Because all knowledge is assimilated to the object, as the power or genius of nature is ecstatic, so must its science or the description of it be. The poet must be rhapsodist – his inspiration a sort of bright casualty: his will in it only the surrender of the will to the universal Power.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
Everything in the world has been photographed. Or so it would seem. Everything visible, that is, and quite a lot which, at least to the human eye, is invisible. Yet from time to time, one is brought up short by a photograph of something one has never seen before. Of course, it’s just a question of noticing it. Everything visible in the world can potentially be seen, but noticing it, giving it due attention, that is quite a different matter. One might say that is the photographer’s primary mission – to notice and to pay due attention.
I had one of those ‘never seen this before’ moments with this photograph by Peter Fraser. I have always called it ‘Two Trucks’, but its correct title is Hirwaen, South Wales. Actually I had a series of mixed emotive moments when I first viewed this wonderful photograph, firstly surprise, then bafflement and incomprehension. But these were quickly followed by pleasure and admiration as I realised that Fraser had created a moment of epiphany, that flash of apprehension, the ‘flame of recognition’, when, as James Joyce said, the ‘whatness’ of a thing is revealed. That indeed, might be another way of defining the photographer’s mission – to reveal the ‘whatness’ of a thing.
The ‘whatness’ here is not easy to define at first, for the picture itself is an image of indeterminacy. In photography of serious ambition, the photographer’s subject is almost never simply the subject-matter. Susan Sontag once famously (or notoriously) remarked that ‘in photographing dwarfs, you don’t get majesty and beauty, you get dwarfs,’ but the aim of the serious photographer is generally to confound that statement. However, in Peter Fraser’s image, even the precise subject-matter is a matter for conjecture.
When explained, the answer seems obvious. The photograph, shot with a strobe at night, shows the sides of two blue trucks parked together in a parking lot. The view is disconcertingly off-kilter, and there is a pattern of white spots in the pictures almost as if it was shot in a snowstorm, but this is a serendipitous illusion. The speckled pattern is too regular, and is actually spots of reflected light from Fraser’s strobe, bouncing off the rivets that hold the trucks’ sides together.
The subject of the photograph, however, is another matter. In his early career, Peter Fraser was inspired by William Eggleston. In 1984 he actually spent two months in Memphis, ‘hanging out’ with the master, and gaining in the process the best kind of photographic education, which Walker Evans defined as ‘informa l contac t with a master.’ In this context, Fraser’s ‘Two Trucks’, might be seen as an equivalent of Eggleston’s ‘Red Ceiling.’ That is to say, it is an important and defining early work. It shows the influence of Eggleston, but the differences between the two images are as crucial as the similarities. Firstly, whatever else it might be about, ‘Red Ceiling’ – or to give it its correct title, Greenwood, Mississippi – is about the colour red. Fraser’s trucks are blue, but the picture would not seem to be about blue. Although the blueness of the image predicates a certain psychological resonance – cold for instance – and the picture would be very different if the trucks were another colour, its metaphors derive more from its formal structure, the claustrophobic space and kinaesthetic sense, which combine to create an aura of unease, yet also a state of powerful, unseen energies.
We can say that the differences between Eggleston and Fraser reflect the difference between American and European art. Eggleston is a typically American photographer in that he works through the object he is photographing, preserving its integrity as an object. Peter Fraser, on the other hand, is working around the object, looking to go beyond the object. Although, as for any photographer, the object is important, it is not of primary importance for Fraser, not as important as it is for Eggleston.
Thus fairly early on in his career, ‘Two Trucks’ indicates that Fraser has established an interest in making allusive photographs. However, the general tenor of the allusion in his oeuvre becomes clearer only after he has made a number of bodies of work, and even in the present series, the meanings in Fraser’s imagery is by no means as fixed as it is in other photographers, especially those with more fixed and with more external socio-political points to make. Although his work has been a progression through various projects, Fraser has tended to begin afresh each time, although, as Jeremy Millar has rightly pointed out, ‘one should not confuse visual disjunctions with conceptual ones.’ Nevertheless, the nature of Peter Fraser’s enquiry is not only intensely personal, it is also exploratory and experimental.
A broad defining concern might be indicated by the word ‘science.’ And the overarching rubric, as with many contemporary photographers and photographic artists, might be described as the poetics of the ordinary. This, of course, is a defining theme of modern art, one of the ways indeed, in which we might denote art as ‘modern.’ With Fraser this concern takes him down a particular path. His take on the everyday is informed generally by an interest in science, and specifically by an enquiry into the nature of materials. The ‘poetics of the ordinary’ becomes, in Fraser’s hands, ‘the poetics of materials.’
But of course, Fraser’s interest is perfectly natural, as photography itself is essentially about material – the stuff of life. Photography was invented during an age when a strongly materialist viewpoint prevailed in European society. Throughout its history, the medium has been utilised much more to present a ‘scientific’ rather than an ‘artistic’ trope. And even when put at the service of art, the strong fantasist strain in photography, frequently seems a reaction to the medium’s endemic materialism.
When he was still at high school, a showing of the first version of Charles Eames’ film Powers of Ten, had a profound effect upon Fraser. Made in 1968 with his wife Ray, the film takes us in a series of vertical leaps every ten seconds calculated in powers of ten – 10 metres (101), 100 metres (102), 1,000 metres (103) and so on – from a man lying on a Florida golf course to the limits of the universe. Then the process is reversed, and we take the same steps back downwards, but this time we venture ‘into’ the man’s hand and into the microscopic world beneath the skin, ending with a shot of sub-atomic particles.
This remarkable eight minute cult movie – part educational dialectic, part artist’s film – has been described as the ‘ultimate expression of systems and connections.’ In exploring the relative size of things, it not only stressed the interconnectedness of all things, but also mankind’s tiny yet significant place within the scheme of things. The Eames film demonstrates in its final moments that everything – the whole universe – is composed of tiny particles of material, so tiny indeed that the term ‘material’ itself seems redundant.
Peter Fraser’s work has been playing with notions of science and materials for some time now. His series Ice and Water, for example, looked at the transfiguration of materials, as when solid turns to liquid, and one material segues into another. Then the series Deep Blue examined the complex, often worryingly anthropomorphic machines used in advanced scientific experiments, raising the issue of ‘intelligent machines ’ and their materials. In the body of work that followed, Material, Fraser took a decidedly forensic view of everyday materials found in the laboratory, in workshops, even our domestic environments. Whereas Deep Blue showed machines in the sterile, dust-free, vacuum packed atmosphere of the laboratory, and machines that, when photographed, weren’t ‘doing’ anything, the Material pictures were much more about process, about matter interacting with matter, and interacting in a somewhat more unruly way. Almost in reaction to the obsessively ‘clean’ laboratory environment, Fraser became interested in the materials filtered out by scientists needing to abstract and purify their investigations, the grime that is the natural by-product of the everyday processes that make our world. Material was a veritable compendium of dust, dirt, detritus, fluff, grease, oil, scurf, shavings, and tailings, the almost invisible, certainly disregarded stuff. The discarded matter that nevertheless eventually becomes transformed and reborn as a different, and more relevant part of the process.
The body of work seen here in this book is an extension of Material. To say that it is more subtle is to imply that Material was not a subtle and complex. It certainly was, but was perhaps more direct, more easily interpreted, whereas PETER FRASER is more inscrutable, less immediately willing to give up its secrets. The work is both more difficult and less ingratiating.
In PETER FRASER, Fraser continues his exploration of the overlooked object. The objects that have attracted his attention here are a disparate lot. They range – to pick a few at random – from two pine cones, a shard of blue glass stuck in mud, a paper aeroplane, to a drinking glass stuck behind a metal table leg. Fraser seems to be testing Hazlitt’s famous contention that ‘all things by their nature are equally fit subjects for poetry.’ Apart from the fact that many of them could be incorporated into any assemblage installation in any contemporary art gallery there seems little correlation between them of the face of it. One point can be made however. Seen in an art gallery, this collection of objects would seem rather commonplace. Assemblages using ‘trivial’ and ‘undignified’ objects, unless made by the order of a Joseph Beuys, have largely lost their power to shock or surprise nowadays. And although many photographers photograph similar objects to Peter Fraser, there is an element of surprise, even shock, in the suite of images shown here.
To find a reason why this should be so, means investigating the connection between these disparate objects. And any connection would appear to be metaphysical rather than social, although clearly these objects and materials exist in the social sphere, and are part of the social fabric of our lives.
In Platonic metaphysics, we have the notion of the Forms and the things they in-Form, that is to say the manner of connection between appearances and their realities. But there is a class of things that are without-Form – formless. In Plato’s dialogue Parmenides, ‘hair or mud or dirt or any other trivial and undignified objects’ are mentioned. They are the ‘lowest bound’ of objects, defined as ‘formless chaos.’ The middle bound is ‘things of this world’, and the upper bound consists of ‘things of value.’
Peter Fraser’s sequence has a beginning, a middle and an end, but is neither a linear narrative, nor an accumulation of images, nor a picture cycle in the sense of a song cycle – although that is probably the closest analogy. It is, rather, a system of oppositions, contradictions, causal linkages, visual and metaphorical conundrums. For example, one double-page spread shows a empty, corrugated card box on the right-hand page, opposite the aforementioned image of the blue glass shard embedded in some grim looking mud. One explanation Fraser has for the pairing is that the box may have held a present at one time, and he would have been delighted if that present had been, say, the blue glass.
Inevitably, materials change their state or bound, and both box and glass fragment have degenerated from being ‘things of this world’ to the ‘formless chaos’ bound. The glass may even have been considered a ‘thing of value.’ Fraser of course has already explored this in previous series, but here the disparate nature of the things to which he has attended, asking us to draw broader connections, make PETER FRASER not only more difficult but a more ambitious piece of work, along ‘universe in a grain of sand’ lines. In these Chinese boxes of connections, Fraser might be said to be proposing a model or metaphor for the world, its past, present and future, by tapping into a small part of the cycle that will reach closure eons into the future – formlessness to form to a new formlessness.
If one looks at Fraser’s inventory of things, one finds that some are natural, some man-made. Some are cheap and mass produced, others are lovingly man-made. Some are in use, some have been discarded. Some are new, some are old. Some have form, some are formless. In short, one could take each object and assign a Platonic value. Here is formless chaos, there a thing of value and so on. But Fraser is not looking to assign value, quite the opposite. Here, he is closer to the philosophy of Heraclitus, most widely known for his doctrine that ‘all flows’ (panta chorei). All things are in flux, and the formless will become form, and vice versa. Fraser rather, is seeking to challenge the notion of hierarchies, and look – in a metaphorical sense – for the underlying forces that bind all materials together.
I once attended a dinner party where Peter Fraser stated that he was trying to make ‘four dimensional photographs.’ That remark – and clearly he should have said ‘photographs that expressed four dimensions’ – provoked a lively discussion, but in thinking about it later, and looking at this series, especially his concentration upon the cyclic state of materials, he is nagging away successfully at that elusive goal.
Moving from the realisation that, although photography was supreme in depicting the materiality of an object, Fraser realised that for the ambitious photographer, this was not enough. To photograph an object – say a paper aeroplane – and in so doing label it as such, goes only so far. Going further means evoking Greek metaphysics again, such as the combination of eternal principles Pythagorus saw in all objects, such as limited and unlimited, one and many, at rest or in motion. When a photographer actively seeks to evoke these qualities in an object, and then attempts to suggest its location in both space and time, as when Fraser alludes to the cyclic nature of things, the more complex is his awareness of an object’s identity and being, and also of its interdependence upon other objects.
Eventually, we return to Heraclitus and his theory that the constant flux of the universe is a dynamic unity of all opposites, a perpetual opposition between life and death, which are unified through the dynamic transformation of opposites into each other. From the contradictory union of opposites derives the notion that things can be known only through their association with other things. A tree, for example, is known as a tree because there are other things – plants, animals, timber products – to differentiate and define it. If there were only large trees, one would not know small tree and so on. And from the basic concept of ‘tree’ derives a matrix of complex relationships that eventually would encompass the whole world.
It may seem a long way – and some might feel the connections a mite far-fetched – from the simple depiction of objects contained in Peter Fraser’s series, to the universe. But this nevertheless is what Fraser is asking us to think about as we puzzle over these straightforward yet enigmatic images. In each photograph, he brings a forensic attention upon these everyday objects, yet however elegant each image is in itself, it is the linkages – both causal and casual – we might find between each one, jointly and severally, that we are asked to contemplate. In these relations, Peter Fraser is finding a poetic equivalent, not just of the unity of opposites, but also to the simple, obvious yet profound idea expressed by Charles Eames:
‘Eventually, everything connects.’
–Gerry Badger, 2005
[From Peter Fraser, Nazraeli Monograph, Nazraeli Press, USA, 2006 ISBN 1-59005-144-0]