Tiny Jubilations: Johanna Burton

Imagine an artist who was always, spiritually, in the condition of the convalescent…Now convalescence is like a return towards childhood. The convalescent, like the child, is possessed in the highest degree of the faculty of keenly interesting himself in things, be they apparently of the most trivial. Let us go back, if we can, by a retrospective effort of the imagination, towards our most youthful, our earliest, impressions, and we will recognize that they had a strange kinship with those brightly coloured impressions which we were later to receive in the aftermath of a physical illness, always provided that that illness had left our spiritual capacities pure and unharmed. The child sees everything in a state of newness; he is always drunk. Nothing more resembles what we call inspiration than the delight with which a child absorbs form and colour. I am prepared to go even further and assert that every sublime thought is accompanied by a more or less violent nervous shock which has its repercussion in the very core of the brain…But genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will—a childhood now equipped for self-expression with manhood’s capacities and a power of analysis which enables it to order the mass of raw material which it has involuntarily accumulated.

—Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life

I am taking the liberty of quoting this famous passage by Baudelaire in its entirety so that when I identify the photographer Peter Fraser, by turns, as a convalescent, a child and a drunk, there will be no misunderstandings. His color pictures, whether depicting a pair of banal blue buckets or the most technologically advanced X-ray beam splitter stall time, let things just be for a moment, in all the wonder of their thingness. Fraser, indeed, has the “strange kinship” with coloured impressions that Baudelaire attributes to his “modern” painter of the 1860’s, a historical moment, not incidentally, when industry and technology (including, of course, photography) was beginning to deeply influence the way people saw the substance of the world around them. But, unlike Baudelaire’s painter of modern life who sorts through so much unwelcome modern residue, Fraser takes great pains to accumulate and amass these raw residual materials that come at him from all sides. “Useless to resist,” he seems to say, and takes up hearty, voluntary accumulation as a working methodology—Fraser, like the camera he wields, stands open to the world, waiting for its myriad elements to pass before his lens, to deposit kaleidoscopic impressions there like unexpected jewels.

But, I hardly want to get precious about the things that populate Fraser’s work. Instead of simply highlighting or isolating those objects (a fragile model ship lit by the sun, the gaping lower lip of a melted pipe, red and green wires arabesquing out of a wall) that momentarily push out from the flat surface of their environments, Fraser’s propitious compositions serve to locate the expansive field in which such an object is found. The most significant entity of any photograph taken by Fraser, then, is hardly materially locatable, for it is in the confusion between object and subject that the gaze lingers. Indeed, if these are photographs that produce an unexpected, even jolting, empathetic response, it is because they situate viewers precisely at the where and when of the artist’s spontaneous glance. These are images of intertwined space—where the sensuous spread of a spill of water, say, harnesses Fraser’s attention, and the two are locked for an instant in a mutual embrace.

Fraser’s oeuvre, then, operates as a perpetually growing record—a primer even—of one individual’s manner of seeing the world. Yet, even as such, these are photographs of glances that can never be repeated; as much as the images stall time, they record its passage and acknowledge its inherent irretrievability. They speak as much of the fragility and eventual expiration of the glancer (artist and audience), as of the strange vulnerability of any object momentarily seized by the camera. Roland Barthes, in Camera Lucida, writes famously that photography brings out a kind of “amorous or funereal immobility” which is, ironically, “at the very heart of the moving world.”

Fraser performs a double-take every time he snaps a photograph: Whatever catches his eye is revealed as both artificially preserved and always-already obsolete. This is complicated, of course, by the fact that the great majority of Fraser’s “subjects” were “lifeless” to begin with. What we see, then, in his photographs, is a potent breath of animation exchanged, taken in and released all before the shutter snaps. This is not to say that Fraser anthropomorphizes what he photographs—rather the opposite, that the glint of his human gaze upon, say, a deflated tangerine balloon, documents the human desire to, in Merleau-Ponty’s terms be a part of “the flesh of the world” and the impossibility of sustaining such a state of immersiveness.

“I see photographs everywhere, like everyone else, nowadays; they come from the world to me, without my asking; they are only ‘images,’ their mode of appearance is heterogeneous…I realized that some provoked tiny jubilations, as if they referred to a stilled center, an erotic or lacerating value buried in myself (however harmless the subject matter may have appeared)…” So writes Roland Barthes, pointing out the way in which we have learned to see “photographically,” to frame, to snap, to make our memories into fragmented images to be recalled (or not) as though appearing in a mnemonic scrapbook. The accumulated mass of the world appears as a heterogeneous fabric of multi-colored threads, a tiny percentage of them glistening, glancing toward the eye of a beholder, provoking “tiny jubilations.” Fraser seeks these shudders, behaving as a convalescent drunken child charmed with the sparkle of even the most pedestrian things, unwilling to posit any hierarchy of value between, say, the hue of a lumpy red suitcase and the intricate scaffold-structure of a communications satellite. To borrow a term from Russian structuralism, Fraser is in the business of “making strange,” not because he is endowed with any secret transformative touch but, rather, because he sees strangeness itself as the most natural thing in the world.

—Johanna Burton, New York, December 2003

[From 'The Citigroup Photography Prize 2004' catalogue..published by 'The Photographers' Gallery', London, 2004 ISBN 0907879675]

     

All photographs on this site are copyright © Peter Fraser. All rights reserved. Site designed by Axis Graphic Design.