, all the time trying not to do the photographer's, or the artist's pose, although that's inescapable, of course.

LdiF:       You group some of these works with the title prefix 'The London River'..?

Piccadilly Falls
Piccadilly Falls, 3.2.2017 (detail), P. F. White, 2017.

PFW:       Yes, the London ones. I'm still working on them, so that title's provisional. But, the flow of people, through the streets and down the years reminds me of a river; you can drown your self in it, get lost in it, getting across it can be hard, sometimes it's a wall, impenetrable, it can push you aside. It can be clear and limpid or seem so dense and opaque. You can fight against it, or float along with it. Most of all it is constantly flowing. I remember once, around midnight on New Year's Eve in Trafalgar Square the crush and surge of people was so strong that I found I could take my feet off the ground and be carried along, not touching the ground, and then it dissipated and I found myself, back on my rather unsteady feet, in the spume at the edge. I tottered down Northumberland Avenue and there was no one there. I was alone, like on an empty beach, the kind I knew in Ramsgate in my youth, in the middle of this great city at the most intense moment of the year.....I'd say analogy, not metaphor....

LdiF (sings):

Vanti, o cara, il ruscello
di fremer gorgogliando
rotto fra sterpi e sassi
finché poi mormorando
con gl'argentei suoi passi
arriva a ribaciar del mar l'arene

PFW:       Oh dear, what's that? I hope you're not doing it for me...aggrandising by reference

LdiF:       It's about the sputtering and gurgling stream becoming a flowing silvery thing that ends by embracing the sands of the seashore, meaning estuary, I guess. Handel, you must know it, you like Handel. Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, I know it 'cos I sang Polifemo back home, at school in Catania when I was a kid...and I remember it because I was in love with the girl who sang Aci, knew her words better than I did mine. Hey and after all...the Water Music!

PFW:       And the Fireworks, another of my streams. Yes I like Handel. I like his utility and his joyfulness. Wasn't Aci's blood turned into a river? There might be something there, if that's what you like, but I've actually never been that keen on metaphor. And mythology can be deadly: taking it for reality might be the fatal flaw that ends this humanity that I like to find caught in my photographic net so much.

The River's Head
The River's Head, 2017 (detail), P. F. White, 2018.

Text and images © P.F.White, 2018.

All works are available in a variety of output formats. All enquiries: Contact FXP PHOTOGRAPHY

See also:
The Target Book of Chance Meetings
Leonardo di Faccia talks to Josef Evagora (extract)