David: Peter, many of the British books of colour photography that were published in the 1980s depicted worlds that now seem quite dated (few things date with greater piquancy than the colours of the new consumerism that was redefining British culture back then). The books of that era by Martin Parr, Paul Reas and others are time capsules. This doesn’t seem to be the case with your Two Blue Buckets. Sure, today’s suitcases don’t look much like that red leatherette example you photographed, but the other things you chose are not quite so time bound. Model ships. Religious crosses. Green sheds. Cows, kitsch, carpets. And of course blue buckets are pretty much the same today as they were in 1988. Were you keeping your distance from the specifics of that era?
Peter: That’s a great question, and I can say that right from the beginning of my serious work in 1982, when I was making 5”x4″ street photographs in Manchester, I didn’t think of myself as a documentary photographer at all. I had seen the work of Stephen Shore and Joel Meyerowitz certainly, but above all I was interested in playing with image construction. I was looking, to use an oft-quoted expression, ‘to see what things looked like when photographed’. Later, when shooting for Two Blue Buckets I was completely involved with the idea of working ‘poetically’ with a camera rather than as a documentary photographer…this misunderstanding of how to position me actually upset me all through the 1980s and early 90s when I was put into shows which seemed to confuse my intentions. Growing up in Wales my mother used to play Beethoven, Ravel, Bach and Schubert on the record player…that’s where I had developed an idea of an ‘artistic life’.
David: So might we call it ‘the poetry of things photographed’?
Peter: We might, but somehow that feels so weak when set against the terrific intensity of each pre-exposure experience at that time in which it felt momentarily as if there was no past and no future, only the ‘now’. This might sound ludicrously youthful, but I was 30 years old. I’m simply trying to be as accurate as I can.
David: Of course. Can you say more about the ‘pre-exposure experience’? In this body of work and beyond the things you are encountering are often no more than a few feet from you. It’s a close and highly charged arena of vision.
Peter: 1975 was for me an amazing year in terms of experiencing levels of intensity of perception that felt almost frightening. One took place in an Algerian Hospital courtyard after three weeks on an intravenous drip, which Gerry Badger alludes to in his original essay for Two Blue Buckets. The other, some months later, was as follows…
I was living in South Manchester and one Sunday morning I was trying to photograph large hosta leaves in my front garden with my 5” x 4” camera. It was windy, and I’d already lost 4 sheets of film due to the indicated 20 second exposure and movement in the subject. At some moment I sensed that a period of calm longer that 20 seconds was about to arrive, and I opened the shutter with the cable release. At that precise moment I imagined that all the aircraft around the world froze in flight and at the moment I closed the shutter after 20 wind free seconds, they all continued on their flight paths. This experience was to set the template for my photographing for years to come.
David: It’s interesting how many photographers talk of such experiences. An irrational but totally real force of will, an overwhelming desire that the world will align to accommodate the photographer’s wishes. I sometimes wonder if it is a compensation for the automatism of the camera which sees without seeing, records without judging, arrests without arresting, depicts with indifference, knows not what it is doing.
Peter: I see exactly why you might suggest that, but I’ve always felt that for me it’s much more a sense that ‘the world’ will present itself with real clarity as and when it chooses, which requires the photographer to be both present and accepting of the ‘gift’.
David: Does ‘the world’ choose?
Peter: Not in a literal sense, but I might have found myself trying to make a photograph of let’s say a rocket motor one day with no ‘success’, but a return the next day might have allowed a ‘window of perception’ which doesn’t seem to be the clearest indication of an exercise of ‘my will’. So perhaps we can say a confluence of circumstances and forces collide at these moments.
David: And what about this proximity? So many things observed photographed almost within arm’s reach…
Peter: I think the physical proximity to a subject can be hugely important in terms of ‘apprehending’ the mysteriousness of its ‘fact’.
David: That’s almost a surrealist attitude. Do you feel an affinity?
Peter: Without question… always did.
David: Some of your photographs feel as if they might be quite aligned with eyesight, with what those scenes/objects might have looked like in those moments before you photographed them. Others don’t at all – they feel profoundly transformed by the photographic act, including the use of flash.
Peter: I’m aware of is. In some series of photographs, I’m very interested in the ‘whatness’ of things, and in others a sense of my own psychological engagement with the subject.
David: Can those things be separated?
Peter: Yes, I believe they can sometimes. For example, when I was photographing for my later series Material or Deep Blue I was very often startled by the physical fact of the object before me, without being preoccupied with it psychologically. When photographing for all the images in Two Blue Buckets I was without exception conscious of my psychological engagement with the subject and they were chosen for that reason. But I do accept that there can be an extraordinarily delicate interface between being psychologically engaged and intellectually curious about a ‘physical fact’.
David: Yes, with photography the line between the sensual and the intellectual, the intuitive and the rational, can be so thin, for makers and viewers. You seem to enjoy that knife-edge.
Peter: I really do, and I think right from early days as a teenager I felt rapturous about the experience of photographing because of the way it seemed to involve my whole being. Of course the knife edge sometimes works against photographic expression for those people who still find photographs made in response to an evolving scene in front of the camera extremely difficult to appreciate, as opposed to a photograph which manifests a prior conceptual position.
David: The shutter has its own rapture. But you’re really a lens man, no? The emphatic cut for you is into space, more than time.
Peter: You are right about space, but think about this: for me the notion of a ‘perception time window’, that is often extremely brief immediately prior to an exposure, is not abstract… it’s a literal experience in the sense that before this window and after, I simply cannot see anything worth making a photograph of.
David: It would be weird if it were otherwise! We’d all be trapped, constantly startled by the same encounters. A sort of perceptual Groundhog Day. Although in a way that’s often what a photographer wants to make – a fixed record of that fleeting experience of the world. Have you always felt you knew what you wanted to do in those brief and unexpected ‘perception time windows’?
Peter: I’ll try to describe an actual incident which is emblematic of what happens. I was in Istanbul on a bright sunny morning. I had taken a bus from the city centre about 10 miles out intending to slowly walk back to the centre. I walked for several hours in a heightened state of observation, but hadn’t even taken my camera out of the bag. I was thinking “today just isn’t my day for photographing”, when as I walked along the Bosphorous, a couple of miles out from the city centre, I saw a line of balloons in the distance, along the water’s edge. Now, these are the moments I recognise, as I notice my pulse quicken, and excitement is building in pleasure areas of the brain. I deliberately slow my pace down and I’m getting my camera out of the bag 100 meters away. By the time I’m getting close to the line of balloons, I’ve already made a mental geometric diagram of where I think the best vantage point to make a photograph might be, and slowly approach it. The early indications of excitement have not let me down, and I make two or three similar exposures, as always, in case of future file corruption, in a state of terrific, momentary elation.
David: It sounds like the choice of vantage point and framing came very quickly. Is this always the case? Is it clear from the start how a first impression is to become an image? And what about hindsight? Do you ever feel duped by your first impressions?
Peter: No, it’s not always the case that I know immediately how to photograph, but if it doesn’t happen quickly, I think the chances of an interesting photograph resulting are much lower. It’s not always clear how to proceed, and if it’s not, then to some degree I might find myself ‘willing’ things to gel, but that rarely results in any kind of success, and suggests in that instance I was simply mistaken, or distracted.
David: In 2013, the Tate presented a retrospective covering nearly three decades of your work. How was that experience? And has the ground-clearing that comes with a retrospective changed your outlook?
Peter: Yes, in 2011 I was offered a solo show by the then Director of Tate St Ives, Martin Clark, planned to coincide with a beautiful exhibtion by the British painter William Scott. We worked together for two years on what was to be a retrospective. Tate published a major monograph on the whole of my career with a substantial essay by David Chandler. Actually I was shocked to discover, in looking so closely at the work over all those years, how extremely consistent my interests had been…much more so, I imagine, than if I had set out with that intention. Subsequently, Tate bought ten of my photographs from the original publication Two Blue Buckets for their permanent collection, which of course gave me pleasure. Martin Parr suggested it was the first ‘Tate Retrospective’ awarded to a living British Photographer, but strangely there wasn’t a single review of the show or monograph. Also, earlier this year a senior Tate Curator shared with me that Tate Britain had “only one show of photography planned for the next three years”, which does seem extraordinary. It might suggest that art photography that doesn’t wear its ‘artiness’ on its sleeve still has some distance to cover before a deeper acceptance.
David: Way back in 1985 the American photographer Lewis Baltz reflected on the erratic profile of photography within art. Museums and galleries would turn their attention towards it all at once, like “a hyperkinetic child discovering a new toy”. It would then be forgotten, only to be found again as if for the first time. As a result, there would be what seemed like reruns of the same ideas, same debates, same questions, encountered afresh over and over. Although the presence of photography in contemporary art is now more consistent, there is still an eternal return, but doesn’t it have more to do with tensions built into the medium itself: between art and document, between intention and automatism, between the vernacular and the exemplary, the low and the high? This tension was photography’s passport into modern art back in the 1920s, but it comes back to haunt it too. So perhaps the predicament Baltz and you describe is somewhat inevitable. Photography became accepted as modern art only when art had itself become a troubled category. What would it actually mean if photography had a permanent and unproblematic place at art’s high table? Should we be careful what we wish for?
Peter: I cannot recall the situation in which photography finds itself being put more eloquently than you have there. I’m reminded of an impassioned article written by Ian Jeffrey for the journal Camera Austria in 1988, entitled ‘British Photography Flourishes’. It finishes with this paragraph (I apologise for referencing myself but his argument goes well beyond any individual):
‘In 1989 a photographer can be clever or subtle, as deep as you like, for nothing (or little) of that kind will be presented in the major public venues (unless it is of an academic, semiotic complexity – a form of contemporary showing off). For a major artist in photography, not presented here, see Peter Fraser, probably the best colourist anywhere now, and as capable with metaphors as any major poet. Fraser’s work is complete, full, in its resonances and layered meanings, with the sort of richness you might find in Chardin or Vermeer. In comparison most of the major vanguard art of the 1980’s looks like fragmentary rubbish, part of the unfolding (inconsequential) stream of post-modernism; an evolution in which gallery history has the upper hand. Photography, mercifully neglected, has been able to save itself from drowning in that stream’.
I took it that Jeffrey was arguing perhaps for ‘an innocence in the joy of seeing and sharing’ which characterises much of the great photographic achievements since its invention, and which distances itself from striving for a ‘calculated position’. In that sense, I think you are quite right to warn that we ‘should be careful what we wish for’. And yet, as a photographer who understands that the highest artistic achievements within photography are to be directly compared with the highest achievements in all other arts, I feel frequently frustrated by the much fragmented understanding of the medium’s language.
David: A strong defence against ‘calculated positions’ is often built upon a notion of photographic ‘innocence’ or ‘purity’. Do you adhere to such a purity?
Peter: No not at all. I am as captivated by Eugène Aget’s images of Paris and John Baldessari’s conceptual use of the medium as I am by the photographs of Jeff Wall or Craigie Horsfield’s remarkable works. When looking at the work of other practitioners I ask myself: “Is the art in service to the artist (that is the calculated position I refer to), or is the artist in service to the art? If it’s the latter, I find there’s much more chance of another’s vision profoundly entering one’s own field of reflection, energzing one’s deepest sense of what it means to be alive.
Peter Fraser and David Campany in conversation, ‘Two Blue Buckets’, Peperoni Press, 2017.