To write about photography involves an act of translation – one comes up again and again when trying to write about photography with the strong sense of an unbridgeable gap between the words we use and the photographs we seek to describe, interpret, appraise, define. Lost for Words, the title for Peter Fraser’s 2010 work in Wales, his place of birth, made clear his concern with an inability to communicate something. Being lost for words is an expression that aptly describes a situation of shock before an unexpected situation, the bad news of losing jobs and livelihoods or the death of someone close. The title resonated with the political consciousness underlining this work, with its pictures taken in ordinary homes, museums and stately homes that were redolent of class divisions as well as a loss of a certain way of life with the recurrence of things being preserved in the form of lifelike but clearly fake models: loaves of bread made of foam, for example. Words often fail us before Fraser’s pictures. His latest photography, Mathematics, is no exception.
Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace contains a beautiful passage, replete with an optical metaphor, involving its central character, Pierre Bezukhov, who following captivity has a moment of awakening that leaves him no longer tormented by the “terrible question ‘Why?’, which had formerly destroyed his mental constructions”:
Formerly he had been unable to see the great, the unfathomable and infinite, in anything. He had only sensed that it must be somewhere and had sought for it. In all that was close and comprehensible, he had seen only the limited, the petty, the humdrum, the meaning- less. He had armed himself with a mental spyglass and gazed into the distance, where the petty, the humdrum, disappearing into the distant mist, had seemed to him great and infinite, only because it was not clearly visible. Thus he had looked at European life, politics, Masonry, philosophy, philanthropy. But even then, in moments he regarded as his own weakness, his mind had penetrated this distance, and there, too, he had seen the petty, the humdrum, the meaningless. Now he had learned to see the great, the eternal, and the infinite in everything, and therefore in order to see it, to enjoy contemplating it, he had naturally abandoned the spyglass he had been looking through until then over people’s heads, and joyfully contemplated the ever-changing, ever-great, unfathomable and infinite life around him. And the closer he looked, the calmer and happier he became.
Tolstoy concludes his account of Bezukhov’s transformation with his discovery of a simple answer to his “terrible question ‘Why?’”: “because there is God, that God without whose will not a single hair falls from a man’s head.” Fraser’s relationship to mathematics as a determining order within the world has affinities with Bezhukov’s epiphany and is itself not without a certain spiritual overtone. Throughout this new work Fraser restores the miraculous realm of photography’s analogical form. His way of picturing the world remains awe-struck, as if we are seeing photography anew, for the first time. In every picture there is an unexpected intensity to do with the form and colour and detail of how the photograph has both depicted and trans- formed the world out there.
The scope of Tolstoy’s War and Peace – which the author describes not as a novel but a work – is vast, addressing the movement of history, the fate of his country in its war with Napoleon, the lives of those caught up in the war, predominantly aristocratic. It is nevertheless a great model for great photography. And Fraser’s new work signals a decisive shift – the photographs range much further, both in terms of what he chooses to picture and where he makes his photographs. His vision here has become expansive and the range of subjectmatter encyclopaedic.
Photography sensorily could be seen to be an impoverished medium. Its sensorial poverty in many way explains why it readily lends itself to illustration, information, messages, signals, more so than ever now with the circulation of images across and between digital screens.
Fraser’s new photographs invite us to think about the idea that there is a mathematical structure behind everything in the world and beyond, that all reality is an expression of a mathematical code. Mathematics allows Fraser to see the world as structured, bearing an order and beauty. Geometry figures as a sublime manifestation of this in his view looking up into the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Using a digital camera noted for the rendition of detail, part of the wonder is connected to the new capabilities of this technology. The greater descriptive capacity of digital photography allows Fraser to draw attention to the way in which the world is full, brimming over with things and seemingly inexhaustible. In this respect he is not so much a realist photographer, because what is pictured goes beyond what can be perceived by the human eye. This is a technological vision in which alterations of the world are made through the process of photographic depiction and translation – things are raised out of the familiar, made strange and intense through an extraordinarily detailed representation.
A result of this is that the world is not always shown as perfect, details can reveal flaws, imperfections. Some of the tiles need repair in his picture of the Blue Mosque, for example – awe is edged with a sense of the contingent. A similar flaw marks a related picture looking upwards in a church at a blue dome topped with the golden figure of Christ, set beneath a turquoise vaulted ceiling. There is a significant crack-line running through the cornice on the left. Such details register the erosive effects of time and the impermanence of all such manmade things.
What was liberating about photography in its very first pictures was that it allowed a greater pictorial emphasis on aspects of the ordinary and everyday world. While Fraser’s photography can picture sites of great art, much of his photography is taken from a more immediate and quotidian life-world. Consider, for example, the photograph showing the pink trousers and different coloured socks worn by someone sitting on a chrome stool and facing away from camera. As it casts a network of shadows, light transforms the picture. Light reflects back off from one of the chrome legs, a patch of light that breaks up into a criss-cross of lines, a beautiful geometrical structure indicating how the digital camera functions, mathematically, translating information into code. The odd socks also strike us, one orange and the other green, in the sense that they are both a little worn at the heel. The worn socks disrupt the otherwise crystalline beauty of this picture.
In one of Fraser’s most iconic and seemingly celebratory photographs showing an array of colouful balloons strung out on rocks and set against the Bosphoros with a view of Istanbul, the initial festive note is punctured by details revealing the jagged broken glass beneath. The balloons set up an interplay between transparency and opacity, with new colours being created when balloons overlap.
There is the austere but extraordinary beauty effected by the depiction of two halves of tomatoes, which together do not form a whole. In this frugal still life, these leftovers are set on a plain shallow dish. Its red and yellow glazes are in perfect correspondence with the colours of the fruit. Such a photograph resists the commonplace habit and tendency to view pictures as clusters of interpretable signs. All his photographs remain ‘untitled’. Some places might be identifiable, but this is not central to the work. Fraser wants to remove the distraction of cultural habit before his pictures and to take us elsewhere, to ponder questions that take us away from the real – to think about the deep underlying structures and mathematical codes that determine all things in the world. Mathematics is abstract and Fraser’s recourse to photography, digital photography, dependent upon a mathematically coded process of translation of the world, is in perfect accordance with his way of thinking in relation to his view of the world.
What is pictured is drawn from his world, the people he meets and knows, the places he visits, but this is not relevant. He wants us to take the picture out of context and think about what might be going on in terms of the information that has been concentrated in his photography.
An analogy to the kind of relationship set up with things pictured is found in the text Fraser is so fond of, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. One passage in particular stands out when Marco Polo counters Kublai Khan’s nihilistic thoughts about the pointlessness of his empire, as he reduces a victory or loss in playing chess to the empty blank square of the chessboard beneath the defeated king. In that one empty square of wood there is so much says Polo: “The square on which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its fibres are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can be made out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but the night’s frost forced it to desist.”
In the picture of an upturned chair on a table, the formal elements in the picture are clearly presented and defined: the two vibrant bands of pink and orange on the wall, the flower- patterned plastic table cloth, the wood veneer of the upturned chair and the veneered floor. The two items of furniture seem perfectly related— the light absorbing four legs of the table both echo and contrast with the four chrome reflective legs of the chair. Fraser makes a beautiful picture out of what for many is merely cheap décor. It is a world far from the splendid interior of the Blue Mosque, in which we sense the uplifting correspondence between faith and art.
Is Fraser suggesting our tacky, synthetic culture is no different, that we cannot differentiate anymore? Or is he suggesting that this seemingly insignificant arrangement is just as important – that such ordinary and unassuming things are just as wondrous, but only if we give ourselves time to think and reflect upon what we are seeing?
The camera does not differentiate, its rendering of things is indiscriminate, it bestows the same attention on whatever is depicted. The natural world and cultural world are seen as continuous through their mathematical order and beauty – what is radical about Fraser’s photography is he does not make distinctions between the clearly different things he represents, differences not simply in terms of nature and culture, but also in terms of the cultural conven- tions and hierarchies we bring to the world. A number of photographs reflect on reproduction and repetition – identical stacked transparent plastic chairs, saturated and transformed in orange light, the incredible symmetrical order created by a mass of costumed dancers.
One can see the mathematical beauty in the photograph of fish, illuminated in an aquarium, all facing the same way. It is evident in the beauty of their near identical formal structures, the shimmering light emanating from their semi-transparent scales and fins. It is also visible in the surface detailing of the geometry of the scales on a fluorescent green snake knotted on a branch. But what really interests Fraser is a question of the creatures’ intelligence and their responsive- ness to their environment and what a mathematical expression of their neural networks might look like. It is integral to his depiction of a horse, its head pressed up against corrugated fencing, dented under pressure from the animal. We sense the weight, the energy of the creature as it is shown pushing its nose against the metal sheeting— a strange, graceless activity. It is a physical, sculptural photograph, with the sense of an inward force and energy that is being expressed.
In one of his most pictorial pictures, clock time is set against the glacier of the Matterhorn, a measure of enduring geological time. A sublime theme is reworked here. Chronological time is visible in the Swiss clock face, fixing the moment of the picture’s taking, down to the second.
This is linked with the time of photography as the picture also features four tiny figures in this setting, one person caught in the act of taking a photograph of the other and two children before the mountain, in a photograph made in thousands of a second. We are high up and clouds pass before the vista of the Matterhorn and give us another register of the photograph’s moment.
The making of Fraser’s picture is brief, an instant, but in reflecting back upon different meas- urements of time, the picture seems to extenuate time. We are aware of the heavy enduring time of the mountain against the marks and lightness of other measures of time, the fleeting clouds, the clock and the holiday photograph.
Time is also the point of reflection in his picture of a bird alighted on a column in Rome. The camera delineates the imprint of the bird’s fragile and delicate form, a brief beautiful moment atop something that has lasted through time, a delicate feature set against the permanence and roughness of the classical stone structure, a surviving relic of the great Roman Empire.
Other representations fascinate. In his picture of a painted backdrop on an empty stage, the surface of the painted screen is transformed through its detailed rendition in the form of a photograph. We see the naïve rendition of an inn and a corner showing a woodland landscape. But it is the strange depiction of floating steps against a blue floor that appears to be the main point of interest; steps that are set in perspective, a recessional geometric element within the blue void. Fraser makes no judgment about the skills of the painter, in fact his is very much a non-judgmental photography. The pictorial frame also includes details beyond the painted screen, a wooden interior and a table with a red cloth, setting up a contrast between illusions of three-dimensional space.
Fraser revisits the genre of street photography in his depiction of a busy urban scene in Istanbul, in which workers operate heavy industrial machinery in the shade below a bridge over which pedestrians come and go. Once one notices that one man crossing the bridge has both hands to his face, the world depicted suddenly seems centred on this gesture. To put both hands over your face is a theatrical gesture but as an unobserved action on the street it lacks theatre. In grief, in shame, we cover our faces. In Massacio’s great fresco such a gesture was to do with the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, with the Fall. We could easily get carried away here, and maybe Fraser’s pictures encourage such flights of thought. We never know what lies behind this gesture of shutting out the world. It is like a black hole in the picture, a site of unknowability that casts doubt and uncertainty upon our ability to make sense of such contemporary urban scenes. There is simply too much information in the world to take in; we need to shut it out.
The gesture of the man on the bridge links with Fraser’s portraits. Portraiture as a genre is new to Fraser and in thinking about our DNA and its expression through the language of mathematics he has started to think about people as subjects, depicting them both in full figure and close up. The face is an intense surface. Fraser’s pictures can be seen as intense surfaces, so it is perhaps inevitable that at some point he would turn to portraiture. In his pictures of people, many are not looking to camera, their attention and thoughts are elsewhere. One might go so far as to suggest they are not really portraits anymore, portraits in the sense they seek to make some psychological disclosure about a particular person. They remain unnamed and untitled. The pictures focus on the singularity and unique physical appearance of each person: the colour and surface of skin, details like the growth of first hair above the lip of an adolescent or the intensity of the wide-eyed look of a middle-aged woman.
The portraits also bring in another more imponderable element. Fraser informs us that before they were photographed he asked some of them to imagine being told that something that they strongly believed in was a lie. By raising a question about truth and morality in relation to the portraits, Fraser introduces something outside the perfect, absolute and abstract realm of mathematics – our human capacity to deceive, both ourselves and each other.
In the closing picture of Mathematics we are taken elsewhere, beyond this world to an ultimate sublime image. A photograph looks up at the image of the sun, fixing and stilling a ‘live’ digital projection of solar activity on its surface. This picture is a celebration of what is possible by mathematically coded digital forms of representation – the image of the sun is photographed with such clarity we see the projected image’s pixels. The photograph comes undone, we can see what it is made out of, and this disclosure is what all his pictures invite us to do: to think about the perfect structures that are everywhere but often hidden, the glimmer of a mathe- matical perfection in people and things.
This sun picture opens out onto photography itself, albeit reclaimed as mathematically coded form. Staring into the sun is akin to madness and there are associations here with the Romantic attempts to picture its blinding and disorienting light, Turner’s late circular paintings of the sun, especially. But here the sun is tempered by the order of the pixelated surface, a reiteration of how all is reducible to structure and pattern, that mathematics holds the key to what we are seeing.
This contemporary technological photograph also takes us right back to the nascent photographic experiments of William Henry Fox Talbot, who described his photographs as ‘Sun Pictures’. Talbot’s use of photography was driven by a desire to show the performance of the new medium, how it went beyond human agency. This demonstrative aspect is evident in pictures like Haystack, 1844, in which the infinite detail that could never be transcribed by human hand is set in relationship to both the haystack’s geometric shape and the ordered measure introduced by the ladder. Taken in strong sunlight the ladder’s form is doubled by shadow, a play of positive and negative that rebounds intelligently onto the very principles of Talbot’s printing process. It is a photograph that would fit well among Fraser’s pictures in Mathematics.
Mathematics opens with an extraordinary but deceptively straightforward picture of differently numbered and coloured pool balls, arranged in their triangular black frame and with the white ball sitting centrally on top. The balls are set against the intense blue of the table, a blue that resonates throughout Fraser’s oeuvre, symbolic of a near-spiritual beyond and central to his ‘portraits’ of intelligent machines, in his series entitled Deep Blue (the name given to the computer that beat Gary Kasparov at chess) and integral to the transcendent note created by the pairing of two blue buckets. Both planetary and atomic allusions are strongly resonant in this picture of pool balls. A simple detail from the familiar contemporary world opens out to suggestions that take us elsewhere, raising fundamental questions about the order of things and our place in the world.
Fraser’s use of digital photography and the proposition that we may see the world mathematically allows him to realise a radical formalism in which photographs attain an intensity and strangeness that is new to a medium otherwise all too familiar and ubiquitous. Against an inexhaustible and ceaseless glut of common images, Fraser continues to make new pictures from the world: beautiful, surprising, strange, distinctive, wondrous and intelligent. His vision is both liberating and affirmative, allowing us, like Tolstoy’s Bezukhov, to escape the “limited, the petty, the humdrum, the meaningless.”