BODY OF WORK (AND ARTISTS' STATEMENTS)

What is a photographer's "body of work"? After all, it's one of those phrases you hear bandied about a lot; or at least, "a lot" if you frequent photographic galleries and read about the artistic side of photography, rather than the technical side. It is however extremely hard to define. Probably the most useful definition is "a collection of related pictures with a common style", but a better definition still might be, "several collections of pictures, each collection sufficient for an exhibition". As soon as you say this, you find yourself looking as much as what a "body of work" isn't, as at what it is.

bench

 

 

 First of all, a body of work is not (usually) the same as an "oeuvre". The latter usually refers to an artist's lifetime output, or at least to the whole output in his or her life so far, though the two terms are sometimes (understandably) used interchangeably.

 

Second, a body of work is not necessarily the same thing as a load of pictures of the same thing. Yes, it might be, but equally, a load of pictures of the same thing might just be a load of pictures of the same thing without any underlying style. Admittedly the Duesseldorf-Becher school can look like that sometimes, but there is a style, nonetheless.

 

There's no set number for how many pieces comprise a "body of work". It is unlikely to comprise fewer than a couple of dozen pictures per series; a couple of hundred might be nearer the mark in many cases; and indeed when you include the "also ran" images (the ones you don't show other people) it may run to a couple of thousand.

Bench

 

It's easy to see what appealed to me here: the strong shapes and colours. Because it's an ordinary bench in the street, the fresh paint is all the more precious: it could so easily have been old, dull, dirty, cracked and ordinary. Digital Leica M.

 

 

 

Third, a body of work is not necessarily your exclusive focus. You can work on two or even three themes at the same time, though trying to work on any more than that, simultaneously, is likely to make your work too diffuse. At various times I have worked on the banality of motels (the "1000 Motels" series); on religious artifacts for sale at vide-greniers or French village sales ("La Religion Recyclée"); on tables and chairs, as if they were alive; and on the series I've used here, which I loosely call "Street Furniture", the things you find in the street, either placed there deliberately or simply left there. But I don't try to work on them all at once. Or rather, if I try to, I can't. I lose the underlying style. And, of course, you can just shoot "other stuff" (as we all do) alongside the theme.

All right: we have style. What is style? Again, it's hard to say. As far as I can see, it's something that creeps up on you while you aren't looking. It means that your pictures all look as if they were shot by you, but this is not the same as saying that they all look the same. At this point, we start getting perilously close to pretentiousness, as exemplified by the Artist's Statement.

Gutter

 

 

 

Now, I'd hope that you can already see a sort of underlying theme in the illustrations here. Scroll forward a bit to see the others. One of the most obvious compositional quirks is that the compositions are often cropped, abrupt, almost arbitrary (except of course that I don't think they're arbitrary, even if you do). Or on a less exalted plane, they're all colour, and they're all portrait format (vertical). Mixing black and white and colour is quite difficult, and when you're hanging an exhibition, it's easier if all the pictures are oriented the same way. In an exhibition, too, they'd all be as close as possible in print size, and the frames would all be the same size. These may seem like trivial points, but they're a reminder that people judge our photography by the pictures we show them, not by the ones we take. Yes, if you're a great enough artist, you can overcome details like this. Are you a great enough artist?

 

 

 

Gutter and down-pipe

 

Part of the appeal here is just the shapes; part is the textures; and part is the novelty of the soldered zinc shapes instead of the all but ubiquitous plastic. Zinc drain-pipes are still very popular in rural France: this is not in the street, but in my back garden. Leica M8, 1938 90/2.2 Thambar.

 

 

 

Maybe one of the best definitions of a "body of work", therefore, is "enough pictures for an exhibition". A besetting fault of amateur exhibitions is that the photographer wants to show only his or her best pictures. We immediately run into another problem of definition. What are "best pictures"? I can look back as far as the 1960s and choose the pictures I like best, but the only way they could possibly be nailed together into an exhibition is in the form of a retrospective, charting how my oeuvre has changed since I was 16. Quite honestly, I don't think my work warrants it. It may, one day, if I live long enough. Can I, therefore, try to put together an Artist's Statement to try to describe what I'm doing (and what I have done)?

 

 

Only with difficulty. The big problem with an Artist's Statement is that it is a magnet for pretentious sounding terms: aleatory, semiotic, and even (on a bad day) numinous. Now, "aleatory" means "by chance". It comes from the Latin "depending on the throw of the dice", given that "alea" is a die, as in "alea jacta est", meaning "the die is cast". Semiotics is a wonderful branch of philosophy dealing with marks, signs, symbols and messages: Umberto Eco's "Travels in Hyperreality" contains several excellent essays on the subject. "Numinous" I had to look up, only to discover that the people who use it to describe photo exhibitions do not seem to be too clear on what it means, either. It means "of or pertaining to a numen", which is a divine will or presence. They seem to be using a distinctly secondary meaning, akin to "awe inspiring" or perhaps "beyond the everyday".

Crucifix

 

 

 

Crucifix, Moncontour

 

 

 

 

Whether or not crucifixes at the wayside are unusual depends on where you live: in rural France, they're not that unusual. But again, note the composition. All four extremities of the crucifix are truncated, because (I believe) this is the way we notice things. Years ago, I'd have taken a literal picture, and it would have been a record shot. Today, it's much more something glimpsed on the road, half-remembered, filed away in the mind for future reference. It is rusting, the paint faded, a metaphor for the decline of the Catholic church in France. I forget what camera and lens I used: probably a Leica M8 (digital) with a 50 mm lens; possibly a 1,5/50 Zeiss C-Sonnar.

You can see that I'm already half way to an Artist's Statement. I'm taking pictures of things I find by chance ("aleatory"), that have meanings beyond the immediate visual content ("semiotic") and even that pertain to divine presence ("numinous"). The descriptions are not irrelevant, but the problem is, I'm struggling to use words to describe an essentially non-verbal medium. Now, I'm quite good with words, because they are a part of how I have earned my living for most of my life, and if I'm struggling, no wonder Artists' Statements are sometimes a bit strained.

 

 Perhaps the most important thing to learn from this is that while on the other hand, you don't necessarily need to put your intentions into words, on the other hand it's useful to have some intentions. Perhaps an Artist's Statement is something to work on when you're waiting in a doctor's surgery, or a Post Office queue. If you really want lots of time to work on it, go to the State Bank of India. Just think about what you're trying to say, and how you're trying to say it. A small pocket notebook may help you to remember particularly pellucid phrases.

 

 

 

It's also true that trying to write things down, as I am doing here, may help to clarify your thoughts. As I was writing this I began to realize that the "Street Furniture" series is also a sort of notebook. It helps me to remember the things that are unusual, or beautiful, or so ordinary that we tend not to notice how beautiful they are. It provides food for thought, too. Why do the French still use expensive, easily dented zinc drainpipes? Why were the English historically so addicted to heavy, surprisingly fragile cast iron? Is the cheapness and convenience of plastic sufficient recompense for its ugliness? Is it really ugly? What would (say) Cosmo de Medici have made of plastic drainpipes? After all, when aluminium was first discovered, it was treated as a precious metal: Napoleon is reputed to have used aluminium cutlery.

 


Floating phones

 

 

Floating 'phones, Igal, Hungary

 

 

 

First of all, it's a lovely piece of graphics for "telephone": a bit like the steam trains that are still used on road-signs. When did you last use a 'phone that actually looked like, well, a telephone? Second, public telephone booths are growing less and less common, as more and more people have mobile 'phones. Third, it intrigued me that the telephone symbols, on their glass panels, appeared to be floating in mid air. Yes, I could have done a Becher-esque typological study of 'phone booths. But that's not what I wanted. I wanted a reminder, quite possibly a fleeting reminder, of what we expect to find in our streets and parks; of how these things vary from country to country; and of how they change with time.

As I've already said, the pictures here are all colour, and all portrait format. But how else might you unify a series? Is it enough to unify it only via subject matter? I'm genuinely not sure. The problem is that a series of links that are obvious to the photographer may prove less obvious to the person looking at the picture. Sometimes you have to be less than subtle. It's rather like the story of the village preacher who explained, "First I tells 'em what I'm going to say; then I says it; then I tells 'em what I've said."

 

 

 

Another obvious way to unify a series is to limit yourself in your choice of focal lengths. As far as I recall, every picture in this series was taken with one of the classic Leica trinity of 35 mm, 50 mm and 90 mm. Although I have lenses from 14 mm to 600 mm, I don't think that anything outside the 35 mm to 90 mm range would really work in this context. It's not just the prospect of wild variations in perspective. It's also the way that long lenses lend to give a flat and usually blue image on any but sparkling-clear days.

 

This is not the same as being a "one camera, one lens" purist. To be sure, if you find that's the way you're working on a particular series, that's fine. There's also the argument that deliberately restricting your options can be a creative spur. You work with what you've got, rather than pining over what you'd like. Overall, I prefer to let the theme lead the pictures, and besides, I don't want to be forever swapping lenses.

Another unifying approach is to stick with a (preferably distinctive) medium: hand colouring, perhaps, or tintypes. Even with a conventional medium, it's probably as well to stick with the same paper surface. In black and white silver halide, Frances particularly likes Ilford Art 300.

Wheelbarrow

 

 

 

Wheelbarrow

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I think this was in Slovenia. What I liked here was the much patched and repaired wall, along with the wheelbarrow, symbol of continuing modification and modernization, and itself clearly well used. A camera club judge could find much to criticise. The foreground is arguably too light; the wheelbarrow is arguably too central; there's a bulging concrete lump on the right hand side of the picture; the shutter, also on the right, is not quite "true"; indeed the whole picture could perhaps be twisted a degree or so clockwise. But then you notice that the utility covers are in fact "square". Historically, perfect right angles were something of a rarity. Besides, I'm not shooting for a single shot in a camera club competition. I'm shooting for an exhibition of stuff you find in the street. (Leica)

This is perhaps one of the most important differences between shooting for clubs and competitions, and creating a body of work. You have to have your own ideas, and you have to stick to them. You cannot rely on someone else to tell you what to photograph. There is absolutely nothing wrong with shooting "a bit of this and a bit of that". Most photographers do it. But in order to create a body of work you need a theme (or themes) as well as "this and that".

 

 

 

 

Another thing to consider when it comes to unifying a theme is scale. It is all very well to mix close-ups and long shots in cinema, and indeed it is probably essential. For an exhibition, though, you want to make it easy for your viewers: you are not shooting "trick" or "what-is-it" shots. With the theme I have chosen here, it should be more as if I are reminding people of things they've already seen. We all see things in the street, all the time, and mostly we ignore them. With the "Street Furniture" theme, I'm not only trying to show you the things I've noticed in the street: I am also trying to persuade you to look around for yourself, and to notice things. This, of course, becomes part of the Artist's Statement.

Padlock

 

 

 

Padlock

 

 

In comparison with the previous picture (the wheelbarrow) and the next one (the wall painting and bench), this is the smallest scale I'm happy with in this series. The phrase "in this series" is important. I'm not looking for things you peer to see; I'm not looking for great vistas and grand landscapes or cityscapes. No: I'm looking for details, and although details can vary widely in size, there comes a point when they're so small you wouldn't notice them, or so large that they're not really details any more. The inability of M-series Leicas to focus closer than about 70 cm (28 inches) is normally a drawback, but the truth is that over the years I've learned to adjust my style so that I rarely want to photograph things any closer.

Again, while putting together this module I realized that quite a lot of the pictures in this series rely on texture, but not necessarily upon a very detailed representation of texture: the Thambar used for the drainpipe shot earlier is, after all, a soft-focus lens. But when you look at these pictures you will (I hope) recognize all these textures from your own memory. We all familiar with the textures of wood and paint and stone and smooth metal and rusty chains and a cement-encrusted wheelbarrow. Of course a sharp representation is likely to work better, but unexpectedly, it's not essential.

 

 

 

At this point, there are some resemblances between photography and the "emotional memory" that Stanislavsky postulated as the basis of "method" acting. Before "method" acting was exported to America, and became all but synonymous with mumbling and slouching, Stanislavsky invented it and taught it in Moscow. The idea is simple. When you want to convey (let us say) happiness, even joy, you ransack your memory for times when you felt like the character you are playing. You remember a joyful reunion after you had not seen your beloved for days; you automatically stand up straighter, move faster, climb the stairs two at a time. Or if your character is sad, you remember what it is like to trudge up the steps of a metro station, cold and tired, knowing you will be going home to an empty flat with only a packet of soup and half a loaf of bread for dinner.

Bench Thouars

 

 

 

Bench, Thouarsg>

 

 

 

 

Do you see what I mean about "emotional memory"? You don't need to be familiar with the back streets of Thouars to recognize this rather desperate attempt at improving a windswept, cold, concrete corner. You've been there in at least one other city. The art is faded and dirty, and lightly graffiti'd; the cement wall on which it is painted is cracked. Without sitting on it, you can feel the cold, slightly gritty concrete of the bench through the seat of your trousers. One leaf struggles in the earth behind the bench. Even on a warm day, you can't help feeling that it's going to be cold; and somehow it looks like winter sun, not summer sun, even though it was in fact summer. Leica M8 (I think); probably 35/1.4 Summilux.

All right. Now let's look back at the seven pictures that I've shown so far. What do they tell you about streets? About me? If you think that "about me" is unnecessarily egocentric, stop and think for a minute. An artist has to be egocentric, because it is the artist's interpretation of reality that we want to see. This is true whether it's photography or sculpture or writing or embroidery. Art involves taking reality and presenting it to the audience as if they were seeing it for the first time. So what sort of streets have I photographed? And why have I photographed them?

 

 

 

 

There is, I suspect, a strong sense of nostalgia running through them. It's not necessarily a sense of nostalgia for very long ago, and (if this makes sense) it's not even always good nostalgia. The picture immediately above represents a scene from the 21st century, but it could be almost any time from the 1950s on: the rebuilding of cities that were bombed, or were simply falling down and turning into slums. People may be trying to make things better, but they do not always succeed. There's a sense of continuity, too: a sense that no matter how new and shiny a city may be, it will always require repair, updating, renovating. So what's the Artist's Statement?

 

ARTIST'S STATEMENT: We don't notice the streets we live in; or rather, we notice them far too little. These pictures capture the things we don't notice: the things we come across by chance, the things we don't have the time to think about, the things that are leftovers from a past that we may never have seen, never have considered. They are the things in your streets and my streets and everyone's streets, and once you have looked at the pictures, if I've done it right, the exhibition will continue in your head for the rest of your life, in all the streets you walk.

Hook

 

 

 

 

Hook

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All right, it's a cheap (and not very sharp) shot: the hook I hang the artist's statement on. But what's the actual hook for? It is much sturdier than is needed to support just a hanging basket, and the hook is too close to the wall as well. The cement rendering is much newer than the ironwork. Why didn't they take it out when they re-rendered the wall? Did they leave it as a "feature" or did they fear that if they tried to pull it out, altogether too much stone would come with it? It's the odd dichotomy between the familiar and the unfamiliar that makes the "Street Furniture" series work for me. That, and a heavy doze of sheer puzzlement.

 

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