Len Spragg’s Caravan

May 18, 2010

 

The following is an introduction to a forthcoming photography exhibition. I was asked by the Photography Department at The University of Wolverhampton to write a short essay about the show.  As ever, feedback welcome!

What are you looking at?

This is an exhibition with a curious back story. Multiple stories in fact. What you see before you is a small selection of photographs by Hubert Wallace Redfearn. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of him – the curators of this exhibition hadn’t either until they were approached to examine his vast collection of 35mm slides.

On an initial viewing this collection of family snaps is much like many others, documenting holidays, home life and everyday family events. However, Redfearn was so prolific in his photography that he was to amass a collection of over of 1500 slides during his lifetime.

When this collection was passed to Dean Kelland (he is related to Redfearn by marriage), he was struck not only by the sheer volume of photographs, but also by the variety and oddness of much of the subject matter. He felt that this was a collection that deserved to be examined further.

Rather than bring his own experience and knowledge of Redfearn’s life and family to the collection, he felt that it would be interesting to engage people with no prior knowledge of the photographer’s identity.

By passing the collection to Mairi Turner and Catherine Fuller, who have both worked with domestic family imagery within their own respective practices, it was transformed from a family archive to the status of ‘found photography’. With no personal connection to the subjects, personal geography and locations in the photographs, the curators were able to assess them with a fresh, unmediated eye. They would have no agenda or pre-conceived ideas about the visual content.

The concept of found photography is one that is gaining increased recognition in the time of digital photography, perhaps because the idea of a photograph as an object to be collected seems to have passed. Yet the value of the anonymous image has long been recognized.

Many contemporary artists have used found photographs, either as inspiration for their work or directly as part of the finished artwork. In fact, there are several sub-genres of found photography in existence.  The painter Gerhard Richter has amassed huge collection of found and personal photographs that he organized into Atlas, an archival collection that is divided into visual themes. Available online and in book form, this collection has formed the source material for a large number of his paintings.

Similarly, Francis Bacon often used found images for inspiration, sourcing ideas from medical textbooks, newspapers and magazines. He often only focused on one aspect of these largely anonymous photographs, but these details were often crucial to the finished work.

Artists such as Tacita Dean utilise found photographs in a more direct manner. In her work Floh, she presents the viewer with a collection of found images that span the history of photography of the last century. What is interesting about the collection is that they are presented as they are found, with no explanation from the artist. The viewer is therefore presented with a challenge – should he/she try to discern a link between the images, examining the artist’s intention – or should they reach their own conclusion about the work?

Another well known work is the book In Almost Every Picture #2 by Erik Kessels. The book is made up of a series of photographs depicting the same woman sitting in the passenger seat of a Mercedes. The only variation in the images is the various Alpine scenes in which they are located. Kessel gave little explanation regarding the images, other than the fact that they were passed to him by a student. The strangeness of these images were later partially explained when it later emerged that the woman in the photographs was disabled and that her husband was the photographer.

In addition to purely artistic applications for found photography, there has in recent years a growing interest in the wider phenomenon of the genre on the internet. A well known proponent of this is Found magazine, a publication that invites readers to submit photographs notes and other ephemera that they have discovered. The site Foundphotos.net takes the idea of anonymous photography into the digital age. Using filesharing software, the site presents digital photographs taken from computers all over the world. The results are jarring, humourous and at times voyeuristic. The lack of a commentary on the images somehow makes them more interesting.

The photographs selected for this exhibition are presented here in a condition that is as close to their original state as possible. No cropping, digital manipulation or other alteration has taken place, aside from their enlargement for viewing in the gallery.

The reasons for their selection are various, but elements of the chosen photographs clearly spoke to the curators.  Overriding themes that emerge from the images are those of family, community, leisure and work. But these broad headings seem to be a simplification when compared to the feelings and shared memories they evoke.

As well as documenting interpersonal relations in an extended family, the photographs unwittingly document entire eras of interior design, fashion, leisure and consumer aspirations. They present us with details of a bygone age – smoking at work, long-lost cars, formal meals, clashing textiles – yet they also perhaps provide some comfort.  If the period details of the photographs provide a glimpse into an unfamiliar time, the basic arenas in which they were taken remain the same as the majority of today’s digital photography: home, the workplace and leisure.

What we as the viewer take from this exhibition will differ depending on our own experience. For some it will evoke memories of their own background, yet others may find the selection hard to relate to. But whilst the photographer is anonymous to us all, the scenes he presents are strangely familiar.

I recently discovered a memory card for a long defunct mobile phone. When I finally worked out how to view it, I found that it held photographs of my son taken on the day he was born. How many millions of images are doomed to lay lost or dormant in the digital age? Perhaps the decline of the photograph as an object may see the current generation of artists turning to memory cards, data sticks and hard drives for their inspiration.

See also:

http://www.gerhard-richter.com/art/atlas/

http://www.frithstreetgallery.com/shows/view/floh/

http://www.photobookstore.co.uk/photobook-in-almost-every-picture-2.html

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One Response to “Len Spragg’s Caravan”

  1. Chantal Says:

    This is really great Tom! The discussion of what anonymous “found photography” provides us with and the kind of associations it generates put into words a lot of what I feel about the found objects and images I use in my work and why I actually prefer not to know too much about the original sources and circumstances of them. Really like the idea of the familiar and common ground between the then and now as well as the more obvious differences.
    The show has some definite parallels with that piece I did on a lightbox with found slides from a charity shop.
    Good work!


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