‘Does the artist understand their work best?’ That’s the question posed in the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, Summer 2021. Yes, argues critic Matthew Holman, ‘because they possess a more profound understanding of what they are up to’. No, says painter Fiona Rae RA, suggesting that ‘the artist is as clueless as anybody else is as to what their work is really about’. I don’t claim to be an artist, but the question might asked about my photography.
I gave a copy of Footfall to an artist friend (a painter) a couple of weeks ago and she gave me her opinion in a concise six-point critique on Saturday. (1) It has no clear focus, it is neither one thing nor the other. (2) Less than a third of the photographs are any good, many look like makeweights or afterthoughts. (3) It includes subjects dealt with in my previous projects. (4) The photographs are poorly reproduced, lacking in detail and depth of tone. (5) The photographs are also too small. (6) Printing is on poor quality paper. In the spirit of Mrs Lincoln forced to comment on the play, she did like the cover photograph.
Depending on what the viewer is looking for in a book of photographs, there might be something is some or all of these criticisms; but criticism should focus on how the book fails to achieve its intentions, not on how it does not come up to some other standard. In my defence I plead what I said in this blog on 29th January: ‘Regardless of the weather and at no particular time, I’m strolling the streets camera in hand from the same starting point, home, waiting to see what turns up and relying on the gift of serendipity. I’m not aiming for beautifully composed and exposed pictures. Perhaps some will be, perhaps most won’t. I want to explore the often messy nature of urban walking in the changeable dour months of winter that will transition into hopeful early spring.’ An afterword in Footfall covers some of this.
Still, maybe the intention is not clear and this statement could have been repeated and elaborated on in an introduction, but there are times for eschewing such hand holding, for showing not telling. The viewer/reader can be expected to work at a book and tease out some of its meaning. For example, there are two particular consecutive photographs in Footfall that with careful study reveal some of what this exploration of the nature of urban walking about. As with the earlier book, Undertow, it’s a matter of exploring the about rather than the of.
Anyway, to quote Fiona Rae again, ‘…I think I prefer art that’s prone to misunderstanding. Art that tells you what and how to think and feel always remains somewhat at the level of instruction and illustration…you’re probably being told what you already know.’