That old bête noire THE ARTIST, rears its ugly head again. This time as
Hero, Superman/woman or up-keeper of values - as opposed to amoral egoist
or 20th century anti-hero. Even photographers can be GREAT ARTISTS and
heroes, we are told by Bill Jay, though the world out there is most likely to
view them as someone with a good eye for a snap.
But are THE GREAT really ‘great’ anyway? They certainly have greatness
thrust upon them - emptied over them even. They do, with some reluctance,
inherit the Earth - but as I read on a lavatory wall once - ‘The meek don’t want
it.’ BIG NAMES are just small people really, who turn around one day to hear
a burst of applause for what they have done - or rather what they couldn’t
stop doing - almost like a nasty habit. If they were photographers, they got
out there and ‘made photographs’ (took photographs as old plebs like me
used to say) and probably stuck them in a drawer thinking little of them.
Raymond Moore did, until Eric de Maré and Helmut Gernsheim dragged them
out - giving Moore his well deserved but small acre of fame.
Bill Jay celebrates the artist as hero in Negative/Positive - A Philosophy of
Photography, we are informed by David Murray. Not having read it, I rely on
Murray’s quotes in LIPSERVICE. It may be required reading for the
Nietzschian Superman, it may be a ‘seminal’ text; from the quotes David
Murray gives us, it sounds like a bummer. Common sense informs that
anyone who wants to be a Great Photographer won’t be, and I don’t need a
work of philosophy, Bill Jay’s or anyone else’s to tell me that. But you can’t
teach an old dogmatist new tricks, so why not just ignore him . However
David Murray, seemingly a new dogmatist, wants to throw in a few punches
at the old Bill instead of laughing him off. Why?
One possible explanation is that he realises, although he may not want to
admit it, that the tacky big World outside (and even inside) the small, insular
one of photography, wants heroes, superstars, supreme individuals who
seemingly stand out from the crowd. Good old-fashioned human nature - you
can’t stamp it out, I’m afraid - even David Murray must admire someone -
without necessarily submitting to the ‘cult of personality.’ Personally, I don’t
like the word hero. I equate it with hairy war-faring types - the hero has no
imagination - they cannot possibly imagine the consequences of their
actions; that is why they are heroes - if not psychopaths. Imagination makes
cowards of us all and a creative artist, whether photographer, poet or
musician, has imagination, so cannot, by this definition, be heroes.
David Murray has a few good points in his article and at least, he apologises
for the lack of relevance to photography at one point, but with sentences like
‘the philosophic-aesthetic stance of humanism can be actualised’, confusion,
if not abstruse grammar, sets in. But Bill Jay with his ‘photographs that
transcend ‘what is’ isn’t getting any nearer to talking about photography, or
indeed anything that makes much sense. Both Murray and Jay, in their
writing, make the joyous, celebratory business of making photographs seem a
dull business indeed.
Of course you have to take your photography seriously if you want to go far
beyond the mere pictorial - but not too seriously. If one is seeking a personal
truth then, for me, writer Robert Aickman said it all - ‘Truth exists only in the
imagination and those whose minds are too cluttered with answers will never
find it.’ And cluttered with answers would be philosophers Bill Jay and David
Murray undoubtedly are.
Take the advice of a real philosopher today. Denis Diderot (1713-84) was such
a man and his wise thought ‘Judge a man by his questions and not by his
answers’ is pertinent and impressive - more so, probably, in French!. Getting
out and about and asking questions with a camera - and there are always more
questions - is hugely enjoyable. Yes enjoyable; some of the best moments of
my life have been spent taking photographs. But why write lengthy
philosophies on the answers when there are none, analysing photographs
and the motivation behind them when the key to their potency lies in the
secret, eternally mysterious and uncharted areas of the unconscious. Do
David Murray and Bill Jay actually enjoy looking at or taking photographs, I
am desperate to know? Do others feel this way? Shall we all hold hands and
try and contact the living? Answers on a postcard.
I do agree with Bill Jay in one respect. One should live intensely - if one has
the stamina - or the right pills. I prefer, on the whole, to be laid back. How I
rate as a photographer doesn’t worry me - and if Bill Jay’s students worry
that’s their problem. They are probably after the money anyway - obviously
what Bill Jay has neglected to tell them is that there’s not much folding in it
(C)Peter Jennings 1997.
Sept 97 Index page