‘I’m not a photographer; I’m a man with a camera’. This is my knee-jerk response to those who confuse the act of taking photographs with photography. Just because I scribble Post-its doesn’t make me a writer, any more than doodling distinguishes me as a draughtsman. Just because I have an Instagram account, doesn’t, in and of itself, make me a photographer.
It has never been easier to take a more than reasonable-looking photograph. The camera is now ubiquitous, as not only a thing in itself but also a feature on phones, tablets, and computers. The software behind the lens chooses, on our behalf, an adequate exposure, speed, and focal length. A toolbox of filters enables the operative (button toucher) to cast upon the captured image a variety of alternative tints and resolutions. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these facilities; just don’t delude yourself that you can take any credit for the outcome, beyond pointing, shooting, and decorating.
In the 1970s, electric organs were a popular means of home entertainment. These button- and stop-bound instruments boasted features such as one-touch and auto chords, as well as an electronic rhythm generator, automatic walking bass, automatic orchestra control, and arpeggiator. The player could sound like a one-man band just by pressing a key. No musical training was required to make something that sounded like music. Painting by numbers was more demanding. You get my point.
When I take a photograph (using an iPhone, usually), I’m aware of what the camera is contributing to the process. As a consequence, I know full-well the choices and determinations that fall to me. These include, observation, recognition, ideation, isolation, composition, and exposure and focus. (I often override the automatic settings.) After the exposure, I assume responsibility for reframing the image, and editing its perspective, brightness, contrast, sharpness, and saturation. This is my frame of mind and approach when taking photographs for Instagram.
Photographing, to borrow Clement Greenberg’s phrase, ‘keeps me visual’. For Greenberg, writing about art – critically and routinely – forced him to look. During periods when I’ve made sound works exclusively, the camera has helped maintain the discipline of active, selective, and creative perception. As such, I photograph not only what I see but also in order to see.
What I observe has particular formal attributes. There’s is an initial photograph that marks a first encounter – the occasion when I engage a new and compelling proposition. Subsequent photographs recognise the same proposition in different guises. The ‘Sympathetic Resonance’ series, for example, is centred upon grids and matrixes, repetitions, and their relations, both within the body of my own work, and with reference to similar formalities in the photographs by my Instagram followers.
The propositions inhabit subject matter that’s, more often than not, neither intrinsically significant, nor eye-catching, nor memorable, in most people’s eyes. However, a photograph worth its salt can reveal and redeem, as well as inculcate in the viewer a new way of looking. Photographs are always didactic in this sense.
The Instagram archive represents some of those moments when I’ve said to myself (and to others, subsequently): ‘Oh! Look at this’. No more; no less. At the point of composing and shooting the picture, I’m not thinking about either art or photography, usually. (There are, however, times when I consciously look at the world through the lens of photographers whose work I admire.) My eyes and mind (never the one without the other) are taken up, rather, with the delight of discovering something where there ought to be nothing.
These ‘moments of vision’ (to quote Samuel Palmer) occur at home, at work, while travelling, and on vacation, during the day and, sometimes, a sleepless night. In this respect, they represent a visual diary of fleeting phenomena. (Each one is dated.) On occasion, the photograph takes on a metaphoric significance. In so doing, it transcends both the represented subject and the split second of exposure, to become the enduring embodiment of either an experience or an emotion.
The photographs capture not so much what I saw as what I recall seeing. In the ‘darkroom’ of either Photoshop or the filter banks of my iPhone, I ‘develop’ an ‘afterimage’: a posthumous picture, shaped by memory and feeling, in the wake of the initial visual percept’s demise.
For the most part, the photographs are taken with a view to being published only on Instagram. No copies are made, and the originals are deleted. The images live and die with the site. The works’ titles are variously either descriptive of the primary subject, or poetically allusive, or impenetrably obtuse – like, for example, ‘Empire Blue (grade 5)’. This refers to the name of the carpet that once covered the floorboards and paint gesture shown in the photograph.
Is photography art? In one sense, ‘no’! For, if it were so, then all photographs would be art. Clearly they aren’t. But, then again, neither is painting art unless, like photography, it’s allied to imagination, discipline, dexterity, and a language that has evolved within the tradition of the medium. Photographers situate their work within the historical and contemporary nexus of the medium, even as they ‘press the shutter’. They, moreover, exercise critical judgement, dismiss more than they keep, focus (in more senses than one) on their subject field, and aim to better their practice with every shot. Only such have a claim on the title.
My Instagram archive can be seen by clicking on this link: johnharveyaber