Thursday 28 July 2011

Minefield of Memory

There are those who have little regard for books as objects but place a high value on the activity of reading. The attitude to books in the home I grew up in was just this. Reading was greatly encouraged in the interests of both moral and material improvement but there was little in the way of illustrated literature – staring at pictures was construed as time wasted that could have been better employed with a text. I recall only two books of predominantly visual material - the first was a book of Fougasse wartime cartoons and the second was this item, a copy of which I recently rediscovered in a box-full of literary detritus at a local car-boot sale. It’s a 1940 mass-produced portfolio of contemporary photography, mainly taken in pursuit of technical excellence in the form of the perfect exposure or the widest possible tonal range. Photographic societies existed to promote these arid values in the sadly mistaken belief that their work would be thus elevated to the status of fine art.

My best estimate is that I was 7 years old when I first browsed in this book – the first glimpse of it after at least five decades was a classic shock of recognition followed by a series of detonations as I leafed through the contents. There were landscapes, seascapes, still lives, portraits and un-erotic nude studies, many of which I remembered but there was a small group of four that I recalled very powerfully – the act of looking at them reopened a channel that led directly back to my 7 year old self. The image that most engaged my infant eye was this aerial view of a lakeside car park in Baton Rouge by Clarence John Laughlin. It is an untypical Laughlin photograph, most of whose work reflects a Romantic/Surrealist sensibility – a Joseph Cornell of the Deep South – and if I’m right about its influence on my own visual preferences it took me in an entirely different direction. There’s an awareness of abstraction, an oblique geometry, repetition of forms and a sense of a world encapsulated in miniature. It could explain why I later fell instantly for the formal detachment of Gustave Caillebotte’s birds’ eye views of les Grands Boulevards, Ed Ruscha’s deadpan Thirtyfour Parking Lots, the vertiginous photographs of Rodchenko and Moholy-Nagy and the dizzy excitement of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.

The other three images took the infant eye through the wonders of massive Soviet industrial structures, atmospheric night scenes and mighty North American locomotives, imprinting a machine aesthetic on the developing brain that has endured to the present day. If there’s any other common theme, it’s a sense of visual dramatics that was in short supply in the monochrome world of North East England where the infant eyes resided. This is troubling territory – we like to imagine that our aesthetic preferences are the result of a continuing principled interior dialogue involving countless discriminating judgements and exercises in taste, all of which lead to a clearly defined and defensible position. The reality is more like a patchwork of prejudices combined with a cluster of predictable responses – a place where most of us feel more comfortable. And sometimes we just have to own up to the profound impact that trivial and banal experiences can have upon our visual receptors.

No comments: