I had seen “Clear of People’ by Michal Iwanowski in Penarth in 2014 and I had found it quite profound and moving, the re-telling/surfacing of an epic walk to freedom of his forebears – I wrote about it here. Jesse had suggested that I contact him to discover something more about his work, his strategy; but I had struggled to find a connection between that elegiac work and my own telling of a familial narrative which seemed, still seems, at variance with Iwanowski’s. But write to him I did a couple of days ago and he, very generously, responded with a reflection on what I had to say and some further context on his project.
In a self confessed aberration in his essay on narrative Tim Carpenter adds the following almost as a footnote:
“To accommodate the growing number of artists, and the multifarious activities now loosely described as art, distinctions necessary to intelligent discussion have been obliterated. In the vast accumulation of conflicting opinion there is one unifying element: all of it is in words. The artwork no longer speaks for itself. It is ironic to think, as the words flow, that the photograph was once thought to speak a more concrete, less abstract language. The slogan was that it was better than a thousand words. Thousands upon thousands of words now encumber a quantity of photographs. This flowering of writing about photography, much of it readable, informative, and innovative, is the latest example of the current cultural mania to transform one thing into another, and eventually into words. To reside in one thing or another appears to be impossible. On the evidence, the thing itself – the person, the object, the painting, the book, the music, the sunset, the operation – exists primarily as a point of departure, a launching pad from which we take off into an orbit of our own . . . Photographs, photographs of all things, were once believed to offer a point of resolution. They offered a stop in the flow of time as well as in the endless stream of our responses. The observer looked. The photograph soberly returned the gaze.
The ambiguity that is natural to the photograph lends itself to conflicting interpretations, but if the viewer’s first impression is not the viewer’s own, he or she may never come to have one that is.” My italics.
The decision to quote in full – from a much longer essay, more later – was to set the italicized sub-quote into context. And this follows some thoughts I have been having regarding what photography, as a form of expression – an Artform – is concerned with, inasmuchas it relates to this writer.
When I watched Cig Harvey discuss her work, the notion that she made work about things and not of things, that she suggested to her audience – as I’m sure she has to her students – that limiting the surface of the image to be ‘of’ something reduces the opportunity for the reader to, as Carpenter writes: “the thing itself …[photograph] exists primarily as a point of departure, a launching pad…” suggesting that what the work is “about” is whatever/wherever/whenever the reader allows it to be. Carpenter also quotes the writer Elizabeth Drew: “Elizabeth Drew again: A poem has a living reality of its own: it is not religion or ethics or philosophy or sociology. The poet does not work upon listeners by providing beliefs or moral codes for them, or by outlining political, philosophical or economic systems. All these things may enter into poetry; but the poet is concerned with them only in so far as they can be related to his personal vision of human experience. The poet’s domain is the life of Man and the lives of men in their actions, thoughts and emotions, interpreted through the power of words. And readers and listeners of all ages have acclaimed poets, not because in them they have found human problems solved, but because through them they have found their capacities for living enriched and enlarged and their understanding deepened.” Substitute photographer for poet.
Carpenter in the essay talks about “aboutness”, how an apparent story might be “about”, for example, the escape from a Russian prisoner of war camp; but as ‘read’ it might be ‘about’ something totally other. Is ‘True Detective’ for example about dysfunctional police officers, about vice and corruption, about politics and corruption, about the end of capitalism? Well yes, all of them but more, much more it is about how I, the viewer strive to string a flow from, perhaps, the entrails of its victims – plenty of those – into a narrative form that makes sense for me. I particularly liked the example Carpenter gives regarding Shakepeare’s Hamlet.
Iwanowski’s ‘Clear of People’ was about the escape of his forebears from a PoW camp in Russia, it was also about how the artist regained a lost connection with his past, with a part of his familial history. It was also a narrative about the changing face of Europe, it was also about a connection between man and land that perhaps overcomes Political strife. It was about many things. As I wrote about the work last year, it doesn’t have a starting point but does have a settling point, a destination and Iwanowski’s destination, seemingly, was a settlement with his past. I too am seeking a settlement but in a place that is now unsettled. Purgatory today was very warm and it will be a long search for images to fulfil whatever I want to say regarding what this project is about.