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The Photographer as a Collector

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The Photographer as a Collector

Collect – bring or come together, assemble, accumulate.
Collector - a person who collects things of interest or a person who collects money etc. due

The Pocket Oxford Dictionary

The collector will go to any length, at times even illegal ones, to ensure their collection is complete, continually hunting for that missing link in the sequence. They become obsessive in the pursuit of their quarry. As if completing a jigsaw they will start with the key corner stones, before moving onto the finer more subtle areas later. For a photographer working to a longer term aim and vision, rather than the individual image, they will also be acting as a collector.

In previous times photographers would have aspired to work in areas such as editorial, documentary or advertising, all of which gave opportunities for employment. But these avenues are now becoming extremely competitive and drying up. Many photographers have moved onto the opportunities of fine art sales, such as the collector and wealthy benefactor, as well as Arts Council grants or teaching salaries. William Eggleston was one the first photographers to make this move, but had to use the dye transfer process to ensure his prints had the longevity that collectors desired. Today there is a depressed financial climate, which will mean that Arts Council Grants will become hard to find and educational establishments have become more demanding on their staff, as have students who may now see their fees as an excuse to expect more done for them.

The wealthy benefactor has always been in evidence through the growth of the art market and many of the countries leading artists, such as Turner and Constable who owe much of their success and exposure to commissions and personal support. A small number of current photographic artists have managed to move into this market, where their prints demand prices in the thousands. However the rest of us clamber for the scraps that fall from their table. The collector can distort the market and also promise false hope to so many. At this point it should be remembered that few practising photographers can afford to fulfil the role as wealthy benefactor, but I ask us to look at our own practice and ask ourselves if we are collectors of images or makers?

Photographer Martin Parr has developed a particular way of looking at modern day life, his close cropped, highly coloured images have come to represent so much of our lives in the last 20 years. As well as recognition for his photography he is also an avid collect of memorabilia, as was seen at his exhibition Parrworld (2010), at the Baltic in Gateshead where, alongside his photographs were Spice Girls’ chocolates and Saddam Hussein watches. He shows himself as a collector not only of images of our lives but also of the outcomes of the consumerism that dominates contemporary society.

Whether Parr works as a collector of images or as a maker should be considered further. He certainly is one of the most prolific photographers and seems able to produce new work at an ever increasing rate. Nevertheless he has been consistent in his approach. He certainly collects scenes from our daily lives, but through his approach of closeness of subject matter makes the images and continues to show the world through his eyes. Parr’s work is recognised through the view he provides.

Andres Gursky has also developed a view of the world looking at the issues of capitalism and globalisation through the use of large scale colour photographs. Although his approach may be different from that of Parr, his subject matter and issues may actually be very similar. Gursky studied under Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie in the early 1980s and first adopted a style and method closely following Becher’s systematic approach to photography. They approached the work with an almost military level of organisation; they become fascinated by the shape and design of industrial buildings and photographed them from different sides, always with a large format camera thus recording the fine detail of the buildings’ design and construction. The resulting images were displayed with scientific order, as specimens may be shown in a museum. But their subject matter was of the ordinary, such as water towers and warehouses; functional buildings that most of us would take for granted. They recorded the background and functionality to our lives rather than the grand and ostentatious buildings, shown in the tourist brochures and holiday postcards. John Fowle’s disturbing novel “The Collector” portrays the story of a lonely man who collects butterflies and displays them as trophies in a large house. However he is unable to share these with anyone and becomes obsessed with Miranda Grey. The story takes a fatal twist as he kidnaps Grey, who later dies while in captivity. But unlike in Fowle’s novel, the photographer needs to share his view of the world and not to hide the results of his efforts away, as the butterfly collection, which were prized items displayed for personal gratification.

In her work “Island”, Kate Mellor took a scientific approach to recording the UK coastline, always looking out with the horizon running centrally through a panoramic frame, the location dictated by a grid used in mapping techniques. The decision about where to photograph was taken for her, the coastline divided into 48 view points, either north, south, east or west. Mellor would travel the coast with a map already marked with her destination, collecting views with her camera. Mark Power worked in a similar way in “The Shipping Forecast”, except his destinations were driven by cross border locations that were universally understood by the maritime community, although familiar were mysterious to the rest of us.

Carl De Keyer’s project “Moments before the Flood” has a greater plan but he benefits from being supported through commercial sponsorship and the aid of two researchers, as well as the greater public. In this major piece of work he is attempting to travel the whole of Europe’s coastline, looking at its fragility and the disaster waiting to happen. He clearly believes in the assumption that sea levels will rise and this work aims to look at Europe’s attempt to suppress this challenge and what will go as the sea’s invasion wins, as sure it must. As well as two researchers, he asks the public to engage with his project by suggesting locations. This will no doubt also satisfy his sponsors, as by raising his own profile with the wider public, this partnership will also pass onto the sponsors name and services. De Keyer has set out on a massive project aiming to spend 4 months each year in a different area of Europe and in this time he collects view points that have been identified by others, as a tourist may follow a guide book. However, is the rapid speed of travel and his fleeting experience of each location giving him the opportunity to do no more than scratch the surface?

Simon Roberts has also aimed to engage and involve his audience, in both his projects, “We- English” and “The Election”, he has asked the public to identify locations and has also gone one step further by requesting our photographs to be displayed alongside his own work, which I’m sure satisfied both his sponsor and the politicians he followed. Both these projects involved him identifying set locations, which were recorded from some distance with figures small in the frame. The details in each scene recorded on a 5”x4” view camera, enabled the production of large scale prints, where the viewer was able to feel they were part of the photographer’s subject. Choosing a high view point, many of his compositions came from the influence of classical romantic painting. Parallels identified by Roberts can be seen with the Dutch and Flemish painters such as Pieter Bruegel and Hendrick Avercamp whose work also depicted events and social gatherings, painted from same distant view point as used by himself.

These photographic artists are collectors of scenes and events. They have become systematic in not only their choice of subject but also in how the location is identified, as well as the method of working. They are all obsessive about their work but some may argue whether they are truly independent.

Painter, LS Lowry was never materially rich through his work as an artist but made his living as a rent collector. But this enabled him to gain an understanding of the subjects he would later paint. He always carried a sketchbook to record the daily views and experiences he encountered while working amongst the streets of Salford. He then was in a position to understand his subject and would have personal experiences that could be responded to. He was therefore not working in isolation. Going out without the camera may be our greatest learning tool. We have much to learn from other artists who may not use the camera to show the world around us but who do provide us with an insight we had not previously considered.

Those who drop into an unfamiliar location will provide the tourist’s view, shallow and without substance. However those who continually return and explore a location will gain an insight and understanding of the issues, which in turn will enable them to provide a view that is their own, rather than one directed by others or stereotypes. The true independent photographer will have the luxury of not having to satisfy the needs of sponsors and will have the freedom to show the world as they wish, not the one a supporter may ask for. However the independent worker may have to be content with being materially poor but visually rich.