The ongoing collection of works made Through a Window at Butley continue a long endeavour to let the processes of photography reveal their own species of vision.
In 1826 or 1827 Nicephor Niépce made the earliest surviving photograph: a view from the window of his workroom at Le Gras, Saint-Loup-de-Varennes, in eastern France. Fox Talbot’s earliest surviving negative (from August 1835) was of a window at Laycock Abbey. Photographers have often been drawn to this ubiquitous frame that frames and crops before the camera.
I live in rural Suffolk, in a semi-detached house on a site where, from the 1170s until the 16th century, stood Butley Priory, a large Augustinian community and a centre of learning. Now, to the north the house looks onto a 6 acre wood which was the Priory burial ground, to the east onto fields where brick kilns once stood and to the south onto semi derelict farm buildings: a 1960s grain store and an 18th century cart bay. To the south-east there is a glimpse of the sea where, 5 miles away, huge container ships can be seen on their way into or out of Felixstowe Docks. Close to the house there is an ever changing garden and in the distance there are woods, grazing cattle, arable fields, salt marshes and hills that were once islands.
I attempt to photograph some of this, through my window, but I try to avoid making a view. In the past I have often made works by, in a particular place or in front of a specific subject, exposing whole films using a camera with a long telephoto lens, avoiding the exercise of any visual judgement by not looking through the viewfinder, pressing the shutter release attentively but aimlessly, and then printing all 36 frames to see what the camera saw. To photograph Through a Window at Butley I've acquired a 100mm telescope, the type used for bird spotting, and try to use similar techniques. I choose a subject, but then relinquish some of the control. Sometimes moving the lens carelessly within the subject area, taking 36 or more pictures as fast as I can (see The Grain Store): sometimes focussing on a particular point before and after and during an event (see The Beet Harvest).
My telescope is not as refined as a camera lens, the image goes soft towards the edges, has no depth of focus and suffers from chromatic aberration (purple/yellow fringing). I make this worse by keeping the window shut, so shooting through another two panes of glass. I welcome these reminders that you are not looking at the world but at an image: light bent through lenses, turned into its analogue as digital data and processed into coloured light on a screen or ink on a sheet of paper.
Through a Window at Butley: The Harvest, (detail), 2015.
Through a Window at Butley: The Grain Shed (detail), 2015.
Through a Window at Butley: Moonrise over Butley High Corner (detail), 2015 - 2017.
Through a Window at Butley: Across Parks to Stonebridge Marshes and Boyton (detail), 2018.
Through a Window at Butley: Kanzan, 1.5.2018 (detail), 2018.
In 1975 I read Pierre Cabanne's Dialogues with Marcel Duchamp. Two passages in my copy have faint pencil marks beside them:
Duchamp: ….The word "belief" is another error. It's like the word "judgement," they're both horrible ideas, on which the world is based.
(p.89 in the 1971 Thames and Hudson edition)
Cabanne: Nevertheless, you believe in yourself?
Cabanne: Not even that.
Duchamp: I don't believe in the word "being." The idea of being is a human invention.
Cabanne: "Being" is very poetic.
Duchamp: No. Not at all. It's an essential concept, which doesn't exist at all in reality, and which I don't believe in, though people in general have a cast-iron belief in it. No one ever thinks of not believing in "I am", no?
(p.89 and 90 ibid)
At the same time I was reading John Cage's books Silence and A Year From Monday. But what appealed to me was not a positive engagement in indeterminacy or chance as as a way of making art. I was drawn to a more aggressively negative position: I wanted to refuse to engage in any way with what might be seen as the pose of the photographer. Photography was, and continues to be, entrenched in the pictorial values of the time in which it was invented, which, in England, was the late Georgian and early Victorian eras. It seemed to me that it must be possible to develop a radical practice of photography that understood the physical realities and advantages of the medium.
Photography is mechanised drawing. It is the best and purest form of drawing. Human, eye-derived and hand-executed, drawing is subject to the illusions of vision and the quirks, spasms and weaknesses of the skeleto-muscular system. Photography, as a way of seeing and representing the visual world, can be free of eye-brain-hand subjectivity and, perhaps, of the pernicious notions that art depends on fine specialised judgment and the expression of the self.
Text and images © P.F.White, 2018.
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