AG: The 22 photographs in this 1983 series were first shown at the Arnolfini in Bristol. I didn’t see that exhibition in 1984, so the images were mostly new to me until recently, and yet in them I feel that your signature – a very particular approach to observing and capturing a moment – is already evident, and some works seem almost like precursors to later series. Looking back Peter, did you feel that exhibiting this series was a breakthrough moment, consolidating all that had gone before?
PF: I had discovered William Eggleston’s Guide, the publication that had accompanied his landmark 1976 show at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1982, the year of my first ever exhibition, and his influence fed into my work later that year and throughout 1983. Later in ’83 I met Eggleston at his first UK exhibition opening at the Victoria & Albert Museum and asked him if I could visit him in Memphis, to which he agreed. The Arnolfini show I think was a consequence of that news travelling. So, a breakthrough yes, as it did feel very special because I had been working with such intensity, and it felt like a great honour to show alongside William Eggleston.
AG: Can you explain a little about what you gained from that visit to Memphis? Are there aspects of the work that followed that you attribute to having gone through that intense experience? Or was it more a question of validating your instincts that the path you had chosen to explore was of consequence, and this instilled you with confidence?
PF: I guess I had hoped to learn something about photographing in colour, and I’m 31 years old, it’s 1984, with no idea if it’s possible to devote my whole life to working as an artist working with the medium of colour photography. It was a most intense experience as one might imagine, and Eggleston was the most generous host, but after seven weeks, upon returning to the UK, the standout gain from the experience was your last point above, and this felt momentous.
AG: For an artist embarking on establishing a photographic language there was the added challenge that, up to the 1980s, black and white photography had pretty much predominated in Britain. There was a strong documentary tradition, distinctive work being made in the genre of landscape, and those artists associated with conceptual art also mostly confined themselves to black and white photography. For you and your contemporaries, presumably technological advances in colour photography made it possible to embrace a medium not previously taken particularly seriously in art circles, as well as the timely appreciation of the achievements of a figure such as Eggleston?
PF: That’s very true, and advanced colour photography from America in particular caused real excitement here, but to be working ambitiously in the UK at the time, you were aware of a serious tension, even hostility, between the photographic traditionalists and what we might call the new colour photographers. Established positions often feel threatened of course by new ways of thinking, but what complicated things further was the way the art world generally perceived the new colour photographers, namely, either as dilettantes, or worse. There were, as always, key people of great sensitivity who supported these new works, but a particular problem often seemed to be that most Fine Art courses simply didn’t address the history of photography, which is extremely specific and extraordinary. They would generally introduce art students to photography through the use of the medium by artists working conceptually, but not those making work as a direct consequence of an intensity of seeing at the moment of exposure as if this was somehow inferior, and that omission would carry consequences for both artists and curators. A great deal has changed since then, and now of course the situation is quite different, and my Tate Retrospective in St Ives in 2013 felt very special to me with the above history in mind, buried deep in my being.
AG: Writing on your 2012 series A City in the Mind Brian Dillon commented that ‘colour seems to effect the shift of an image off balance at the same time as it unifies the scene.’ In this 1983 series, colour is often what claims attention for the subject of the image, such as a red sofa or a yellow stuffed toy, with an intensity of focus offering layers upon layers of suggested narrative, but colour is also what draws the eye to the periphery, to intriguing details that contribute to the complexity of the scene. I am thinking of the corner of fringed red fabric and the peculiar green of a pair of shoes in the image dominated by blue patterned wallpaper, or in many of the images set in the landscape, the vivid colours of discarded drink cans or sweet papers. When a scene or detail demands your attention to what extent is it the colour properties of everyday objects that dictate the image you make, and is it your intention to use colour to provoke both discord and harmony?
PF: Well, an expression I tend to use to explain my feeling here, is that a subject will strike me as manifesting ‘an eternal struggle between the impossible beauty of the world and it’s irrefutable fact’, and not only are colour relationships central to this drama, but the inherent tension in this view leads to both discord and harmony in the images.
AG: While there is indisputably a tension in each of the images, lending them a sense of drama, there is also a stillness that unites these works. It is a stillness that invites contemplation and seems to have been achieved by an intensity of focus on objects or natural features that mostly exist unobserved in the world. Aspects of both the material and physical world, given equal attention in the images, are characterised by their very ordinariness and yet isolated they provoke intense scrutiny and are rendered highly enigmatic. Even in those images including human forms there is a profound stillness (unusually in your work a single image includes faces, but little movement or sound is evident, and the attention of the subjects seems elsewhere). It is as if the moment of capture caused a pause in the action, mid-way through tea and biscuits, or while halting momentarily after coming in from the rain. Was this something that was inherent in each scene at the moment the image was made, and therefore part of the draw of a subject for you? Or is this an effect of your framing and angling, and the particular detailing you focus on? Is it you who slows down time or do you find moments of stillness and arrest them?
PF: That’s a great question, and I think the answer is that it varies; sometimes I sense a moment for making an image is imminent, and I’m aware of time slowing as it approaches until it grinds to a halt, and there is no future and no past for a moment. And at other times I might even unknowingly be in a contemplative space, and suddenly it feels like the world stops turning and it’s the signal to make an exposure. Often, in the following few moments I’m not sure where I am, but then quickly regain my orientation, sometimes with surprise.
AG: Then what is at play here is a great deal more than your eye being drawn by a visual interplay of features in space, such as the contrasting textures of car bonnets and garden flowers, or the angle of wires crossing the sky. When you talk of sensing a moment being imminent, and of a feeling of disorientation following the exposure, what do you attribute that to?
PF Years ago, I lived in West Yorkshire, surrounded by high moors, and one freezing winter I made a walk alone on a brilliantly sunny day up to the tops. After several hours walking I saw a line of telegraph wires heavy with hanging ice against an azure sky. Getting closer I shouted with joy for an experience in which this singular scene confirmed the interconnectedness of all things, and feeling dizzy, almost fell over.
AG: So, requiring a receptive state of consciousness, whether pre-existing or induced by the visual encounter? Making this an experience that befalls you, rather than being sought? Perhaps something similar happens to the viewer, in that confronting such an intense focus on the quotidian, cannot help but invoke an unexpected attentiveness.
PF In general, although there will always be exceptions, I will go out with the camera to work, and make myself available for that receptive state of consciousness. You yourself have used that expression of ‘being in the zone’, and that’s an expression I’ve used for years to try to allude to this special state of receptiveness, which is extremely demanding of the least possible interruption, like mobile phone calls or other distractions. And I’ve learnt that if I try to insist on making these moments happen, through frustration perhaps, then I push the possibility much further away.
AG It’s true! I did just use the expression ‘being in the zone’ in my last email to you, in the context of keeping this exchange confined to a period of time, in order not to lose my train of thought. So yes, I do know what you mean about interruptions ruining the intensity of attention required when making an image. I guess I was pushing for you to articulate exactly what you mean, and then unwittingly provided a case in point… So, returning to the quality of stillness I perceive in this series, is this also linked to the sense of the uncanny that has been attributed to your work? It has been described as familiar and yet mysterious and I have read the adjective ‘forensic’ used to describe your approach. Does this association with menace over-interpret your work? Does it say more about the observer than your intention in producing an image? It seems to me that the enigmatic quality of your work evokes a sense of wonder at the everyday and the commonplace, rather than of menace.
PF: I quite agree…since I was young, I remember noticing say, if someone’s trouser legs had been taken up unevenly, or if a car had had a damaged panel replaced and painted, but with a subtle colour mismatch, and I found these imbalances very interesting. Perhaps menace derives from people sometimes finding being presented with the overlooked-ness of certain subjects very unsettling as if it comes from another world, not the one they think they inhabit.
AG: Yes, unsettling in that these images of observed details provoke questions for which there are no available answers. When obliged to examine the overlooked we instinctively require a narrative, an explanation. Why is the footstool on top of the sofa, and what is written in the notebook on top if it? Or why has a child’s stuffed toy been abandoned in wasteland? As viewers we will never know, and I presume in the case of most of your images, you will never know. They are just ‘irrefutable facts’, it’s just how the world looks if we are presented with these incidental scenes and moments. So instead we are obliged to just consider the image for what it is.
The most austere examples of the genre of Still Life, seventeenth century Dutch or Spanish paintings of simple vessels, or fruit/vegetables, similarly must have caused contemporary audiences to wonder why attention and labour had been devoted to such humble, commonplace subjects. We can assume the intention of many still life artists of the era was to invoke spiritual reflection and signify the transience of human existence. But the genre also had a secular presence as a form of ostentatious display in paintings featuring exotic and expensive species of flowers for example, around the time of ‘Tulip mania’. So it is not inconceivable that some of the simplest of still life paintings were just a means for the artist to paint, say, a bunch of asparagus , a vegetable widely cultivated at the time for its medicinal properties, because it was familiar, and yet simultaneously a thing of great beauty, an example of the strangeness and the wonder of the world. I do not mean to suggest that a work of yours is composed as a photographic equivalent to a still life painting, but am I wrong in having been struck by a certain similarity of effect?
PF: That’s very interesting, because between 1976 and 1979 immediately after graduating in Manchester, I lived in Holland, and in my free time visiting art museums I was captivated by seventeenth century Dutch painting, and still lifes in particular, with their extraordinary interior luminosity and devotional attention to exacting detail.
AG: Then you may well have seen works by Adriaen de Coorte in the Rijksmuseum – the bunch of asparagus, a bowl of wild strawberries, a few seashells, peaches, gooseberries. I saw some again recently shown alongside still life paintings by Francisco de Zurburan. It was unusual even within the genre for a composition to be quite so unadorned, and for such attention to be devoted to the lines, shadows and details of single, ordinary subjects. That and the luminosity you refer to is exactly what I was thinking of. (Painting that is concerned with the effects of light after all has a lot in common with the medium of photography). The sense of timelessness in featuring subjects that are archetypes is also something that seems to speak to your work. (Adriaen Coorte (1665-1707/10. Still Life with Asparagus).
PF: Yes, Adriaen de Coorte, and Pieter Claesz I remember particularly. And what is so interesting to me is that during these nearly 3 years in Holland, when I made no interesting work, I cannot recall seeing much Photography of any kind, and now I wonder for the first time if seeing those still lifes had a much bigger impact on my subsequent unconscious preoccupations than I’ve ever realised.
AG: That is interesting, but maybe also not so inexplicable. Photography is a medium that, like any other, requires visual impetus from a range of sources, and from life experienced. So perhaps this was exactly what was necessary at that time, to expand beyond the immediate, as well as absorbing a greater range of what the everyday constitutes.
The images in this series capture an era dating back 40 years, and of course there are clues to this in the model of cars, or clothes and shoe styles, but on the whole there is still a relatively timeless and universal quality to them. These are commonplace scenes or details of life in a country somewhere in the west, probably in Europe, possibly Britain. And while you have often travelled to make your work, and some images completely pinpoint a very specific environment, many could also be located almost anywhere, and are just familiar details in the world. So, is it the new and unknown that stimulates the production of images or is it the familiar and universal within those locations, in all their simplicity, that is the draw? As Gaston Bachelard stated in The Poetics of Space, ‘At times the simpler the image, the vaster the dream’.
PF: I do love that quote, and certainly I think that the compositional direct intensity of my work is often connected to their mysteriousness. And, when I began to make work, I was a young man, and my immediate environs often felt new and compelling which was exciting. I think the need to experience seeing something for the first time, over the years led me to want to travel much more in order to experience the shock of the new with its attendant searing sense of seeing beyond the surface appearance of things. This hunger reached an early super intensity while still a Photography student, when I travelled to West Africa in 1975, and crossed the Sahara overland from Accra to Algiers, and experienced, for example the sight of camel trains against green sunsets.
AG: I so agree, encountering the new seems to be vital to stimulate both the senses and the intellect, something we have not had much opportunity to experience during the last year. But the evidence of your work is that you can bestow the most apparently unexceptional scenes with a freshness that does seem new and compelling, even if it is just a trailer in a field, or the silhouette of a bridge at night beyond an asphalt road. And in later series the same can be said to be true. So maybe with this ability lockdown has not been detrimental to your work?
PF: Well, from 2007 I spent 5 years photographing exclusively in London for my series A City in the Mind. All these works are close-up images and therefore I was still able to experience the shock of the new on this small scale. As soon as this work was finished, it was a huge relief to plan a new series, Mathematics, which gave me the chance to work in fresh environments right across Europe. And so, actually I’ve found the lockdown very constraining, but am delighted to have recently received a Pollock Krasner Foundation Award which will support new work across Europe in the time of Covid-19 with all its challenges.
AG: What a productive way to address the anxiety and uncertainty we all face right now. And by its very nature a worldwide pandemic has produced an altered sense of the everyday. I am intrigued to see how the complexities of this new reality emerge in the series.
While artists often work in series, or exhibit bodies of work from a time period as a group, for artists working in the photographic medium seriality is pretty much the norm. Does this ever become a convention that has constraints? The series we are discussing here after all contains images that are mostly very diverse and are only loosely associated, yet you consider them as, even tangentially, a discrete body of work. What is it that links these images?
PF: Well, constraints are central to working with photography not least those of the four sides of the rectangle that must be negotiated. But further, that each image collectively addresses itself to a particular territory of one’s sensibility and preoccupation at the time, and also that they try to satisfy the need to try to push at the known boundaries of what can be presented within the constraints of a colour photograph. Ironically, with experience, these constraints empower an enormous creative freedom.
AG: The book form has also become an essential part of the artistic project, especially for you and most of your near contemporaries working in the photographic medium. This is something I particularly enjoy. Photographic series have a completeness to them, and while each image is an entity, seeing the breadth of the project at once is like a work in itself. To what extent do you envisage the images you assemble as having a correspondence with the book format?
PF: You are right of course, and indeed my first book Two Blue Buckets published in 1988 brought my work for the first time to a wide international audience, and a number of books of my work have been published over the years since. However, in my practice, the experience of making the work is so particular, as we have been discussing, that the thought of publishing the work always comes later. This makes sense to me too, as, if some time has passed, I feel I have a clearer perspective of how a book will serve a given body of work most effectively. And now in my late 60’s, and with more thought being given to the further future, perhaps books of my work have an even greater importance.