August 14, 2019
‘If I can free a humble material from itself, perhaps I can free myself from myself’
(Richard Tuttle 2004)
I wasn’t sure about a title for this new series of photographs. I started with Packaging, because the early pieces were mainly parts of cardboard boxes, bubble wrap, jiffy bags etc, the sort of mundane stuff that endlessly builds up with online shopping. I felt that Packaging emphasised this modern phenomenum and gave the project a contemporary narrative. But pretty soon I started photographing other surfaces that I found around the studio; things like a used cutting matt, a piece of cardboard covered in spots of gesso and the blank covers of sketchbooks. Online shopping wasn’t the only story here. More important was surface, materiality and the sculptural properties of found ‘surfaces’. My real interest lay in using photography to elevate objects from their everyday existence whatever narratives they suggested.
Over the years I’ve often returned to using mundane objects and landscapes in my work. I wanted to create ‘micro landscapes’ from unremarkable things or locations and to challenge the hierarchy and status of materials and places, using photography. I’ve been a long term fan of 1960’s American minimalism and the work of artists that have continued to engage with many of it’s themes, be it the use of everyday found objects, materiality, and monochromic colour. Of particular interest to me have been Piero Manzoni’s white Achromes made from ‘nothing materials’, Hélio Oiticica’s suspended surfaces or ‘Bilaterials’, Cy Twombly’s white sculptures or ‘Things’ as he titled them and more recently Rachael Whiteread’s sculptures of humble everyday household objects such as hot water bottles, cupboards and mattresses. I’ve also been interested in exploring surface in my work. Although I remember standing in front of a small Robert Ryman white monochrome painting on plastic at the Thadeus Ropac gallery in London thinking can photography as a medium ever match the sensuality of this work and of paint and sculpture in general? Maybe Wolfgang Tilmans has come close with his colour monochromes but they seem more about the application of ink to the print than photography.
In the White and Brown Cardboard works, I was looking for surfaces I could transform. Dull, low tech ubiquitous surfaces that could be lifted and re-examined through photography. To make us aware that reflected light can stimulate the senses from the most mundane of places. Jiffy Bag 2019, was about examining the ultimate everyday banal object. I felt the the surface could resemble the ‘idealised whiteness’ of marble or could suggest an aerial mountain landscape. The piece of brown cardboard titled Spilt Gesso, 2018, I found discarded on the floor of my framers. I liked the reference to gestural abstract painting and the idea that this thrown away piece could also be looked at as an artwork. Underside of Blue Cardboard Box, 2019 is a nod to Yves Klein’s iconic Blue Monochromes, although in reality it is the underside of a box of Carluccio’s pasta. Cutting Matt, 2019 is about surface texture, abstraction and photographic process as subject. In Blue Foam, 2018, the faded turquoise square could be a metaphor for an exotic far off seascape although we now know that the synthetic polymers that go in to making foam have poisioned our oceans irreversibly. Sketchbook Cover, 2019 evokes several thoughts for me. It is the cover of one of my late mother’s sketchbooks. She was really good at portraits and it may well be about my own desire to draw (or my lack of confidence to get started). Or perhaps a realisation that photography is simply another way of drawing. The piece of white and purple cardboard resembles a minimalist abstraction that could also suggest a seascape with horizon. Given climate change and the state of our oceans I have subtitled the piece Storm Brewing, 2019.
Many of the objects I have photographed are white or off white. For non photographers, white is the hardest ‘colour’ to photograph as there is nothing there to get hold of. You can always go into a dark shadow and find something. But light merely reflects back off a white surface. I learnt to soften the light source, find surfaces with some light absorbing texture and by using the most powerful digital camera available, find a way of building up ‘content’ within the whiteness. I’m not sure why these white surfaces appealed to me so much. Was it the ‘emptiness’ or ‘fullness’ of the void ? Or, was I trying to make the viewer slow down and look more closely as white focuses attention firmly on the materiality and sculptural qualities of an object, without the distraction of colour with all its emotions and imbued meanings. Although Herman Melville in Moby Dick suggests that white represents both the absence of colour and yet is full of meaning….
‘In essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour, and at the same time the concrete of all colours; it is for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning’
I’m told white can suggest intellectual inquiry, or according to Louise Bourgeois, a ‘new start’ but as David Batchelor warns us in his book, Chromophobia, notions of ‘pure’ white can be dangerous territory, ‘masking corruption’ or fake manufactured ethics. Fortunately, I had chosen objects with plenty of ‘impurities’ like faded sellotape, cardboard moulding lines, finger marks and machined binding holes. Marks that ground the works in the everyday and suggest something beyond the abstract. I’m interested in a degree of abstraction but not at the expense of a narrative, however dull that might be. So, for example, in Untitled, (Black Tape), 2019, the cardboard box reinforced with black masking tape provided me with both a dense black rectangular space (with all the associations of a ‘black void’) and an interesting reflective surface of horizontal and vertical lines made up from the stitching in the tape and the gaps between the tape. There is a pale blue line (or ‘zip’) in the centre of the box conjuring up painterly references. Alongside its form and surface materiality the work evokes mundane stories of online shopping, overwrapped cardboard boxes, and returning unwanted stuff to the seller.
I’ve have been asked why I don’t simply show the pieces as found ‘objects’. But this misses the point. I’m a photographer not a sculptor. My medium is light and the ways in which it mediates the object. The suspension of the objects from a white surface is an important part of the work as the shadow is a means to display form and detail but I’m also interested in how photography can elevate a surface and the effects this has on it’s perceived materiality and our connection to the object. It is a dialgue with sculpture but at the same time very different from placing an object to be looked at 360 degrees. There is an acknowledged sense of subjectivity or interpretation. I choose the surface, the lighting, the angle of viewing, the background colour, the scale and the density of shadow, the print paper etc.
In conclusion, these photographs are an attempt to explore photography’s potential to create an intimate connection to surface using the possibilities emerging with new digital sensors that can create a sharpness or ‘hyper reality’ not previously possible with the traditional film negative, and in so doing hopefully further extend the dialogue between photography, sculpture and drawing. If there is a philosophical position here it is essentially an optimistic one. Optimistic in the sense that searching for ‘beauty’ from the banal or discarded object is a positive response to life even in times of environmental degradation, Brexit and Trump. And working slowly in the studio with everyday materials may also be healthy relief from the anxieties of 24/7 Instagram and social media. It may also be, as Tuttle suggests, a useful way of understanding oneself. Or at least trying.
I never set out to take photographs of beaches. I had just left my day job working in an office in London and set off for somewhere quiet where I could reflect and follow my life long passion for photography and art.
Although my early work, taken during vacations and at weekends, had been mainly documentary in nature, I was keen to work more formally and experiment with a newly acquired 10 x 8 film camera. The south coast around Birling Gap was the shortest distance from London and seemed like a good place to start. For me the sea simply provided a changing palette of light, colour and form. I wasn’t interested in place, hidden narratives, dramatic light or ideas associated with the horizon. Simply to explore the tonal and formal qualities of land and sea. And a mundane strip of coastline was all I needed.
I purposely excluded any cliffs or clues that might indicate a particular location. Instead, I followed a simple grid format. The only thing that changed was my position along the beach and the light and time of day. And sometimes I’d alter the focus point to change the balance between abstraction and context. I used slow portraiture negative film stock and a secondhand lens with very little coating left on the lens. I didn’t want the extra contrast of a new lens (and couldn’t afford one either). I shot in dull overcast neutral conditions, trying to avoid the ‘loaded emotions’ associated with dramatic coastal light. The soft lens, by accident, helped accentuate the subtle temperate light. I numbered each photograph to reflect the serial nature or the work and process and to avoid any associations with place.
My interest lay in the tonal qualities and possibilities of a changing surface and the abstractions made possible by the ever changing light and movement of the water. After several tests (that were never intended to be ‘works’) I felt that maybe there was something of significance. The serial nature of the work was creating a narrative in itself. An artist friend said that the pictures had captured an ‘Englishness’, an English light perhaps. This was never the intention, but on reflection maybe it’s a good example of how a body of work reveals itself to us later and that a process with no expectations can lead us somewhere unexpected.
I presented the Beach series both as individual images and in a grid format. The grid helped emphasise the infinite representational possibilities associated with place and the limitations and difficulties associated with the ‘perfect vista’ or location. And of course the grid keeps a modern and less romantic frame of reference to the project.
I think looking back at this first body of 10 x 8” work, it represented both a naive ‘desire’ to look objectively at the surface of nature and a need to clear my head of the fake world of brands and manufactured images that I had been immersed in. I was desperately in need of some therapy in nature and my new office on a strip of beach was in effect my studio for a year or two. I don’t think it was a romantic retreat into nature, more the start of a process whereby nature was at the heart of my work.
Article by: Bianca Jagger
NextLevel Magazine, Edition 02 Volume 01, 2002
As we find ourselves waging war in a greenhouse, Bianca Jagger argues that the Stop Esso Campaign holds unique potential to brake the root cause.
If we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions deeply in the years ahead, global warming will spread a rising tide of economic and environmental devastation across nations with just as awesome a firepower as B-52s.
As long as a decade ago a multi-government panel warned the impacts of global warming would be “second only to nuclear war” if we don’t cut greenhouse-gas emissions deeply. Take just two of these impacts. Proliferating climate disasters in the 1990s have left top insurers publicly fearful that their industry will be bankrupted. The world’s biggest reinsurance company has warned that the shock of this trillion dollar global industry going under will bring down the capital markets. Temperature-sensitive coral reefs, the second most diverse ecosystem on the planet, began showing worrying signs of heat stress in the early 1990s. Today they are dying in anomalously warm waters in every ocean basin, and face extinction within just decades.
We should face it squarely. We are locked into a suicidal cycle that is at once ecocidal and – how can we escape the conclusion? – genocidal. The citizens of the drowning Pacific atoll nation Tuvalu, who today are packing their bags to leave their homeland for New Zealand, accused the industrial nations of “cultural” genocide in the UN as long ago as 1993 because of our fossil-fuel profligacy. We didn’t stop or even slow the burning then, even though a quarter of the UN member governments – the Alliance of Small Island States – was pleading with us to do so. We have not slowed it since. Now half of Europe seems to be under water as the worst floods for a century sweep down not just one but several major rivers across half a dozen countries.
Will this circle of death whirl us round from one oil-and-gas war and climatic catastrophe to the next until the planet is cooked, or will developments emerge capable of braking the circle, and creating space for an alternative outcome? On the answer to this question will hinge the fate of civilization.
One development rich in possibilities is the StopEsso campaign. ExxonMobil, or Esso, as it is known outside the USA, holds outstandingly the worst record on global warming in the oil sector. It is alone among the oil giants in denying the existence of the enhanced-greenhouse problem, and asserting that investment in renewable energy is not needed. Long after BP, Shell and Texaco stopped paying lobbyists to block the climate negotiations, Exxon has continued to do so. Its approach to commercially inconvenient scientific information about its product rivals the worst of the tobacco companies. It played a major role in putting an oilman in the White House, and is unapologetic about the scandalous relaxation of pollution rules that was one of his first payback acts. It lobbied the White House to get the American Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change kicked out of his post for saying global warming is a problem, and succeeded.
The Brent Spar campaign against Shell which, in 1996, led to a historic step-change in boardroom thinking about the environment, was a campaign about dumping oil platforms, something that all oil companies were happy to do at the time. The Stop Esso campaign is different. Now, for the first time in corporate history, consumers across the world have picked on a company with a boycott campaign aiming to force it, at minimum, into line with the rest of its sector.
To succeed, the campaigners may only need to impact Exxon’s turnover a little. Indeed, the campaign might succeed even if the company’s mountainous sales aren’t noticeably affected. The constant drumbeat of negative publicity alone may cause major shareholders to call for a u-turn. If that happens, the corporate world will never be the same again. Every big company in the world will be seeking to ensure consumers can never gang up on it as an environmental foot-dragger.
The renewable micropower technologies remain dwarfed by oil, gas and coal despite all we know about the threat of global warming. Yet their potential is vast and uncontroversial. In a u-turn by Exxon might just lie the spark of hope capable of igniting the micropower revolution. With that, faster than most people think possible, can come release from dependence on overseas oil, and escape from the worst of global warming’s impacts.
There might be no better way for an individual or organisation to take a shot at breaking the circle of death than by taking a shot at Exxon.
Cactus photograph published in NextLevel. as part of End Of Imagination article by Arundhati Roy, March 2003
Monograph, Thames & Hudson, 2003
In the opening photograph of Mike Perry’s Beach series, a few waves of no particular significance rise gently in the distance while another, at the end of its journey, limps up the beach. The clouds, soft and far away, create an unremarkable haze. The sea rolls in the light, punctuated by a couple of rocks, and stones stipple the foreground in harmonious tones of grey and ochre. At first glance, the image offers almost nothing. Could a seascape be duller, more featureless? The calm suggests something portentous. There must be a reason for this photograph: it must have a utilitarian function. It must have been taken to tell us something. But the view seems defined by the lack of drama and a blankness of function. The structure of the image, a tightly controlled grid of horizontal panels, eliminates the possibility that the purpose of the photograph is to show us, as if from an ideal viewpoint, an beautiful landscape. Lacking a human presence, it refuses to offer any social or spiritual meaning. The view verges on the dreary, the sea is calm, the sky reveals nothing, the stones sit stolidly, mute.
To take this photograph, and the others in the Beach series, Perry drove to a few different stretches of humdrum beach along the south coast of England, somewhere east of Brighton, where he set up his 10×8″ camera. Some pictures were taken just after dawn, others mid afternoon and in soft rain. None of the images depicts a privileged place or moment, but show us nature at its least expressive. We are looking over a busy shipping channel, a run-down highway of the sea. Nearby and all around, this sea and these beaches have hosted countless freighters, invasions, smugglers, dreamers and walkers. It happens to be among the most despoiled and worn-out seascapes on earth – neither sacred nor beautiful, it’s an unlikely subject for a series of sumptuous, large-scale photographs. Yet Perry found something worth looking at on these beaches.
Perry’s serial approach to taking photographs within an implied or explicit compositional structure based on a grid, introduced a scale of reference into a group of images that might otherwise suggest a pseudo-scientific study in the nature of marine conditions. The serial structure gives each photograph an equal value. and the grid compositions quote abstract painting, both the modernist grid and contemporary abstraction. By working in a series, he challenges the notion that there is a privileged or ideal version of the beach. Perry’s stalled moments need not be treasured singly, but repeated, and made profuse in repetition. The series is theoretically infinite.
Literature and the visual arts usually portray the seas a site of melodramatic beauty or terror. Whether calm or violent, mysterious or familiar, icy or lusciously warm, overflowing with food or harbouring hideous monsters, the sea possesses an enormous capacity to absorb and deflect meaning.
The paintings of Turner inevitably come to mind when we think of the English seaside. At his most Romantic, Turner tended to mythologise the sea as an engulfing vortex, an implacable force in a sensational battle with humanity’s puny will. But when Andreas Gursky photographed three Turner seascapes hanging in the Tate, he showed how alien – even quaint – some ideas about the sublime have become to contemporary eyes. In Gursky’s photograph, the Turner paintings look like portals to an ancient sea. Although Turner’s paintings retain their atmospheric power and we may gasp in awe at his breathtaking mastery of paint, we take their melodrama and their ideas with a grain of salt.
Perry, by contrast, is dedicated to depicting as objectively as his skill and technology permit, the surface detail of the seascape. To do so, he uses plain Kodak film stock that captures the subtleties of the neutral colour, and he doesn’t alter the contrast or hue by computer manipulation. He is interested in perception unencumbered by expectations of meaning or drama. The self- consciousness of the compositional structure reinforces this objective by frustrating our desire to apply sentimental or generic connotation to the seas. Alongside this impulse is an interest in the aesthetic potential of the overlooked detail, the pleasure of looking at forms and colours created by the delicate and evanescent plays of light on seascapes.
The two modes of the photographs, the perceptual and the meditative, work together to invite the viewer to appreciate a version of the external world that exists whether we look at it or not, free from a measure that transcends human perception.
This the Beach photographs offer a sustained meditation on the visual experience and a mental space for emotional and imaginative play. To be successful, they must embody a paradox by being austere yet vivid, a trace of the world with the capacity to project a life of their own. Even while the photographs draw upon the language of abstract painting to open up this space, they never become purely abstract.
We could look at Edward Weston’s studies of Los Lobos and Oceana for a similar project, but whereas Weston’s photographs celebrate the beauty and drama of natural forms in dramatic black and white, seeking, perhaps an essence of a place or living thing, Perry looks for the colourful dirt, the changing light of the everyday.
Stephen Shore has suggested that he would like to photograph landscapes the way Chinese poets looked at them; on their own terms, without reading for metaphoric language for description. To think of the photographer’s gaze in terms of clarity and passivity is one way to start looking at Mike Perry’s photographs. Equally, they develop a life of their own, an internal energy, and they face us like the stones kept by Chinese scholars: formal objects of contemplation in whose microcosmic forms we can roam for sheer pleasure of looking and imagining. The clarity of the photographs allow them to become aids to reflection.
Look at Beach 17. The sharply defined parallel bands of colour divert our apprehension from depiction to composition. Looking at the image from afar, visual pleasure arises from the sense of scale and the compositional harmony. From a closer position, however, the blurry foreground and scale of the image creates a vertiginous effect, plunging the viewer into the individual elements. On the left, a little wave lifts and stretches before its gentle crash. The essence is not an abstraction, but an accumulation of detail: the echo of the crashing wave in the cloud formations, the way the colour of the sea changes from a deep blue horizon in the distance to a greenish-ochre slab before if becomes a white strip of foam along the beach, echoing the colours of the sky. Moving back again, one can take in the deliberateness of the composition. Three almost perfect even bands of sky, sea and beach – free of melodrama, aggression or longing – convey a meditative and emotional calm.
Beach 11 offers another way to think about Perry’s pictures. The rigid composition that lends an implied grid to the whole series, giving equal value to the beach, sea and sky, has given way to a looser structure. The viewer’s eye might alight on the pale stone in sharp focus at the centre of the composition or wander to the frothy, beige waves rising and tumbling background. In the centre of the picture, the foam creates a silky texture streaked with inimitable crests and surges, little marks in time recorded by the camera. On one level Perry has recorded a never – returning moment, a play of foam and water. Once you get lost in the surface detail, the suggestive potential of the images grows. Indeed, the visual structure of the photograph, along with Beaches 21-23 resembles an Yves Tanguy painting such as The Ribbon of Extremes (1932), and may evoke a similar perceptual and meditative experience. Tanguy used naturalistic conventions to bestow a sense of space and light on his almost abstract images, making vividly palpable a molten interior of impulses and vague feelings. The stones in Perry’s photographs are not unlike Tanguy’s anthropomorphic forms that fill the foreground of his paintings, and the sea and sky form a series of layers that hint at infinite recesses of space as they do in Tanguy’s work. The vivid details draw us into the image and, once inside, they invite us to let the seascape evoke sensations, recall feelings and introduce metamorphic readings.
We could look at one of Perry’s images and imagine a slab of unknowing, crashing eternally on the conscious shoreline but remaining unfathomable. After all, we attribute moods to the sea, we project our emotions and symbolic value into its blankness and this seems fair enough. Playing with the haziness of the things we see and making things up is part of the pleasure of looking and a reasonable approach to Perry’s Beach images.
But let’s not get carried away. Although Perry may be exploring similar visual experiences as Tanguy, neither state of mind nor infinity resides over the horizon. France does.
In the history of photography, we could look at Sieglitz’s Equivalents, perhaps the first best-known series of photographs that converted nature’s forms into abstractions. By ‘equivalents’, Stieglitz meant that he wished to create an image equivalent to a spiritual state, as if it were a diagram comprehensible to anyone, an impulse that partook of the universalising drive of modernist abstraction since Kandinsky and Malevich.
Contemporary artists, however, tend to keep a skeptical eye fastened on specific things. Jeff Wall’s Diagonal Compositions are brilliant and affectionate parodies of early geometric abstraction. Wall replaces ostensibly universal forms with filthy, worn-out sinks, and demonstrates how photography both records a fragment of the real but also depends on formal harmonies – and illusions – for its success.
Hiroshi Sugimoto, probably the best-known contemporary photographer of seascapes, offers a superficially similar approach to Perry’s. But whereas Sugimoto seeks variations on a theme of universality, Perry finds detail and specificity at a nameless place. While Sugimoto quotes modernist abstraction, seeking something ideal at a precisely named location, Perry celebrates the complexity of a single anonymous perspective.
One of the strengths of Perry’s Beach photographs rests in how his determination to show us the details of an actual place combines with the serial structure to make the images resistant to abstractions and metaphysical interpretations.
Though waves threaten to engulf the composition and introduce a moment of narrative or drama, the sense of peril – of the sublime – does not eliminate the abundance of detail or the formal harmonies that allow for the contemplative mood of Beach 1.
When Perry permits a wave to wash away the implied grid structure. It is not to reveal the power or mystery of the sea. He plays with its forces and astonishing variety to tease it into revealing a new surface with every picture. The almost monochromatic pulses of whites, greys and greens is more likely to bring to mind a Robert Ryman painting than a Turner.
In Beach 7, the sky is an unarticulated sheet of blue-grey, the sea a greener and textured version of the same colour. Across the centre of the composition the shutter has caught a curtain of transparent water beneath a wave at its peak. The frozen waves reveals a seabed of muted gold. When Perry enlarged this photograph to its full dimensions of 5′ x 6′, he noticed lines streaking the print along the seabed. He thought they were scratches, a fault in the paper or printing process. In fact, the lines are stones being dragged into the sea by an ebbing wave, tracing both time and space across the film in the process. But the unexpected presence of sliding stones does not just illustrate a process or characteristic of the beach. It is a surface detail, a moment made visible by Perry’s serial approach.
In Beach 18, the beach appears drained of colour and drama, and the surface of subtle textures and gentle inflections of tone bathe the image in seductive melancholy. Look at the formal harmonies Perry has found on the flat, grey day. The wisps of pale sand echo the crests of the waves, the colour of the sky reflects in the surface of the sea, and in the shadows of the rising waves we see dark grey tones of the sand. The sky could be a block of granite or a sheet of delicate lace, the sea a cauldron of molten lead or a slab of tactile putty, the sand a velvety drape. But the gorgeous surface gives the photograph its power rather than any metamorphic potential. The images reference Gerhard Richter’s grey series of paintings and his more recent abstract work that is built upon horizontal (and vertical) smears and layers of colour. Richter’s paintings thwart metaphysical interpretations to bring the viewer back to the materiality of paint. Likewise, Perry finds on the beach what he admires in Richter abstracts: a density and clarity of sensation and pleasure in surface detail.
The Beach series invites the viewer to look closely at stones, water and light, all the details that help to recuperate the seascape as an object worthy of contemplation in itself, free of expectations of significance or revelation. By looking at something so familiar and featureless and by looking at it repeatedly and tenderly, Perry invites us to see, in the half-life of a worn out landscape, a hint of sufficiency.