Chris is very much a camera club contrarian, but very much in a good, and entertaining, way. He is passionately against photographic cliches, such as sunsets shots and selfies and social media likes, which he says leads to ‘dopamine or despair’. “If you do everything others like, if you set store on ‘likes’ then you’ll lose your creativity,” he warned, adding “it is much better to be a misunderstood genius.”
He took us on a photographic journey of the work that influenced him, from the 1970s to 19th century Japan and the Russian Revolution. He showed us an example of one of his early super-saturated landscapes which nowadays he sees as proof that ‘you cannot polish a turd’.
Chris had a rhetorical question: ‘Why do all pictures have to be ‘nice’?’ He talked about Ansel Adams and the American Sublime tradition and also the European artists such as David Casper Friedrich. These traditions showed landscapes as humanity being master of all it surveyed. Humanity’s blot on the landscape was not a ‘nice picture’ but it told a story that was nearer the truth and off Chris took us to Iceland and Uzbekistan to see landscapes as ‘obstructed views’. This was what he called ‘a new topography’ – man-altered landscape, humanity’s relationship with nature, not divorced from nature. Instead of avoiding the clutter in the photographs, Chris took shots of the clutter, clutter became part of the landscape. He showed photos of Iceland devoid of the usual scenes: a playground at night, a row of coat hangers in the capital’s library. In Uzbekistan he had photos that included the gas pipes that run above ground in the towns and cities.
He took pictures of the ordinary which was both boring and interesting, if you are prepared to look deeper. He said that someone who made an art of this was the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai and his famous series of woodcut images entitled Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji. Chris paid homage to Hokusai with a series of images he published called Plastic Chairs of South-East Asia. He also recommended a similar theme photo book Soviet Bus Stops.
Chris asked how many of us use colour as the subject and showed us photos of those street photographers who have inspired him: Helen Levitt, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, Fred Herzog, William Eggleston, Martin Parr and others. He then spoke about early 20th century Russian Suprematism and the links to modern day food photography. He also managed to tip his hat to Degas when he spoke about the importance of composition – “it’s not about breaking the rules, it’s about realising there aren’t any rules.”
Towards the end of his entertaining and thought provoking talk he summarised what he had be focussing on:
Obstructed views: the clutter that speaks about the place, that speaks to you.
Pictures of ordinary: people’s lives, sense of space, time – capture the nostalgia before it happens.
Colour: use it as a subject matter
Compression: use a tele-photo lens to compress street scenes
Odd: capture that which is odd
Composition: look at different ways to put your photos together. See Aleksandr Rodchenko work
Windows: Looking in or looking out. See Lee Friedlander’s work
Food: tells us where a place is
Night: good time to photograph but not usually photographed.
He finished his talk by saying that we need to take enough picture, that your pictures are your vocabulary, and the wider your vocabulary you will be able to tells lost of stories.
A thoroughly fascinating talk.