I have been thinking a lot about photography lately: the field of photography, the way different artists use photographs and the ways it has worked in my own practice. I have also been revisiting some of my favourites, such as Ed Ruscha, Jeff Wall, Roy Arden, and Stephen Shore.
The photography I am interested in tends to have a certain kind of relationship to the documentary tradition. The term “documentary” implies a photograph that is based on fact or offers itself as proof. This in turn is premised on the camera as a mechanical recording device, which provides information and suggests an objective image of reality. Each of these artists takes the documentary idea and puts pressure on it from various directions, but the photos always point to the photographer standing in front of this subject, in these conditions at this specific moment.
The other thing that is shared by these artists is a relationship to vernacular or “popular” uses of photography, such as family snapshots, postcards, and scenic views of landscapes. For me, it is the ordinary, homemade quality of the vernacular that is important, it’s flatfooted presentation of the everyday.
Although I make paintings, they are always based on a photographic source. The reason for this has to do with the photograph’s status as evidence of a subject’s existence. Whatever is in the image has at one point been aligned with the camera’s lens, its skin of reflected light inscribed on photosensitive film or encoded on a memory card. Additionally, the camera records what is in front of it more or less evenly, without regard to hierarchies of social or cultural importance.
However, an image written with light also, inevitably refers to an absence. Since a photograph fragments time into infra-thin slices, whatever is pictured in the photograph is no more, its moment passed by as soon as the shutter is released. The nostalgia of family albums, for instance, derives from the gap between the proof that the world was like this once, and the aching silence of its irretrievability. The memorializing function of photographs has to do with the tension between its status as a document and the temporal displacement of its subject.
Theorist and historian Geoffrey Batchen asserts:
Photography is privileged within modern culture because, unlike other systems of representation, the camera does more than just see the world; it is also touched by it. Photographs are designated as indexical signs, images produced as a consequence of being directly affected by the objects to which they refer. It is as if those objects have reached out and impressed themselves on the surface of the photograph, leaving their own visual imprint, as faithful to the contour of the original object as a death mask is to the newly departed. On this basis, photographs are able to parade themselves as the world’s own chemical fingerprints, nature’s poignant rendition of herself as memento mori. And it is surely this combination of the haptic and the visual, this entanglement of both touch and sight, that makes photography so compelling as a medium. (Each Wild Idea, p.61, MIT Press, 2001)
Photography’s capacity to function as evidence, its status as indexical trace, its ability to conjure an absent subject, and its amenable relationship to the commonplace, are what draws me to its images. The paintings in what I consider to be my first mature work are based on photographs taken by my father, Benjamin Down. These tokens of ordinary life fill a binder of slide sleeves in my studio and several small boxes in my mother’s home. In these images he is the absent term, they are the trace of his looking as much as they are the trace of what is being looked at.
The resonance I feel with these images is likely based in my personal experience and a longing for the absent figure of the photographer. Nevertheless, they continue to act as a guiding presence in my practice and a reminder to me of why I began making art in the first place.