Perhaps more than any other visual medium, photography presents a fundamental paradox, a dichotomy between the literal and the poetic. In its purist form, so-called ‘straight’ photography, because it is apparently the least mediated of mediums, it begins with the literal, and for many people, those not wholly in tune with photography’s subtleties, it also ends with the literal. ‘Why?’ many might ask Peter Fraser. ‘Why on earth would you want to photograph two blue plastic buckets?’
His answer might well paraphrase George Mallory’s when he was asked about his urge to climb Mount Everest. ‘Because they’re there.’
And that was undoubtedly Peter Fraser’s primary impulse. He photographed the buckets because they were so thoroughly ‘there.’ And, at the moment of taking at least, without giving much regard to their metaphysical meaning.
That would be somewhere in his mind of course, along with other levels of meaning, but proper consideration of the metaphysics and other matters would come later, perhaps no later than the first perusal of a contact sheet. For it is only upon seeing a print of some kind – and now the image upon the rear screen of a digital camera – that a photographer begins properly to contemplate the differences – sensed at the moment of taking – between the two blue buckets out there in the world, and the two blue buckets framed in two dimensions by the nuanced intentions of the photographic artist. In terms of artistic mediation, that difference, that transformation, is as direct and as simple as it possibly could be. Fraser sees the buckets, sense something – picture potential – points the camera, and click. It’s done and dusted in one existential flash. But then the whole mysterious process of photography begins, and if the seeing was ‘full and felt’, as Walker Evans put it, the process is magical, a piece of alchemy. All the more so when two blue buckets the image is mixed with other images of the same intensity to become two blue buckets the photobook.
It has become fashionable in certain quarters, as it has throughout the medium’s history, to decry the basic point-and-shoot approach to photography, the ‘here it is, deal with it’ approach, as too simple, too lacking in art, or rather artifice. They should heed the words of Garry Winogrand and take another look at the blue buckets, and indeed the whole artistc approach of Peter Fraser:
‘There is nothing so mysterious as a fact clearly stated.’
Before the blue buckets, there was the green shed. As it had years before with Tony Ray-Jones, British photography first became aware of Peter Fraser with an issue of the influential magazine, Creative Camera, and an iconic cover photograph. On the cover of Creative Camera No. 5/1986, was a photograph of a green shed, the magazine’s first colour cover incidentally. The green shed was as ordinary and as deadpan as the buckets would be, except that by comparison with the azure household utensils, it was positively expressionist. For on the shed, someone had spray-painted the message, ‘I hate green.’
Peter Fraser must have mouthed a silent prayer of thanks to the god of photography when he saw that shed, as perhaps his mentor William Eggleston did when he was assaulted by a certain red ceiling in Mississippi.
I mention the name of William Eggleston intentionally, for Fraser has made no secret of the fact that the work of the Memphis maestro was an inspiration, and came at a time when British photographers were discovering colour photography as a viable medium, through people like, Martin Parr, Paul Graham, and Peter Mitchell.
But Peter Fraser was different. Whereas the others were working at least nominally within an established British tradition, so-called ‘social documentary’, Fraser was pursuing another tack. He was actually utilising the vocabulary of colour strategies introduced by Eggelston and doing something quite daring – making determinedly apolitical photographs when ‘theory’ and the political photograph was the reigning orthodoxy – and a somewhat puritanical orthodoxy in British photography.
If we look back to books published around the time of Two Blue Buckets, say Parr The Last Resort (1986), and Graham’s Troubled Land (1987), and consider them as doing something quite radical, not only introducing colour photography to British photography but pushing at the boundaries of the social documentary mode, Two Blue buckets was even more radical. The book not only championed a photography where colour was apparently the primary point as opposed to being a given, but one which totally eclipsed the boundaries of the photographic document to become something else. And doing so while appearing to be the most basic, almost banal kind of record photograph.
What was that something else? Indeed, what is that something else? For Peter Fraser has been remarkably consistent in his artistic approach and creative persona since Two Blue Buckets appeared in 1988. We can call it painterly, and say crudely that it is about colour and shapes, but both the bucket and the garage images are about far more than blue or green. Photography is not painting, and to call this kind of photography ‘painterly’ is to demean it in a way. Elements enter from the conceptual art movement, but in essence the virtues of Peter Fraser’s art derive from the photographic medium – in fact the photographic medium at its purist – and in particular from the way that the photographic medium allows us to connect with the word, both physically and psychologically.
When photography was invented, it was regarded as ‘half science, half art.’ Indeed, the scientific inflection was looked upon as the more important, and the medium’s scientific aspects are still very much in daily use, but of course today it is the art aspect which attracts the attention.
Peter Fraser, however, has always been aware of a scientific imperative underpinning his imagery. He is not making ‘scientific’ photographs, but science and scientific philosophy informs his work fundamentally – in a sense that one might term much of his work a dialectic of materials. I have written before about the relationship of his work to materials and objects, and the place of things in philosophical discourse – specifically the notion that all objects, large or small or infinitesimal, no matter how humble, have a specific place in the world. It is there in Two Blue Buckets, but I want to discuss other aspects of the book. However, I shall quickly summarise before turning my attention to other matters.
In Plato’s dialogue, Parmenides, a meditation upon the metaphysics of objects, the philosopher assigns three ‘bounds’ or categories to the objects of the world – ‘formless chaos’, ‘things of this world’, and ‘things of value.’
Plato’s categorising clearly implies a value judgement, In our contemporary world, where everything – from dust to ourselves – has been found to be composed of the same tiny, invisible particles, we still instinctively assign value – human beings are nothing if not judgemental, But our contemporary assignation is less likely to derive from religious conviction, as in the past. It could be said to be a horizontal rather than a vertical system of discrimination.
And in this it becomes not only personal, but echoes the kinds of judgment photographers make. Even today’s breed of Instagram photographer, photographing anything and everything, discriminate all the time. With a photographer of Peter Fraser’s calibre, the discrimination is absolute. Despite an admirably consistent voice underpinning his work, each project of his is finite and determined. The separate bodies of work incorporated into Two Blue Buckets, each with a distinctive tone, are nevertheless like the different themes in a coherent piece of music, say a classical symphony. They are distinct yet interrelated. For example, Fraser says of The Valleys Project, on of the ‘chapters’ in the book:
‘If I’m photographing Valleys, I see in Valley Project mode. I can’t make pictures for any other series. It’s almost brutal how precise it is.’
Two Blue Buckets announces the beginning of the ‘scientific’ strain running through Fraser’s oeuvre, the idea that ‘everything is connected’ stemming from Plato, and a childhood hero, Charles Eames. This however, can give a certain licence for randomness, and a certain sloppiness – and indeed we see that in many of today’s Instagram derived photobooks – but Fraser is much more disciplined. The book also heralds two other tendencies that were relatively new, and somewhat novel in British photography at the time.
The first was an almost inexorable impulse from the 1950s onwards, not just in photography but in all art. This was a turning inwards on the part of artists, where art became more and more personal in a particular sense, becoming a record of internal, subconscious experience rather than a demonstration of external, conscious will. The second tendency was an inevitable result of the turning inwards, the development of the so-called ‘diaristic mode’ in photography, a trend that has developed to the point where almost everyone in the world – at least under the age of forty – seems to be making an endless photographic diary and narcissistically hanging it out there online for the boredom of others.
But it is in this ‘personal tendency, if we can call it that, where we come closest to the existential core of the photographic act. Edward Weston called it ‘the flame of recognition’, and while it is easy to get too West Coast about it – and in actual practice it can be disappointingly humdrum – in the best photographers it becomes an almost mystical act of heightened perception.
Peter Fraser himself talks of two experiences he remembers as a young man, one in Manchester, where he was studying, and one in a South Algerian hospital, where he was recovering from a bout of dysentery. He recalls two vivid visual experiences – the visual equivalent of ‘out of body’ experiences perhaps – where he experienced things with a powerful intensity, as if for the first time, describing them as instances where he perceived in objects, and particularly the way light was falling upon them, ‘a reflection of the struggle between the impossible beauty and the irrefutable fact of the world.’
This is surely what most photographers are searching for. And in Peter Fraser’s case, this search led, for instance, to a totally original, emphatically beautiful image of a gap between two parked blue lorries that nevertheless contains ominous undertones of various kinds. It led to a commentator a speculate whether anyone had ever made a better photograph of cows in a field, or a case on a train luggage rack.
In terms of photographic metaphysics, in the work of Fraser, and many other photographers, from Eugène Atget to Eggleston to Roe Ethridge, each image at this exalted level of perception might represent the place where they touch the world most fully, at least in a visual and artistic sense.
People touch the world though, or the world touches them, in many different ways. This brings us to the diaristic undercurrent in Two Blue Buckets, which is quite profound. When the book was first published, most commentary upon the work was formalist in tone, regarding Fraser’s exploration of the aesthetically disregard object and so on. Like Eggleston, there seemed to be levels of meaning in Fraser’s work that were so personal as to be either unfathomable or to be left alone.
But running through Two Blue Buckets, which frequently makes quite ordinary domestic objects loom with apparent sinister intent, is Peter Fraser’s disquiet at the breakup of his parents’ marriage. In a very real sense, the book is a meditation upon this event and its profound effect upon the young Fraser. The appearance of religious imagery reflects upon the sanctity of marriage, while pictures such as a saw stuck into the ground next to a jersey provides an undercurrent of incipient violence, whether physical or psychological. Two Blue Buckets is an artistic journey, to be sure, but it is also the journey of a troubled soul, connoting, in its catalogue of uncanny objects and images of travel, a sense of pain, loss, and displacement.
It is clear that Two Blue Buckets was a new kind of British photobook, so indeed as to cause a degree of puzzlement in certain quarters. In its contemplation of the banal and the metaphysics of object, its juggling of apparently disparate themes, and its intensely personal reflection, it prefigures much that was to follow. With this new ‘director’s cut’, as it were, we can not only get a more complete idea of Peter Fraser’s original conception, but also re-evaluate it in the light of almost thirty years of photobooks that have followed. This allows us to appreciate its originality afresh, and see how the quirky, diaristic sequence of photographs has moved from the fringes of the medium to the very heart of the mainstream.