Doers / Talkers / Text

In almost all interviews with — texts about —books by — and my own conversations with David Hurn, he’s mentioned doers and talkers.  I’ll paraphrase: Doers are those who do it… Talkers are those who talk about it, mostly without doing it. Or talk so much before doing it that any room for mistake, tangent or creativity is removed. He’s talking within the context of photography, but you can apply the idea to most things. There’s the Francis Hodgson idea of ‘matter’, estate agent photos, crime scene photos , traffic wardens’ photos etc — I’m not talking about that, nor have I thought about how Hurn’s idea fits, or doesn’t fit with Hodgson’s. I don’t imagine it does.

Using photography as the example, doers, then, get dressed, get their camera, go out and take pictures, having planned perhaps where they’ll be going. Hurn famously says the most important thing for a photographer is their shoes, followed by where they stand and when they press the button.

Talkers, probably get dressed too, then chin-strokingly, discuss the work of others, in ways that the artist or photographer has probably never considered, nor wanted their work to be discussed. Or talk about and make work that is so intellectually removed from normal society, that the only people who will ever understand it are the maker and their colleague.

I’m making a crude argument with a scattering of flaws, I’m sure someone could talk about it for a long time. I agree with Hurn and his ideas. Mostly. This being the Café Royal Books blog, I will try to twist my thoughts neatly back to the context of Café Royal Books.

I rarely put text in the books I publish. The books, if they are books, are 36pp at most. Full of pictures. I like picture books and I like the pictures to be the things people read / look at. If I do include text, beyond a very descriptive title, its captions. Very occasionally, and usually at the photographer’s request, I publish a page of text, which explains the photographs reason for being, but never a description of their content.

My education is standard Fine Art, where ‘the gallery’ is almost always the place one aims to show their work — this has many of its own problems, but that’s for another time. More often than not in ‘the gallery’, the work is labelled. The viewer visits the gallery, reads the exhibition text, which clearly defines the show, its meaning and reasoning. They move on to the first label, describing the first piece of work in detail, and its meaning and reason for being, then the second, the third… Avoiding the work in-between the labels and stumbling around any ‘floor based’ work en-route to the next wall. The same is true for photographs. A written description allows little to ‘read’ in the image. Everything is told. So why when there is a written description of the image, include the image at all? At best, the photograph becomes an illustration of the text, retrospectively fitted, and the text takes the lead. To my mind text is only necessary if the work is so far removed from reality or normality that it is un-gettable. And if it is un-gettable, what is its purpose? Abstract is different, especially Greenbergian abstract, for example. Conceptual and minimal art needs a text, quite often, and the best texts are written like Lucy Lippard’s, Six Years, which is fun, down to earth, plain English.

I work in eduction. From 2000–2008 I taught in Further Education. The once exciting, year between A Level and Degree — Art Foundation. That year is now an over-annotated black hole, prescribed by robots. Full of tick boxes and carpeted floors in multi-purpose rooms, which don’t allow for paint to be spilled. This is no fault of the teaching staff. Since 2008 I’ve taught on degree courses, one permanent 0.8fte post for the duration, alongside some visiting lecturer roles, across Fine Art, Illustration, Photography and Post Graduate courses. Paper work, audit trails and tick boxes are certainly present, but nothing like in FE. And no carpet tiles yet, although we’re braced for the change.

In HE, there are two paths you might take — teaching, or research. Unless you are top of the game at either (and sometimes even if you are), the paths are overgrown, unclear and somewhat muddled, meaning you’ll be assumed to do both. As a criteria of promotion, I have this year, been made to apply for Fellowship of the Higher Education Authority. This is essentially a teaching qualification and a 4000 word heavily referenced essay to justify the ways in which I teach, not what I teach. Strategies, methodologies…Talking…And its not really to justify the teaching, its to justify the learning. “Teaching and Learning’. Except, ‘we should say Learning and Teaching, because the learners (clients / customers) always come first’, as it said in one of the books I had the pleasure of reading. I did it and I wait for the results. Not the most enjoyable experience I’ve ever had.

For the ‘creative practitioner’, their practice can be their research. Over the past 15 years, my practice has shifted from painting to drawing, to photography to mainly publishing (some call it curating, but curating seems to be reserved for coffee shops and book shelves). I still take pictures and I still draw, but collecting, sequencing, editing and publishing photographs, mainly taken by other people, is what I do most.

Within the four walls of academia, this will be called my ‘research’.

My primary aim for making the books has never been, research. At least, the word research has never entered my mind. Moreover, I tend not to use the words, strategy, methodology, pedagogy, or hypotheses very often. To some, this might sound odd, or a dumbing down, or an unintellectual stance, but it isn’t. I like pictures and I like books. The pictures I like most happen to be documentary, from a period of time that pre-dates me a bit. The books I like most probably aren’t books. They’re zines, counter culture, fringe publications and the type of info pamphlet you might pick up at a National Trust property. Quick, cheap, bites of information, easy to grasp, points for further investigation.

So I mixed the two together — the photos and the publication.

It happens that this area of photography has been neglected by institutions, galleries and museums globally, but more so in the UK. There has not been a large exhibition of ‘British Documentary photography 1960–2000’, for example. Nor do any major galleries have a comprehensive collection of the same. Side Gallery, James Hyman, the former Library of Birmingham (thanks to Pete James) each do have excellent collections of the work, and the newly opened Martin Parr Foundation is also doing a lot, but these are small places, mostly struggling with funding and space and probably understaffed and doing it out of an absolute passion for the subject. And the LoB collection is mothballed following a series of funding cuts.

So, by publishing this work, I have gathered otherwise neglected work, most of which is unseen or unpublished. So far 300 ‘books’ on the subject. The gathering has become an ongoing task but the collection is perhaps the most comprehensive of its type. Ironically, galleries, museums and institutions collect these books, and so are at last, kind of filling the gaps that should never have existed, and so these counter-culture-type-photocopied-pamphlet-books, are edging their way in, adding to photographic history, and making publicly accessible, the work within them.

All of this was accidental, spontaneous, intuitive, naively done, and with little knowledge of the work or of publishing. Of course, as time passes, and I make more books and see more photographs, and realise the extent of the collection of work I’m dealing with, and begin to understand photography itself, I can’t help but consider it as I work.

So maybe it is research, but not as the system would suggest. Maybe the system is misleading. The system suggests that a research ‘question’ should lead, along with a hypotheses, followed by a methodology. That one should strive for publication in only the most esteemed journals, and make work that has the furthest ‘reach’, greatest ‘impact’ and most ‘significance’…

As was mentioned in a radio interview with a leading and very down to earth scientist recently, ‘groundbreaking’ is often used to describe ‘important’ research. But, if everything important  is groundbreaking, we’ll just end up with lots of holes. Certainly worth a listen. And, do read this.