Out on the End of an Event: Photography and the Banal | Karl HurstPosted: January 26, 2014
The banal might be described in two distinct ways. Firstly, as the ordinary magnified to an extreme degree, the ordinary as an extra-mundanity. Secondly, banality might be described as the ordinary without adornment, a sneak preview of the passivity all objects possess at their core. I want to describe and discuss how photography often battles between this contra weight of the banal and the impact this has had on my own practices as a photographer.
In 2011 I began photographing a series of walls. I conceived of these initially as places where history had happened, walls with divots from crisis, event walls, trauma walls. However, as I began to invest more deeply into the series, these first thoughts about the photographs I had taken and their meaning began to lose weight. Somehow I just couldn’t get the pictures to mean in a faithful way. The more the photographs sought the site of their historical trauma, the more unstable (or, rather, unconvincing) they became. Perhaps, I thought during those early trysts, a ‘blue plaque’ system might be needed for each site, an extra-descriptive system to baluster this representational lack. Eventually it dawned on me that in order to represent the emotive condition of things now, it would be necessary to go back to their original source, I mean back beyond the point of trauma. Of course, we can’t do that.
It was only some time later, having virtually abandoned the series, that the problem became more acute. There was nothing to see, history had either been cleared up or pushed away somewhere much more clinical, into the plethora of museums or classrooms. As I began to take theory and practice as a simultaneous and contradictory will to photograph, I returned again to the images of walls with a renewed sense of purpose. Foucault describes this shift in thinking a little more succinctly: “It would be false to say, as the Maoist implied, that in moving to this practice, you were applying your theories.” No, I didn’t follow history into the museum (a different kind of banality) nor take its practices back into the world, but remained to photograph its lack, the traces of its loss. I knew this would cause other, separate problems. Perhaps the viewer would have to work harder to find meaning, that perhaps without ‘siting’ or signposting an event the photographs might simply be dull or – worse – meaningless. Either way, it had become impossible for me to search for ‘content’ in the subject through a perceived academic methodology. I wanted to stay where I was and photograph what I knew.
The resulting set of twelve images, photographed over one weekend, seemed to move closer to this ‘lack’. If photography is supposed to ‘mean’ by capturing the decisive moment, then these photographs seemed to do the opposite. I attached a generic title to the images – ‘Up Against a Brick Wall’ – to describe both the literal and the terminal extent of this morass. After publishing the photographs in a public forum, the lack of interest seemed only to confirm what I had suspected. Where these remained in a cultural backwater, unloved, other photographs I was publishing simultaneously seemed to gather support. This only added to my feeling that there is a prejudice against photography as a fully functioning representational tool, that history is rarely recognised through banality.
If every photograph has to ‘mean’, if that is the very essence of the photograph, then are these ‘unsited’ walls simply an anomaly, an exception to the rule? Was the lack of interest because they hadn’t enough meaning attached to them or that their meaning had not been fully realised? As I began to think a little more deeply I realised no, these photographs weren’t simply an aberration, an exercise in futility. Rather that throughout the history of photography itself, the struggle against representation and the manifestation of its loss has been continuously fought over.
An early precursor of this struggle might be Roger Fenton’s photograph of the Crimean war. The cannonballs almost blend into the rock and boulder landscape. Not so much a witness to the world, but a struggle against its banality. Or, shifting to the contemporary canon, a recent example might be Paul Graham’s Ceasefire, a series of photographs based around the troubles in Northern Ireland. What we see at first is a cloudscape, then, as the eye adjusts to meaning, at the bottom left of the photograph appears a different kind of cloud. We’re left to surmise from there. The point being that both Fenton and Graham disrupt the coda of representation; landscapes become marred, but almost imperceptibly, too much meaning versus too little.
Perhaps another way to describe banality in relationship to photography would be to see it as exposing the artifice of the new. What I mean by this is that photography often ‘means’ more after it has been culturally processed as meaning. For example, in Richard Prince’s Cowboy series, the images are re-photographed, re-posited to the point where the cowboy myth becomes simultaneously banal and (in)credible again as myth. William Eggleston is a master of refocusing the viewer on the already banal. He puts his camera into a showroom-clean oven to show use as useless. The banal as sublime and its counter-weight, the sublime as banal, seem here to go hand in hand. The first is easier to imagine, showing something in a new light, exposing it beyond the advertisers’ remit. But to show the sublime as banal? A much harder trick to pull off.
Karl Hurst‘s Flickr photosets can be viewed here. This essay first appeared on his blog in October 2012. Details of his publications with Longbarrow Press (as Andrew Hirst) are available here. His sequence ‘Three Night Walks’ appears in the walking-themed anthology The Footing (Longbarrow Press).