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Friday, 26 October 2018

'Boring is a Critical Term'

I was writing a review of Txema Salvans new book, My Kingdom, the other week during which I changed my mind half the way through. I like the idea of changing my mind because we do it all the time but very rarely see that lack of certainty referenced. Everybody seems to be very sure of themselves all of the time, even though in reality we're not.

I changed my mind was because My Kingdom is filled with really great photographs that are all to do with Spain, land, exploitation, despoilation, and a very complex sense of place. Salvans can photograph. But at the same time his book is added a political dimension by including extracts from the King of Spain's Christmas speeches to the Spanish people. The extracts are patrician in tone and tie in to the idea of contested political and geographic landscapes. So it works really well and does add somethiing to the book.

I wrote this, hedging my bets at every available opportunity because, as I said at the start, I'm dealing in big broad brush strokes and I'm not entirely sure of what I'm writing about much of the time. 
'Most photographic artists can’t take a picture to save their life. Photographic art in the more conceptual sense is rarely about ‘great pictures’ that stop you in your tracks and make you wonder at the stories that are unfolding within the frame. Most photographic artists aren’t able to take a good picture, let alone a great one. That’s why you have so much photographic theory, much of which is to justify why these rambling, amorphous projects are actually really important and often made by the theorists who write to elevate what they produce.
Again, that’s a bit of a harsh division, but we’ll go with it because it is so simple and essentially true (except when it’s not. I’m thinking of all the examples where it’s not true, but what the heck, we’ll go with it).'

I started off hating that use of text in the book, the size, the colour, the spacing, the font, the references, everything -  because it has a certain flavour, and that flavour is boring (to keep it simlify). It's something that is usually part of a package that is made up of a complex array of elements that when viewed as a whole seems profound and deep, but when unpicked turns out to be empty. Take the packaging apart and there is nothing left, all you have are a series of pointers to a gap that is filled by boring pictures. In the case of My Kingdom, I ultimately decided, there is a lot inside the package and the package adds something to that, and the text is part of the package.

Boring, as I read in a post on Twitter yesterday, is a critical term. Boring pictures, boring books, boring essays, boring organisations, boring ideas, it's not good however you dress it up.

But it seems there's almost an industry to uphold this idea of boringness.

I have a friend who used to teach on a really successful photography course. His course was understaffed and had loads of students but it was successful.

At the same uni, there was an overstaffed course with no students because the staff were lazy and self-satisfied - essentially it was funded by the successful course. It was decided there would be a merger and there was a consultation with the staff. The successful course staff were to be busy to spend much time on the consultation. they had two and a half full time staff and 100 students.

The useless course staff had loads of time (4 full time staff and maybe 40 students), so when they merged everything was done according to the useless course, with useless content that conformed to the interests of the useless staff, with the useless course staffing it, because it was all made to play to their strengths - which were really weaknesses.

The moral of that story is that people defend their own interests. Similarly, there are people involved in photography who, on the whole, are not able to make great pictures.  But they want to be artists as well. And because of that they decide not to like great pictures.

So it's almost like there's a whole industry constructed to uphold the idea of boring pictures. You sometimes look at work and wonder if a bunch of people haven't got round a table and one of them has suddenly said, "look we can't take pictures for shit, but what if we all wrote a bunch of stuff saying how it's not about the  spectacle of the great picture but about the minutae that we can actually do, something that elevates our monologues into work of great and profound significance. Jazza can wring the tiniest detail out of the smallest point and talk about it for hours and hours. No-one ever listens to him, so we all end up agreeing by the end of it. Isn't that a talent worth developing. And Mazza. Mazza can create a complex structure of arguments that hypnotise you into a world where they seem to make sense, until suddenly you snap out of it and realise you've been sucked into some parallel universe where the things that do matter don't, and the things that don't, do. And as for Chazza, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of what Mazza and Jazza are doing and can pretend a) that it makes sense and b) that it's really, really essential to understand this before you can even get up in the morning. What better skill in the world can there be than that."

It's a kind of gaslighting where boring is not a critical term. And gaslighting is not a critical term. And self-indulgence is not a critical term. If you're not interested in this, if you don't get this, then essentially there's something wrong with you. It's a top-down, hierarchical way of seeing the world imposed from a narrow cultural framework which values a certain kind of discourse above all others. It's limited by itself, and it limits others. It's a colonial view if you like. And it's joyless.

Which isn't to say that there aren't boring pictures that are really interesting, or unspectacular pictures that aren't profound, or that history and theory doesn't add a huge amount of depth and context to work.  Of course it does and if you're not interested in it, then it is likely that your work is going to be superficial and dull - and boring. it's just that so often, ideas are framed in such a hostile, and ultimately boring way. And they have a defensive element built within them that is designed to exclude. It's the discourse of sobriety but with extra nasty, delivered in a tone of authority with a little bit of brimstone thrown in for good measure; Heed me not and ye shall be delivered unto hell.

None of this means that there aren't spectacular pictures that are accepted as profound.

Yesterday I got the latest Chris Killip series of elevated newspaper books published by Ponybox and designed by Niall Sweeney. They're gorgeous. They're filled with fantastic photographs which are beautifully printed and have a whole thought process going on behind their design, publication and distribution.

There's one set of images of the last ships to be launched on Tyneside and they are most spectacular. It's terraced houses with massive ships in the background, made on a large format camera. They're just great and you know when Killip was making them he was thinking, 'Wow, Amazing!' or something similar.

Then you look at them and you go 'Wow! Amazing!' You can dress that up a bit, or a lot because it's Chris Killip and they're informed by everything else he did in the northeast of England, but that's just the filling to go between the Wow! and Amazing! It's the Wow! and Amazing! that comes first. That's the entry point, and not just for a chosen few, but anyone.

Anyone in the world can look at those pictures and say "Wow! Amazing!" and that really matters. Because that is the condition for going deeper into the images and cracking open the social structures, the economics, the financial systems, and everything else that lies beneath these pictures. And that's their ultimate sophistication then, and what really makes them great pictures; they draw people in, they are an entry point for deeper reading and understanding. And that matters.

It matters because if you don't have something deeper in your pictures, if you don't understand the history, the theory, the ideas that lie beneath the surface, then all you have is surface. Which is good for a chocolate box but not much more.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some cake and I want to eat it. And wait for great pictures to get boring - that won't take long.

And I'll leave it there...

1 comment:

David Smith said...

This is some of the funniest, most perspicacious and un-boring writing on photography I've read. Thanks!