Peter Fraser’s A City in the Mind is an enigmatic journey into a vision of London buried within everyday life in the city, finds Diane Smyth

At the end of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the explorer Marco Polo explains to Emperor Kublai Khan that he cannot draw a route or set a date for landing at New Atlantis, Utopia, the City of the Sun, Oceana, Tamoe, New Harmony, New Lanark or Icaria. But, he continues: “At times all I need is a brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two passers-by meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect city, made of fragments, mixed with the rest, of instants separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not knowing who receives them.”

It can be read as an explanation of all of the fantastical cities in the book, which are made up of fragments of contemporary places; it can also be read as way into Peter Fraser’s new project, A City in the Mind, a series of weird and wonderful objects shot in London. “I don’t see any of these images bearing any direct parallel with the observations Marco makes, and I’ve certainly not set out to illustrate Invisible Cities,” says Fraser. “But you know artists can be inspired to make work that is very large or really ambitious from the most fragile motivation and most fleeting inspiration.

“I first read Invisible Cities over 20 years ago and it stayed with me; six or seven years ago I reread it and found it even more powerful. It’s an amazing literary achievement. Very often a photographer, and certainly a photographer like me, needs a physical object in order to make a photograph,” he continues. “So it was a very tantalising prospect to make photographs from the physical substance of the world which then collectively suggested a place we could only visit in the imagination. For me that’s an interesting tension.”

British eye

Peter Fraser is one of Britain’s best-respected photographers – studying with Martin Parr at Manchester Polytechnic University in the 1970s, he was shortlisted for the Citibank Photography Prize in 2004 and has a large retrospective coming up at the Tate St Ives next year. He’s also exhibited his work with William Eggleston, whose book The Guide made an immediate impact on him when he first saw it in 1982. Until then he “hadn’t realised photography could talk about the kind of things, the kind of experiences, the kind of very, very fleeting nuances of consciousness – in one’s life,” he told students at the University of Wales Newport in 2009.

“I thought it had to be kind of formal and definitely black-and-white if you were serious, so Eggleston’s pictures, which were elliptical, complex, seemingly artless, were extraordinary,” he continued. “I could see that if I was going to be an artist or a photographer, it doesn’t really matter any more, I was going to have to be brave.”

That courage inspired Fraser to introduce himself to Eggleston shortly afterwards, at the American photographer’s first show at the V&A in 1983. He says it was “one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do” but he ended up staying with Eggleston for two months, an experience he describes as “curious, bizarre and extraordinary”. Arguably, its effects have stayed with him. “I had this notion of what I called a democratic way of looking around: that nothing was more important or less important,” Eggleston famously said of his series The Democratic Forest; “My proposition is that all material is democratically equal in value,” Fraser told the Newport students of his 2002 series Matter, which combines shots of a Strathclyde University physics lab with photographs of dirt.

Fraser also links his “democratic” approach to photography with science, however – an ongoing interest since childhood. Powers of Ten, a film by Charles and Ray Eames that interrogates the universe from the cosmic to the atomic, had a profound influence on him when he saw it at school. After studying maths and science A-levels, he initially studied Civil Engineering before dropping out to pursue photography. He’s completed several series inspired by scientific knowledge, including Matter, plus Deep Blue (1997), a series of ‘portraits’ of machines inspired by Deep Blue’s chess victory over Garry Kasparov, and a residency shooting Oxford University’s Biochemistry Department. He’s currently shooting a series inspired by “the importance of mathematics”.

To Fraser, to follow contemporary science is to believe that all matter is equally important – if everything is made of the same building blocks, and was created together in the Big Bang, there can be no hierarchy of stuff. It’s a holistic approach evident in A City in the Mind, which includes images of everything from conkers to chandeliers to a molecular model of penicillin. But for Fraser, the molecular model is important for what it says about the human thirst for knowledge and the urge to impose order. “For me what’s really important about that image is that it says ‘Wrong absolute configuration for penicillin’ at the top,” he explains. “That generates such excitement in my mind, because it suggests what kind of investigative process we’re always involved with in trying to understand more and more and more about how profound things are around us. This goes to the core of what it is to be human – this curiosity about what is around and trying to make sense of things.”

He has enormous respect for “analysis, profound and rational analysis of the world around us”, he continues, but also believes that the irrational and the imaginative “has this wonderful power in terms of how it helps us read the world”. For him there’s a tension between “the results of rational analysis and the unexpected and arcane reactions that come from the unconscious mind”. Accordingly, although he insists A City in the Mind is a portrait of London, because it was shot in London, it can also be read as a portrait of an imaginary place, or as an insight into the imaginary component of any city.

“If two people stand at the edge of a cliff and they’re looking at a scene, and the wind is blowing the clouds across the sky at high speed, I don’t believe for a second that they see the same thing,” he says. “If we think of their whole spheres of apprehension, seeing in the situation as a circle, the same circles cross but they only cross very slightly. Where they cross, as a consequence of them intersecting, people can discuss what they experience in a way that is intelligible. As for all the rest, when we’re looking at what we call physical reality, what the eyes are sending to the brain is heavily modified by the imagination. No city exists without the support of the imagination.”

Shooting a city

Fraser allowed himself to work impulsively on A City in the Mind, shooting more than 1500 images of whatever struck him at the time. This is his preferred way of working, as he explained to the students at Newport, he doesn’t “dream up an idea and then sort of illustrate it”. Rather he makes work then waits and reads it. “My work takes advantage of upsurges of energy from the unconscious mind into the conscious mind. There’s no way I can anticipate where that will go,” he added. “I just have to give myself a loose framework to be in the place where that can go.”

He’s chosen 50 images for the final series, and although there are lots of shots of models, microcosms and old objects, he wasn’t aware of these themes while he was shooting. For him they’re interlinked because they are all “portals” to different times or places. His shot of a 500-year-old book, for example, is less a photograph of a book than a gateway into the world depicted in it. “When I look at this image, and when I originally saw this image, the last thing I was thinking about was a book,” he says.

“I was hearing the sounds of battle, I was seeing gallons of blood being spilt and I was thinking incoherent thoughts about the history of medieval warfare. It was very much a way of walking in on a world that was fully active. It had nothing much to do with a static book of armour illustrations, it was citing as a psychological trigger of something else and had incredibly comprehensive emotional and psychological occupation of a territory.”

To Fraser, this sense of history (or of the “non-linearity of time”, as he puts it) is particularly appropriate in an old city such as London, which retains many traces of its past. But it’s also linked to his Welsh identity, he says, because he never cared about the past until he shot Lost for Words in Wales in 2010. “I’d always been intensely preoccupied in the now, in the experience of making a picture to the exclusion of the past and the future,” he says.

“But with the Welsh work I think there was something about the poetry of the Welsh people, who have been put upon economically and culturally by the English. I guess I realised I was photographing things and going back in time, and in this work, that sense of the way that time can eddy and reverse is a tremendously exciting breakthrough for me.”

He’s happy to have ended up with an “encyclopaedic’ breadth of subjects in A City in the Mind, however, describing the fact that these disparate objects have ended up together in London as “a gift for me to pay attention to”. He’s a witness to these chance contingencies, he says, which is why he doesn’t stage images. “I don’t think I have a better insight into how things should be than the forces that are at work around us,” he says. “I think they are pretty big.”

Subject object

As in previous projects, Fraser has emphasised the objects by putting them centre stage – often literally at the centre of the image, nearly always with plenty of space around them. In his hands these objects are enigmatic but vitally alive. On his website he traces this acute sensitivity to a defining experience as a student, when he went to Niger and became seriously ill. “One morning a nurse asked me if I’d like to try to walk to the courtyard to see the sun,” he writes.

“I walked slowly, with her support, finally standing in the open doorway dazzled by the Saharan sunshine, falling on perhaps a dozen Bougainvillae trees. What I saw and understood wordlessly at that moment has provided a running thread through all my photographic work since, but it took many years before I was able to verbally articulate that vision. Standing in that doorway, each flower appeared as a crucible in which a perpetual struggle was taking place, between the impossible beauty of the world and its irrefutable fact.

“In the weeks that followed, a further two spent in hospital in Algiers, and then six more in Wales, I had time to reflect on the significance of my experience. The impact the ‘Bougainvillae’ experience had on my understanding of what was now important to photograph could not be overstated – not least in the sense that I realised the world as I found it was an infinitely more complex, compelling and mysterious subject than any notion I had of how it should look through my own manipulation.

“Additionally, over the passing years, it has become clear that by photographing a stationary subject in a particularly intense way, that has been influenced by the experience above, there is potential for the photograph to allude not only to time at the moment of exposure, but to time before, and even time to come.”

Digital capture

Fraser started A City in the Mind in 2006 shooting on film for two years before “hitting a brick wall”. “The scans were such high quality that everything, every particle of silver in the negative or dye was being picked up and re-presented, and it was almost like I was looking at images printed on sandpaper,” he says. “I realised that there was something missing and then I realised the thing that was missing was obvious – negatives were never designed to be scanned.

“Digital cameras are designed to give you a digital file direct from real life. So I thought maybe if I use a digital camera, that’s going to change what the print looks like, and so it was. In 2008 I just gave up film forever. I never want to see another roll of film.”

Fraser is an excellent printer (he was Martin Parr’s printer for years) so he made the photographs himself at home with a pigment printer, and says he’s thrilled with the colours he was able to achieve. “I now realise we trained ourselves to accept the particular interpretation of the world that colour negative and c-type print have given us,” he says. “This is just a version. But at the moment at this stage in my career this is a much more interesting version because it’s bigger -the colour gamut of these works are much greater than normal c-type prints.”

For Fraser one of the most interesting aspects of the prints is their grainless quality, a quality that he hopes will minimise the viewers’ sense of the photograph as medium. “You know when you go to the movies and watch a film, the suspension of disbelief in the artificiality of what you’re watching is important,” he says. “It’s important you feel you’re looking at the world through a window, without being aware of the medium. I think these images have a filmic quality in that sense.”

Each individual will interpret the images differently, he says, bringing different experiences and imaginative connections to it. His job is “with humility, to put work in front of an audience and let them make what they want of it”, he says, adding: “I have no interest in controlling that. I want people to bring whatever they want to it.” As such, he isn’t interested in identifying every element of objects he’s showing – he doesn’t say what some of the more enigmatic images depict, for example, and in some cases doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what wood the conkers are laid out on, for example, and says it’s not the point. “Whatever it is, it’s not going to make it more enjoyable for me to look at the photographs.

“We’ve already been touching on the idea of the portal and the psychological trigger,” he explains. “If I’m showing a picture of a satellite it’s in the context of the idea that we might begin to think about portraits of machines. If I’m showing a picture of dirt then, as far as I’m concerned, I’m not just shooting a picture of dirt, I’m showing a picture that falls into a series that might persuade the viewer of the democratic relationship between all material. I don’t think I’ve ever made a photograph that’s only about what it appears to be about. That doesn’t interest me at all.”

And in this, perhaps, A City in the Mind shows another intimate connection with Invisible Cities – itself an oblique take on fact and fiction, inspired by Marco Polo’s ambivalent history. “It’s a matter maybe of historical truth, but some people are not quite sure about this – that Marco Polo travelled around for 20 years bringing back information,” says Fraser. “Some of the latest thinking suggests he actually invented a lot of the stories, but we’re going back nearly 1000 years so it’s hard to check. But the whole thing for me is that Invisible Cities is a work of fiction in the hands of the author. Even if it bore no relationship to actual truth, it wouldn’t matter because the work itself is a truth.”

A City in the Mind by Peter Fraser is on show at Brancolini Grimaldi until 14 July.