PHOTOGRAPHY AND ABSTRACTION
by Edward Lucie-Smith
by Edward Lucie-Smith
At first glance, these photographs by Charles March are a surprise. They seem to belong to a part of the Modernist tradition that lies very far from what we usually think of as being in any way photographic. Specifically what they recall is some of the early ink and wash drawings made by Barnett Newman, before his work became rigidly geometric. Perhaps, too, there is a reminder of some of the work of Clyfford Still. They mark a distinct step forward – a step towards full abstraction – from the group of images shown in the State Russian Museum’s galleries at the Marble Palace in St Petersburg, in January of last year.
They are in fact also the product of a long drawn out transition, both in the personal development of the photographer and also – if I may be bold enough to claim it – in the history of photography itself. In many respects, these images contradict everything we have been taught to look for in an image described as a ‘photograph’.
In general, the words ‘photography’ and ‘realism’ have always tended to go hand-in-hand. We now live in an art world where ‘photo-realism’ is a fully accepted term, used to designate kinds of realistic art where the observation of external reality seems to be most meticulous, and closest to our own experience of the world that surrounds us.
In addition, we accept without demur the idea that photography can serve a preparatory function – that a valid painting, fully expressive of a personal sensibility, can nevertheless use a photograph (or photographic images in the plural) as a legitimate starting point. We also know that a photograph can be regarded as a fully developed artwork in its own right. Yet we also continue to think of it as being essentially realistic, tied to the external world by an indissoluble bond.
Part of this stems from the history of this image-making technique. Photography was born in the second quarter of the 19th century, at a time when a strong religious revival was challenging the rationalist ideas propagated by the 18th century Enlightenment. It was, to begin with, often seen as a way to short-cut the vagaries of the individual creative process. Nature could now imprint itself directly on the surface provided. For the religious mind, this could seem like a manifestation of divine creativity, unsullied by merely human pre-occupations. Religion and technology for once were allied, moving towards the same goal of unmediated visual truth.
When the photographic pioneer William Henry Fox Talbot published The Pencil of Nature in six installments between 1844 and 1846 – “the first photographically illustrated book to be commercially published” – he was at pains to emphasise that the images offered were instantaneous and untampered with. “The plates of the present work,” he wrote, are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.”
As photography developed as an art form, and particularly as it became increasingly allied to the Modern Movement in art,photographers did of course feel a strong attraction to the experiments being made by practitioners in other forms, and therefore, necessarily, to the idea of compositions that were entirely abstract, with an existence entirely divorced from the need to represent external reality. They nevertheless found it hard to loosen their bonds with the real.
One of tactics most favoured by pioneering Modernist photographers was to focus on the part rather than the whole. Small details, excerpted from a more complete realist image, seemed to offer equivalents for the kind of purely abstract images offered by the Modernist pioneers of entirely non-figurative art, since the spectator did not recognise their identity at a first, or even a second glance. Celebrated examples of this attempt at creating an equivalence for abstraction from indubitably ‘real’ basic materials occur in the work of Paul Strand.
This is not, however, what is happening here. The photographs, which have the scale and impact of major Abstract Impressionist paintings, are stubbornly reticent about any figurative source – as stubborn, in this respect, as the drawings of Barnett Newman cited above.
Charles March has a long personal history as a working photographer, a medium with which he has always been obsessed.
Starting off as an assistant to the film-maker Stanley Kubrick, he then worked as a documentarist in Africa, and afterwards as a highly respected and successful photographer in the British advertising industry, under the name Charles Settrington. During this period he developed a much- respected expertise in making still life photographs using large format analogue cameras. When he had to take over responsibility for his family’s historic Goodwood estate in West Sussex, he continued to experiment with photography in private. This period of experimentation coincided with a revolution in photographic technology – the radical change from analogue to digital.
Inspired by this, he decided to tackle the medium and its possibilities in an entirely different way, exploiting to their limits the range of possibilities now offered by high quality, small, extremely portable digital cameras. One of the chief characteristics of photography, before the introduction of digital, was that it offered the image of a single moment, a clean cut through the flowing sequence of moments that we call ‘time’. Still photographs could offer a succession of images in sequence – which is what we see in the famous freeze-frames of racehorses made by the Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge. These images could even on occasion, be overlapped, and printed from a single negative, but each individual image nevertheless represents a single moment, cut off from the rest. The situation can be summed up in an aphorism of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “You cannot step into the same river twice.” With the arrival of digital photography, Charles March saw the possibility of overcoming this limitation.
Though he is now a maker of abstract photographs, Charles March is also a passionate lover of nature. The big images shown here aim to give us the stillness and mystery of woodland landscapes, without actually representing those landscapes. Rather than this, they aim to give you the feeling of what it is like to be there yourself, in the midst of them. To quote another Abstract Expressionist master, Jackson Pollock: “The modern artist is working with space and time, and expressing his feelings rather than illustrating.”
British art, like traditional Chinese ink-painting, has an intensely felt connection with nature, present in the work of many leading British painters, but particularly so in the images made by leading 19th century practitioners of landscape painting, chief among them Turner, Constable and Samuel Palmer. This continues today. The series of images Charles March exhibited in St Petersburg was collectively entitled ‘Nature Translated’.
In terms of style, this group of photographs has moved on, and loosened the bonds with the idea of direct representation. Nevertheless, at some half-hidden level, the power of nature still resonates within them. They evoke the times when you step into a landscape, and it makes you hold your breath. This reverence for nature is one of the things that British and American culture have in common. In fact, the emotions evoked here are closely paralleled by those we find in what is perhaps Robert Frost’s most famous poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
This is an age-old sentiment, but the way in which it is evoked in Charles March’s new work is completely untraditional. The handheld camera moves, as the image is being made, rather as the painter’s brush moves and flows in Chinese ink painting. It is impossible to divide one moment from the next. The photograph is the representation of a sequence of moments, so tightly knit together than it is impossible to divide one from the next.
The time taken is brief, perhaps just the instant it might take you to read the lines quoted by Frost quoted above, but you live through it with the photographer. That is something genuinely new in the medium.
There is also something here that painting cannot do. What we tend to forget, when we look at more conventionally realist photographs, is the fact that they show us, not the thing itself, but the action of light as it strikes, shapes and defines the thing we are looking at. This was something that Henry Fox Talbot knew about. Here too, I think, we are much more conscious that we are looking at the marvellous, miraculous dance of light that defines some of our best moments in the world we live in. But the image arrives in a completely new and original form.