Interview With Peter Fraser, Rachel Withers For Foam Magazine, Amsterdam

Rachel Withers: This is fantastic stuff, Peter. It’s greyish-white and it looks like it’s solid and slightly springy…

Peter Fraser: Which it is.

RW: …but at the same time it’s greasy, it’s gloopy! It describes its previous liquid state so vividly.

PF: It’s very special!

RW: It’s definitely abject! But to avoid confusion I should let Foam’s readers know we’re looking at a photograph from the Material series (2002). It’s a detail, taken close up, of a device cobbled together from metal parts, wires, black tape, and this peculiar semi-transparent goo (maybe it’s glue from a glue-gun) which might be serving some kind of insulating function…

Well, it seems fitting to begin with a really close look at one of your photos, Peter, but maybe I should pull back and invite a longer view. You’re one of the four shortlistees for this year’s Citibank Photography Prize, and over two decades you’ve made photographs of a diversity of subjects: I could list references to landscape and still-life, and quasi-abstract images, and occasionally the human figure too. There’s a persistent, quite distinctive aesthetic present: for example your use of particular colours, or your deceptively informal framing of your subjects. But clearly you’re not just exploring formal interests. What is it that glues this body of work together?

PF: As one’s career progresses the pressure to provide a tidy formula “explaining” one’s work doesn’t seem to recede. But let’s start with an overview, and then interconnections between series. The work evidences a process of coming to the same problem over and over again, but approaching it each time from a different angle. The problem is about gaining a sense of matter, the stuff of the universe: as the writer Johanna Burton has written in a recent essay on my work, it’s about “letting things just be for a moment” – revealing “the wonder of their thingness” through the act of photographing.

With reference to your opening remarks, the issue of scale is particularly important in the process- and here I need to describe an early experience of mine whose importance took years to be understood. (There’s a second, similarly key, experience we need to discuss- more on that later.) I was about fifteen at school in Cardiff, and as an end-of-year treat the whole school was ushered into the assembly hall to see Charles Eames’s amazing and now very famous 19TK film, Powers of Ten. It absolutely knocked me out, and started a fascination with notions of scale. To give a concrete example, let’s look at the final image in the Material series.

RW: I got quite fixated on this last photo. I found myself reading it as either a three dimensional object, a tiny, grubby, roughly-sawn cube of timber, or a sliver of wood chiselled off a flat surface. It kept flipping back and forth between 2-D and 3-D.

PF: Well, that all sounds good, and there’s a particular reason for the sequencing of the Material photos, which has been characterized as a “cool” series of photographs. The last image shows a cube, in other words, an abstract concept, an expression of a basic, universal notion in mathematics. Although the object is tiny, it’s big conceptually. The choice of the cover image is also key; it shows a pair of feet clad in protective clothing, suggesting a body going into an unfamiliar or alien environment. There’s a faint suggestion of somebody coming from another place, another time, and documenting the things they found interesting. And the last image, of this very small object might, just possibly, represent the sum of all human achievement, in the mind of this visitor.

RW: So it could be taken to represent a pure abstraction. But this specific object is splintery and encrusted in a sort of tarry substance- it’s a degraded object.

PF: The universe is messy!

RW: Yes! Could we focus on that idea? Across the 1990s, concepts such as abjection and formlessness rose to prominence and “mess” practically gained the status of an art genre. I thought this might be connected to growing anxieties about human patterns of consumption: facilitated by technological developments, the entropic process accelerates, and the world’s resources are irretrievably broken up, ground down- dissipated into ever tinier morsels. I saw a connection to your work here; also a partial explanation of the fascination and anxiety some of your images invoke: for instance the Materials series- but also various newer photos in the Citibank Prize show. The picture of the polystyrene cup that’s been pierced through with wooden cocktail sticks, for example…

PF: The newest photos all show events taking, or having taken place. In those photographs, and in previous work I’ve made- we see a subject where materials have been transformed through the agency of the human hand. The photographs offer the evidence of an event, and it’s a motif that alludes to a multitude of facts, experiences, processes, going on in the world. The 1993 Ice and Water series of photos allude to physical transformations and in particular with the notion of intermediate states. Try thinking of an ice cube melting in water: as the water changes from a solid to a liquid state an intermediate condition is created, and in Marseilles in the heat of the summer, shooting “Ice and Water”, I was preoccupied with the space around, and between objects, and the objects themselves, simultaneously.

Take my 1996 Deep Blue series of machine portraits for example. This was shot in a number of hard-to-access scientific sites and the title refers to the famous Gary Kasparov-IBM computer chess battle. Kasparov beat the computer twice, and then (after Deep Blue’s information processing capacities had been massively enhanced) the computer beat Kasparov- a transitional moment showing the possibility of new forms of consciousness (according to Deep Blue’s designers), with possible sociological implications. Developments in technology are going to effect profound changes on human life- that’s a certainty, but we don’t have to view it pessimistically. That said, I’m persuaded by a notion of entropy in the universe. Entropy generates change; the proposition that the universe might collapse in on itself, returning to a state where nothing happens, could be the precondition for another Big Bang: another transformation, rather than a “beginning” or an “ending”. I find this sense of relentless change, in all that we can apprehend, quite awesome.

RW: What you’re saying here underlines the persistent decentering vision that’s present in your work. (In referencing that environmental issue, I didn’t want to suggest that you were offering a crude polemic about waste and recycling!) The photos challenge viewers to consider, if you like, the immediacy of matter- I guess this could be characterized as a kind of phenomenological investigation…

PF: Maybe. I’m not a scientist, and I should add that my photographic work evidences a complex, contradictory process. Johanna Burton’s essay calls attention to both the desire to be a part of “the flesh of the world” and the impossibility of sustaining that condition. Let me describe that second, key, experience I’ve mentioned. In 1974, while still a photography student in my early twenties, I made a solo south-to-north trip across the Sahara. I became very ill and ended up in hospital in Tamanrasset in southern Algeria- alone, horizontal, on an intravenous feed, for about three weeks. At the end of that time a nurse came and suggested that with a bit of support I might be able to walk to the hospital courtyard and look at the trees. We walked very slowly towards this unbelievably bright, sunlit courtyard where the bougainvillea blossom was coming into bloom. It was incredible: every single flower seemed like a crucible in which the impossible beauty of the world struggled in combat with it’s irrefutable fact.

It’s taken me many years to articulate that event, but nevertheless I understood it then, subconsciously, and it’s suffused everything that I’ve done with photography since.

RW: I guess we’re talking about a central philosophical problem here – at least a central theme in Western philosophy: the question of how consciousness interfaces with the stuff of the world. Really sharp perceptual experiences can seem paradoxically hallucinatory – they distance you from the world, even as they bring the stuff of the world to you even more emphatically than usual. And in your photos, we’re seeing a constant probing of that paradox?

PF: Yes, definitely, though it’s not always conscious; at the moment of making a photograph, or in the moments preceeding it, there can be a point of great intensity – a kind of “the world stopped for a moment” intensity, that temporarily removes me from my immediate location in time and space. What I’m trying to describe, is a tendency towards disbelief in my perception of the world. It seems both implausible, and impossibly beautiful – and at the same time, as soon as I touch something in it, I know it’s real. Insistently it’s telling me, “I’m here, I’m a fact, I’m not impossible”. But for me, that’s a constant struggle, in terms of perception, a struggle that informs every photograph I make.

3 February 2004 London