Lost for words? the question comes as somewhat of a taunt to those who might want to write about Peter Frasers photography. The words address us directly, in the cartoon speech bubble added to a colourful and illusionistic postcard of goldfish, which Fraser has photographed. Another speech bubble bears the Welsh words for the English question: chwilio am eiriau?
There are not many words in Frasers photography. While some pictures, like this one, occasionally include words, the nature and identity of his photography has continuously put us up against the limits of language, put us at a loss for words. This is to do with the way he makes pictures. His photographs follow no clearly determined script. They involve subjective, deeply felt, instinctual responses to the look of things in the world. One in which chance is a recurrent element, the sense of a searching use of the camera and an openness to the potential infinite pictorial possibilities of what is around him. In many ways this picture of a picture is key to his new series of photographs. I say series, but series again is subject to a degree of uncertainty. Series suggests some kind of unity, a thematic coherence, a legible order, but Frasers pictures tend to break out of familiar patterns and classifications. His photography is not predetermined, it tends to challenge habit and the habitual. What the current body of photographs in this book have in common is place, but place only in a general sense, locations are not identified, the photographs remain untitled.
Is it important that they were all taken in Wales? Do they, can they, speak about Welshness? Fraser was born in Wales and grew up there. These photographs are, then, inevitably informed by his biography, bear the psychic trace of childhood experiences. And there is something in his close-up way of picturing that accords with a sense of an innocence or innocenting of vision, a sense of wonderment before things. Fraser has spoken about the enduring attachments we have to places, the importance and influence of our environment and the power of the unconscious in relation to the way we engage with and look at things in the world.
But what are we to make of the photograph of the postcard? It is photographed placed upright against a carpet and appears to be resting on wooden boards. The photograph is in fact lying on the carpet floor and it was taken the other way up, with the inverted postcard at the feet of the photographer. As a framed print the postcard is oversize, larger than life. Such magnification alters its dynamic, augments the postcards illusionism and the sense of abundance and fullness, with the fish seeming to bob out of the picture. Fraser appropriates this image as he does the words on the postcard as an allegory for his art. His work keeps putting us up against the sense of a world brimming over with things, as full and colourful as the fish in the postcard and as unfathomable as its message or joke.
Fraser is a great photographer of things, often small, incidental and culturally low things. Never people. His work is not driven by the ideological agendas of documentary photography, but instead explores fundamental issues about our presence in the world and our relation to its objects. The new work evinces a fascination with other pictures and models, worlds in miniature, fabricated and fantasmatic.
Fraser has mainly worked with colour; sensitive to its harmonies and discords, it becomes integral to the phenomenological accent in his work, opening up new and unexpected ways of seeing the world. Colour makes more particular the sense of the materiality of things, distinguishing textures and surfaces, but also pulls away from this contingent realm, with expanses of pure colour eliciting a particular emotive response, providing an affective and indeterminate element in his pictures.
Questions about aesthetic value and judgement often lie at the heart of Frasers work. One of his early and most iconic photographs, taken in Wales in 1985 as part of The Valleys Project a corrugated green shed bearing the graffiti I Hate Green across its doors adorned the cover of what was the first colour issue of the leading independent photography journal in Britain in the 1980s, Creative Camera. It served as a witty riposte to the detractors of colour photography in Britain. Frasers picture was a celebration of the colour green, not only through the green of the painted shed, but of the grass, vegetation and trees in the photograph, and of course his sentiments were far from those of the anonymous graffitist, much as those very sentiments would have been identified with by those magazine readers at the time still clinging to the value and import of black and white photography.
An early important point of inspiration was the 1968 film Powers of Ten, written and directed by Ray and Charles Eames, with its macro and micro views that starts with a scene of a picnicking couple in a park by the lake in Michigan, a human measure soon lost to the vastness of space as we are given a succession of receding aerial views or the unfathomable depths of the bodys interior as a subsequent succession of close ups takes us through the skin of the mans hand, to cells, to coils of the DNA and right down to the quarks in a proton of a carbon atom. The sublime disordering effect of scale, of losing measure and a grip on things in the world is a characteristic of a lot of his photographs.
Science is important to his photography. Not as something knowable, but for opening up an unfathomable beyond. It became the subject in Deep Blue, 1997, the title taken from the evocative name given to the computer that beat Gary Kasparov at chess and a project that reveals a fascination with the look of technological equipment: a rocket motor, a robotic arm, a mobile phone satellite. What is noticeable is the colour field backgrounds against which Fraser has depicted the machines, a contrast to the associations of such sterile places, a vivid pink, a cerulean blue, amber. If the scientific equipment is representative of a non-human, post human world, many are framed and pictured like portraits. Colour here in its evocation of a formal, subjective response seems keyed into human tastes, feeling and values, a reminder of what separates and distances us from this technology and machinery.
In contrast to the predominantly abstract and disembodied technological world of Deep Blue, his following series Material, 2002, considered unclean spaces, pictures of an industrial and post-industrial realm, with an entropic accent through details of electronic circuitry, networks of cables, wires and pipes and with the emphasis on matter and waste: of various substances, of foam, gunk, grease, swarf and so on. All this was edged by reflections on our ultimate place in the world. One picture, for example, showed the tar-encrusted cube of a little block of splintered wood, an offcut that speaks about measurement and form against a black infinite. The photograph raises uncertainty and doubt about our place in the world. No matter how close we are to things, we see ourselves from afar, a sublime consciousness of the vastness and undecipherability of things. And in this little cube there is something about art and beauty, a desire and will for form against the black nothingness, an allegory perhaps of the aesthetic quest for a certain form and order but at the same time a reminder that beauty is random, happenstance and subjective.
The new photography signals a certain departure in the way it relishes the artificial and illusory the world of the museum, other worlds, model worlds, fantasy spaces. There is a dreamlike quality to many pictures as a result. The photographs open out into other landscapes and other scenes, take us elsewhere the little painted cameo on the side of a vase that shows the gestures of soldiers conversing, the uncanny scene of toy figures propped up on their chairs beside a fireplace in a dolls house, an elaborate architectural ruin made out of sugar.
Fraser has now stopped using film and this work inaugurates his turn to the digital, a process that has given him greater freedom and versatility not in terms of manipulation, but in the facility and ease with which he can depict things in the world. The prints themselves have a material weight and density, again assuring a distinction from the ready equation between the digital and the realm of the virtual. There is a particular sensuousness to the prints in the way they render different surfaces, evoking a physical, close-up relation to the objects depicted. Things are given both presence and substance through their translation into photographic form. When displayed in the frame the prints remain unmatted and are presented as physical surfaces of paper.
With Frasers picture of two loaves of bread, that sense of them being freshly baked, just coming out of the oven, so redolent of the comfort and sustenance of home and hearth, could be seen to be most closely tied to something about his Welsh upbringing, that sense of an enduring tradition and relationship to place. Only they are fake. The illusionism is disrupted by a tear in the loaf on the left, showing us that the interior is made of foam. The tear breaks the spell, a reminder of the unattainability of what is being proffered, that the loaves like the photograph itself are just an illusion, mere representation. Their appeal and allure, only chimerical.
The quality of the photograph of loaves links with the picture of a bowl of fruit. Here we are caught up with the unexpected sensuousness and lifelikeness of this little still life of plastic fruit, rendered with such clarity that we can see how the peaches have become powdered with what looks like dust. The fruit will never rot, but time, as the photograph shows, leaves its mark.
His picture detailing the two blue light-sensitive museum cards propped up against the ornate leg of a piece of furniture and protecting the rug beneath, introduces a familiar and recurrent element in Frasers work. Blue is an important colour, replete with associations of the sublime and beyond. Fraser often uses it to elevate and transform the common and ordinary. For example, his strobe-lit photograph taken in the gap between two identical blue lorries parked side by side, Hirwaun, South Wales, 1985, effects a dynamic recessional space, a deep blue-black void that gives the illusion it is sucking colour and language from the picture there are words on the sides of the trucks but they remain illegible at such an angle and are set well back from the viewer. And in his photograph of a couple of buckets, pushed together in order to catch the drips from a leaking roof one assumes, his picture concentrates on the beauty of the simple geometry and formal rhymes set up by the two blue plastic objects, each a different tone.
In the recent photograph, the formal geometry of the blue cards serves as a foil to the ornate furnishings they are set against. Framed by white mattes, they are like two abstract paintings, out of place in this fusty old-fashioned world. Like the two buckets, the cards differ in tone. Sensitive to light, they serve as a corollary of the photographic process itself, little measuring instruments that mark the passage of time. The lightening of the blue is also suggestive of fading, a reminder that preservation, a quality integral to both photography and the museum, is never permanent. With the blue buckets, the fact that one is lighter than the other also might make us think of fading. For all its intimation of the sublime in art, blue also has its more material associations in the effect of light on the colour photograph itself exposed to the sun, the colours of colour photography turn blue. So blue can also serve as a sign of the mortality of the photograph.
The photograph as mortal material is eloquently highlighted in the picture of a creased and worn colour photographic print, lying upon a floral tablecloth. It is a beautifully layered pictured, setting up relationships between the surface of the cloth covering the table, the physicality of the photograph lying upon it and the detail of the frayed ochre cloth cover on the top of an armchair set before a hearth that the photo depicts. A functional record is pulled into a poetic reflection upon the process of conservation and preservation against the irrevocability of erosion and wear. The open seam at the back of the armchair, like the white crease down the photograph itself points to something outside and beyond the comfort and reassurance connoted by the little homely interior world the photo offers us a glimpse into.
Another picture shows an ornate brush and pan set out on a white tablecloth. The tray contains an indeterminate ochre substance, traces of the crumbs that had once been swept up from tables perhaps. Such a formless element recurs in his work, and was given most prominence in Material. The abject detail provides a grubby counterpart to the more celestial and metaphysical qualities his pictures can carry in the new work it can also be seen in the wormy blob of bluetack in his picture of the edge of a blue plastic screen atop an old school desk and is there in the dirt and dust that has settled upon and discoloured the surfaces of things in his miniature model worlds, the seastorm and the figures in the dolls house.
In terms of the simple, affective response these photographs involve, one wonders whether much writing on photography has been misguided, chasing a grand thesis, a neat frame to contain and explain the work. Can one write against habit? Can writing begin to share the openness to the world we find in Frasers work?
The great American writer James Agee tried to bring writing close to photography. He sought to mime Walker Evanss photographs in descriptions of the interiors of the tenant farmer families in the greatest documentary novel of the twentieth century, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, 1941.i Agee was also a great writer on photography, borne out by his beautiful and original essays on Helen Levitt and Walker Evans. Description in his great novel served a purpose, valorising the lives of the poor it involved an important reversal of values, this was the politics of his prose. Agee went to extremes, describing the objects in one familys house right down to the unidentifiable brown dust found in the corner of a table drawer unidentifiable like that powdery ochre in Frasers picture of the servants brush and tray. Agees descriptive excess spoke about an untrammelled attachment, a romantic desire for identification, even over identification, with those he describes at one point in his novel as an appalling damaged group of people. There was a perversity in the extent of his detailing of things, a describing that was in the end about acknowledging that the lives of those he sought to portray was, as he puts it, much huger. ii Agees writing comes up against incommunicability and an acknowledgement that he cannot have an identification with his subjects, much as he longs to get close to the people whose lives and possessions he sought to make vivid in his book. Good documentary is about the realisation of this excess and impossibility, that something will always remain beyond description.
Fraser, as I have said, is not a documentary photographer. As a new British colourist his work came to prominence alongside that of the documentarians, Paul Graham and Martin Parr. Only he was doing something very different. His work was always more private, less didactic and as a result less immediate, less illustrational and legible.
Thinking about Frasers photography and this difficulty about writing, another extraordinary American writer comes to mind. Not as lauded as Agee, and writing a few years later, he not only brings writing close to photography but also seems to have prefigured some of the qualities found within Frasers own photographs. Significantly this author, Wright Morris, also happened to be a great photographer.
In one of his most photographic novels, The Man Who Was There, 1945, he describes the mysterious effect a war hero, Agee Ward, missing in action, has upon the people who knew him.iii He has a particular influence on his landlady who is named next of kin, despite hardly knowing him. As she cleans up his room above her garage having decided to move into it and rent out her house, she comes across a postcard of Paris he had sent to a friend, with a puzzling message upon the back:
The only obscene women I know are in Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. Reflect on this. iv
The postcard with its message exposed, crops up a bit later and causes her much embarrassment when a neighbour, Mr Bloom, lifts up Wards mattress from off the floor. The description of what is underneath the mattress is extraordinary and worth quoting in full, for here is writing which comes close to Frasers photography, and all edged so brilliantly by a sense of time and mortality, and also here caught up with the unease of the postcard, its lewd message all too visible:
Miss Newcomb was so stunned by the sight on the floor she just stood there staring at it fearing either to call Mr Blooms attention to it or let is pass. Wads of sweepings had gathered in rolls, some of them like storm clouds with bits of white in them, and in between the floor was every manner of thing. Buttons, cigarettes used and unused, one blue, one brown and one red sock, a ping pong ball, a spice of chewed fat, a tube of hair oil that had leaked a stain, several pencils, and a small Chinese brass cat. But worst of all, there was that postcard she had dropped. It was right side up, the writing so clear she though she would read it from where she stood, and while Mr Bloom held up the bed she reached for it. v
The postcard message speaks about the intimacies of a life that is being revealed here, the erotics of her fascination with Ward and how it is all exposed under the gaze of Mr Bloom, her husband to be. In Morris writing, it is often small things that matter and which tend to take on surprising significance and importance for the lives of his characters.
Frasers art like Morris does not shout; it is subtle, descriptive, attentive, enigmatic, private and often unexpected. His photography asks questions about how we relate to the world. And the world that is opened up here is often strange, replete with fantasies, illusions and fears.
Of the new photographs, one of the most extraordinary depicts a model made of sugar, an ornate classical fantasy, a sparkling ruin. The architectural structure is in fragments, columns are broken and scattered and the pieces are covered with fine spidery and wiry forms, suggestive of grass and ivy but also looking a little like tinsel as they reflect the cameras flash light. It seems, then, that this models run-down state is not a sign of neglect or abandonment, but was deliberate. Together with the decorative touches of colour, the pinks, greens and oranges of both the painted floral decorations and the geometric patterning, the flickers of bright reflected light from the flash, give the whole scene a look that seems to fit the fact that this is made out of sugar. Frasers picture makes a tribute to the creative work of the anonymous maker of this romantic fantasy but also appropriates this crumbling ruin as an integral element of the new work. Theres a quality akin to Diane Arbus photographs of Hollywood and Disney, pictures that both disrupted the brutal and cruel real of her portraiture as well as linked with her love of artifice and masks, all the flamboyant and theatrical presentations of self in her photography. Arbus famously inaugurated a subjective documentary with a photography that dealt with psychic wounding and a traumatic real in the Vietnam era. There is also a dark strain running through many of Frasers new pictures. The sensuousness, beauty and idealism in his photography of objects is countered by a sense of the impermanence, incomprehensibility and meaninglessness of things. Objects exist not so much for us but against us, obdurate, enigmatic and other.
Mark DurDen is Professor of Photography and Director of the European Centre for Photographic Research at University of Wales, Newport.
i. James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1941.
ii. Ibid., p. 12.
iii. Wright Morris, The Man Who Was There, Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.
iv. Ibid., p.176.
v. Ibid., p. 164.