Yesterday's Heroes

Peter Jennings

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 anyway!

(C)Peter Jennings 1997.

Sept 97 Index page