I don’t know how successful this piece is, my head hurt by the time I was through with it – I am trying to make some links between my photographic practice and my historical interests…
History & Photography – Erosion & Light
This essay aims to relate my motivations in the study of history, from childhood, through to an academic pursuit and on to my later academic study and use of photography as an artistic discipline.
I read history as an undergraduate. When… and presuming, I do complete the MA Photography program I have been following, I will have my first ‘qualification’ (if such a thing is really possible) in photography, or indeed art.
When telling people this, the response is often along the lines of “well that’s quite a change.” Well, it is and it isn’t.
There are the obvious and somewhat crude links to be made in terms of photography’s role in representing history. In the study of modern American and British social history, which formed a significant part of my academic activities at Lancaster University, photographs obviously formed a sizable bulk of source material. Also, at this level of study there would be a decent awareness that photographs are up for interpretation – the camera presents the world-view and motivations of the photographer, or whomsoever commissioned him/her… and of course that you can only ever really present a history. If there really was such a thing the history then the study of such would perhaps be just as dull as those who hated history lessons in school always said it was.
Nevertheless, the ‘worth a thousand words’ cliché holds sway, and to pinch a quote from Allan Sekula’s essay Reading An Archive: [despite what we know about photography’s questionable truth value] “Photographs are seen as sources of factual, positive knowledge, and thus are appropriate documents for a history that claims a place amongst the supposedly objective sciences of human behaviour.”
This is interesting but is not why I became interested in photography as a creative discipline – while my body of work can be seen as playfully appropriating photographic history, and there is certainly an element of (perhaps self-indulgent) experimental archaeology in the use of antiquarian and alternative photographic processes I am not a photographic, or indeed art historian. In fact my specialist area was (I am in no way up to date with current debates) early-modern British and European history – Tudors and Stuarts… Bosworth Field to the Glorious Revolution and Act of Union – all very much before the photographic era.
In terms of the processes used to make my photography, for the most part the techniques used are not old, the paper negative process used that enables exposures of hours to months duration even in the brightest of light, is a repurposing of existing modern analogue photographic materials and is reliant on digital scanning technology, to realise something that cannot exist chemically in a permanent state – a reference to the chemical trials of the pioneers of the medium, sure, but definitely no re-enactment. Indeed, I have rarely succeeded in using a purely antiquarian process to make ‘serious work’ as I have often found, when working in this vein, a gravitating towards a straight forward nostalgia, in the twee, sepia-tinged sense, or the exercise has become a more technical than creative one. (See Fig.1)
I am not a documentary photographer, my images are constructions, and therefore I see no problem with making beautiful work, so long as it is firmly underpinned by concept. Indeed, it can allow us to communicate to an audience beyond our niche interest photographic community… the point here, however is: that while elements of (see Fig. 3, 4 & 5) Living Spaces, Tides and Tin-can Firmament certainly look ‘old’ for various process related reasons, the photographs are clearly contemporary works – they test our temporal perception and while all contain representative elements, varying degrees of abstraction almost oblige an interpretive view of history and memory.
The abstraction in these photographs is distilled from the pushing of the photographic materials beyond their intended purpose (to be addressed elsewhere) but most importantly, the use of very extended exposures – what the camera forgets as well as what the camera records.
Of his Movie Theatres series (See Fig.2) – exposures of movie theatres made for the duration of the featured film – Hiroshi Sugimoto states…. “This is not white light, it is the result of too much information”. This idea can be taken further – the result of ‘too much information’ can be given a physicality – it can be thought of as a form of erosion caused by the action of light over time. This erosion over time obliterates detail but importantly it also – and it is important to think here of the geographical concept – creates new detail and new forms to be interpreted.
In the Tin-Can firmament (see Fig. 3) work this erosion is to some degree literal physical weathering – the tin-can cameras fill with water, they freeze etc. obliterating the representative detail of the landscape in front of the camera and replacing it with a different sort of elemental record but it is also an erosion of the latent photographic record by light and time.
In the Living Spaces (See Fig.4) series and in the movie theatres work of Sugimoto the erosion is purely light, time and photographic surface, although in Sugimoto’s work this occurs while the photograph is a latent image waiting to be developed and chemically fixed.
The living spaces photographs are of inhabited bedrooms – they feature the lives and activities of the inhabitants but they do not appear to be present in the final photograph apart from the traces of their actions – actions repeated – ergo the repeated actions of light – leaving the strongest of traces. The Tides series (see Fig.5) too, produced as part of my MA body of work – photographs of often busy beaches – share this link to the wearing of repetition and to the necessary interpretation of the new forms produced.
Now, to relate this back to the central enquiry of this essay – the links between history and my photographic practice – I have illustrated already a couple of ideas about what the thinks could be but are not really. To find a real link I have to go back to very early interests in history, a childhood coin collection and a primary school creative writing task.
As a somewhat studious, or dorky child I amassed a large collection of primarily pre-decimalisation British currency – I still have most of these coins, the most interesting or valuable of which are now presented in a somewhat twee frame but I have enough of the pennies, half-pennies and farthings – a standard size and weight from the early Victorian period until the last minted in the late 1960s to effect a decent set of chips for a game of poker. So why did I collect so many of the same thing? There is certainly little attempt to collect one for each year – no order to the mass. I think the fascination in part came from the tactile quality of the old metal discs (much heavier than coins today) and the effects of physical wear – some of the early Victorian pieces are virtually smooth apart from the date, yet some are nearly mint condition and some of the later coins are thoroughly battered.
This wear combined with the date is important… and I remember this being used by a primary school teacher of mine to make a creative writing exercise based on the events that the coin might have been through – incidentally, this same teacher also had us visit the village church yard to write imaginary obituaries for those interred there based on the gravestones – the date places the piece in a representational historical stratigraphy, everything else is up for interpretation – the act of history in perhaps a not even necessarily linear sense upon a surface. The coins do not depict the events of history in their wearing but they do depict the conditions in which those events took place.
Now maybe this is really stretching the point about history as being more subjective than objective and is perhaps only applicable as analogy to the most abstract of my work but I would also point for defence to the work direct on photographic paper produced by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin (see Fig.6) while embedded with the British Army, in Afghanistan in 2008.
“In an armoured Land Rover, sealed against the desert light, the photographers unrolled the paper in six-metre sheets, waited until they arrived at a scene, then opened the doors and exposed the paper for twenty seconds. The result was a series of images depicting not the events of war – suicide bombings, press conferences, repatriations, etc. – but the conditions in which those events took place, conditions of light and time.”
To expand on this, perhaps my work with paper negatives that cannot be chemically fixed is also a sort of reverse fading – fading being the most rudimentary form of photography – and therefore holds something in common with the incredible ready-mades (See Fig.7) of Danish-Vietnamese artist Danh Vo, to which I was recently introduced. These ready-made velvet drapes are part of an installation of an imported a colonial-era Catholic church from Vietnam and were exhibited at the 55th Venice Biennale 2014. Two-Hundred years of light have caused the bleaching of the fabric around where religious artefacts have lain to create, in effect, positive photograms of the objects. In this work Dahn Vo asks us to consider the societal implications of two hundred years of colonial history. ”The installation piece demonstrates how the memory is exactly affected by the history of colonisation, making also (sic) the audience imagine the religious symbols that used to decorate the large velvet fabrics, once hung inside the colonial-era church.”
Finally, to tentatively conclude as to what the link is between history and my photographic practice; it could be said that my interest in history stems from the interpretation of time and events through objects and the physical record of time and events upon those objects – my interest in photography, is in the creation of objects, born of the physical record of light, through which we can interpret time and events.
(Fig.1) William Arnold – Peacock – Tri-colour gum bichromate print from 3 digitally separated black and white negatives (2009) 12”x 8” approx.
(Fig.2) Hiroshi Sugimoto, ‘Tri City Drive-in, San Bernadino – 1993’ (Silver-gelatin print)
(Fig.3) William Arnold ‘Tin-can Firmament: North 50° 25′ 84″, East: -05° 09′ 46″ (Archival Pigment inkjet from scanned paper negative – 15” diameter) 2013
(Fig.4) William Arnold ‘Sophies Bedroom, May 4th to 12th 2011’ from Living Spaces (2011 – ) Archival Pigment Inkjet print from scanned paper negative (42 x 29.7 cm)
(Fig.5) William Arnold, ‘Perranporth, 20th August 2012’ from the series Tides (Archival pigment inkjet 18”x12”)
(Fig.6) Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, The Day Nobody Died I (Detail), 2008, C type print, 76.2 x 600 cm
(Fig.7) Danh Vo, “Untitled (Christmas, Rome, 2012),” 2013, velvet
 Sekula, Allan, ‘Reading An Archive: Photography Between Labour and Capital’ in Wells, L (ed) ‘Photography: A Critical Introduction’ (2003) Routledge: London
 Sugimoto, Hiroshi, Statement from ‘Movie Theatres’ (1978 -)
 This idea is not dissimilar to that used by novelist Annie Proulx in her book Accordion Crimes (1996 Scribner:NY) which traces two centuries of American immigrant history through successive ownership of a simple green accordion.
 Rexer, Lyle, ‘This is [not] a photograph’ in ‘The Edge of Vison: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography’ (2009) Aperture: New York p.180
 ‘A Church from Vietnam in Venice’ web article http://www.kunst.dk/english/art-forms/visual-arts/news/newsletter-5/a-church-from-vietnam-in-venice/