Peter Fraser by David Chandler

Although, oddly, it has no title and the new work it presents is similarly unnamed, Peter Fraser’s sixth book is an emphatic statement in more ways than one. Most immediately, the book – published and beautifully produced by Nazraeli Press – is the artist’s largest to date. Coming in at 360x360mm, it’s the size and weight of the average floor tile, and as such is awkward for the casual viewer. Looking at this book involves some planning: a table and plenty of time are required, and as each picture has a distinctly monumental quality, the book comes with a sense that serious demands are being made. The overall effect is that a particular point of maturity is being marked, something that is in the end underlined by the simple use of Fraser’s name on the cover, suggesting perhaps that the work is some kind of defining moment, the declaration of an identity, firmly and finally resolved.

The photographs themselves, forty-two in all, represent both continuity and also a shift of emphasis in Fraser’s work. His interest in science and technology, that so dominated both Deep Blue (1997) and his last book Material (2002), has given way, at least on the surface, to something broader in outlook and more vernacular, one might even say organic, in character. Like Material, the photographs pull us close to their subjects: odd and apparently inconsequential things of a lowly register are often enlarged but always given an elevated status as Fraser delves down into what seems like some sub-strata or base level of experience, scouring the ground and floors where different atmospheres and unnoticed relationships between things exist, and where the minute particularities of dirt and dust are finely calibrated. If Material was like an electric current spitting and fizzing at the end of a frayed wire, the new work’s energies are earthed and more embedded in the nature of objects and matter. Disorder, bubbling chemical corrosion and the abject are now replaced by something more constructive, the new work being shot through with sublime ordinariness and some beautiful broken harmonies. Repeatedly through the book small objects and assemblages – a polystyrene cup hedgehog spiked with tooth-picks, a roughly made bird box, a moss covered arrangement of blockish stones – reveal a human touch, and so declare a form of humanness, but also suggest some innate order or kinship of materials that is only shaped rather than invented by its maker. It is a fragile affiliation of matter that seems constantly on the point of collapse.

Another prominent tension in the photographs is between weight and lightness, or perhaps between blunt, heavy form and a near weight-less delicacy – concrete, hard wood, iron, and an actual 14lb weight, against a paper plane, a brightly silhouetted white insect and a dandelion seed blown on to an oil slick. In some photographs these contrasts are brought together, such as the image of the worn base of a pair of ancient wooden doors over which is pinned a gentle wave of white flex. In this picture the flex intrudes as a sign of the banal everyday across the face of history, just one of the indications in the book that history, and more specifically an idea of time, has crept back as an important dimension in Fraser’s work. So, where there is delicacy, there is also the suggestion of the fleeting, of happenstance, of temporary customisation and the momentarily strange and incongruous. And, in counterpoint to that, where there is weight, there is also the long, extended life of matter and its objects; the weight of history to set against the short-lived time frame of human experience, and our time of looking. Photographs such as that of a water-worn carved wooden post, possibly salvaged from a shipwreck, registers this sense of deep time in the work, the past surviving into the present, and prompts the thought that Fraser’s new book is also a museum and a treasure chest. Alice-like, with its abrupt changes and uncertainties of scale, the book presents us with an improbable collection of conundrums. Each image is offered as a small door into another world of far horizons, which, in the context of Fraser’s scientific interests may be nothing less than the universe itself, but equally it is the place that Alice found herself in, the infinitely changing, unmapable space of the imagination.

Working at a time of great fragmentation in photography, Fraser’s strategy is to apply the most exacting standards, a kind of technical purity, to what are new territories of subject matter for photographic art. Material was a bravura performance in this respect, a genre bending work that was intentionally difficult to place but which kept what might be called ‘straight’ photography blisteringly alive. Fraser’s most important antecedent here is, of course, William Eggleston (although Fraser may now be tired of the association), whom he worked alongside for a time in the 1980s. Eggleston’s attack on the formal elegance and sentimentality of humanist photography – ‘I am at war with the obvious’ he once said – his determined peering at unlikely things and into unlikely places, his finding new views and new angles with which to reinvent the poetics of the camera, is an approach that Fraser has come to make his own. For Fraser, like Eggleston, only certain things have the power to make the grade; very little on his low mission of discovery is finally admitted into the lexicon. Waiting for something genuinely surprising in the sphere of everyday transcendence, underpinned by the utmost rigour in editing, produces the monumental quality that so grabs the attention and holds it tight. The viewer is constantly challenged, provoked and prodded. Are you looking carefully enough? Are you really seeing what I’m seeing? Fraser’s photographs seem to say. His work results from such concentration that the act of seeing is tinged with a kind of euphoria, a palpable excitement that is channelled into, and can only be contained by, the photograph itself.

—David Chandler, 2007

[first appeared in 'Photoworks' Magazine, Brighton, Spring/Summer 2007....ISSN 1742-1659]

     

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