I liked these very much at the Format Festival in Derby, running in March and April 2013.
In humdrum fact, if you can’t quite identify them, they show fingerprints and hand marks on the rear doors of Ford Transit vans.
People who are reading this from outside Britain may be mystified, so it is worth explaining that White Van Man became a stereotype of all that was rude and boorish and xenophobic about the British working man. He was a kind of recidivist Thatcherite, not the self-interested bourgeois that Baroness Thatcher thought she was addressing, but the thuggish know-nothing she appealed to in practice. The idea was that any lout could set himself up in business if he could only equip himself with a van: no skills or aptitudes needed. The Sun newspaper, itself the natural reading of White Van Man, ran a column for some years in which (real or imaginary) White Van Men sounded off about the topic of the day. White Vans became a staple of comedians and sub-comedians of the Top Gear kind. Bores and pundits on the radio and TV routinely generalised (often in incredibly ignorant and prejudiced ways) about what White Van Man thought or felt or did.
So it is witty of James Newton to have sent all this snobbery packing.
In less humdrum ways, these become quite evocative. They are a merciless send-up of Alfred Stieglitz’ Equivalents, for a start. Stieglitz was not really pretentious. He didn’t mind a bit of urban squalor at all. He just came over a bit that way when he turned his camera up to the clouds. Here he is at the end of a piece called How I Came to Photograph Clouds (The Amateur Photographer & Photography, 1923, Vol. 56, no. 1819, p. 255.): “My aim is increasingly to make my photographs look so much like photographs that unless one has eyes and sees, they won’t be seen — and still everyone will never forget them having once looked at them. I wonder if that is clear.” Well, actually, Alfred, not very, although I think I’m trailing along some way behind.
More often than not, though, Stieglitz was on the right side. When it mattered, his opinions were both plain and sound. “Seeing needs practice — just like photography itself.” He put that it into his “Twelve Random Don’ts”, published in Photographic Topics 7 (January 1909), p. 1. Both of these quotes from Stieglitz, by the way, are here thanks to the fine critic of photography A.D.Coleman, who put them on his Photography Criticism Cyber Archive, from where I copied them some time ago.
The Newton pictures, beyond their elegantly cumulonimbic or cirriform shapes, are in fact plainly members of two photographic sub-groups. They are documentary photographs, which make some reflection upon the way that even ultra modern man, Samsunged up to the eyebrows, still has a manual relation with his tools (for the White Van, as a vehicle, is only a sophisticated development of tool). One of the many memorable passages in Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects is when he describes a hand-axe from the Olduvai Gorge (between 1.2 – 1.4 million old): “ For most of human history, there was only one thing that you really needed in order to travel – a stone handaxe. A handaxe was the Swiss Army knife of the Stone Age, an essential piece of technology with multiple uses. The pointed end could be used as a drill, while the long blades on either side would cut trees or meat or scrape bark or skins. It looks pretty straightforward, but in fact a handaxe is extremely tricky to make and, for more than a million years, it was literally the cutting edge of technology.”
Well, James Newton has found a piece of equipment that goes back all that way. It is still the hands which have to get in the van at some point and get a hold of something. It is by the hands that Sherlock Holmes could most certainly tell the profession of everyone that he met. White Van Man might not know what to do with an Olduvai pattern handaxe, but he has the same basic obligations.
The second sub-group these deceptively simple little pictures belong to is more obvious: they are plainly a Typology (I’ve given it a capital because it’s a word that seems to occur mainly in the context of endlessly similar photographs). We know what a typology is: the visual identification by photographs of some recurring pattern not deliberately imposed by any author, but that crops up as the shared solution of a given set of variables. Crowned head typologists, of course, were Bernd and Hilla Becher, who showed that industrial structures needing to achieve the same compromises between function and cost often took on remarkably similar forms even when no architect was involved. But typology has become a little corrupted in photography: too many photographers have trawled the world making the same photograph again and again without really stopping to consider which variables they had found or whether they were worth finding. It is a mistake, for example, to claim to make typologies of people in uniform. The reason those conform to type is not because they represent equal solutions to parallel problems, but because somebody designed the uniform to make them look the same. Some of what Sander did, some of the Bechers, many others are wonderful eye-opening discoveries of pattern and conformity. But that shouldn’t give idiot photographers a licence to pump out photographs by formula: heaven help us, there are too many pictures in the world as it is. But James Newton has found a real typology: these little marks are not planned, and they are telling.
The smoky patterns could easily be a captured representation of the pollution that all White Vans cause. Indeed, in perfect fact, they are. For the grime on the door panels is certainly for the most part the particulate matter that all those diesel engines throw into our city air. We live in a system that requires the rapid transport of materials and goods to satisfy absurdly urgent needs for consumer gratification. It is not at all rare in Britain for a certain kind of person to change their kitchen every two years. And to do that, they summon fleets of White Vans hither and yon.
It’s fun to find all that in handful of pictures of dirty doors.
James Newton can be found via www.highchair-editions.co.uk/, where he sells prints and books of photographs, including one of the To / From series. These pictures should be snapped up immediately by anybody who likes the way photography can be both exquisitely particular and abstract at the same time. I hope they look lovely printed in the book (I haven’t seen them) but I would really like to see them printed as photogravures. There is something about that register of flat dirty greys which just begs for top-class photogravure printing. Stieglitz would have understood.