Caught in Transit: James Newton’s To / From

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

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.

Handaxe from the Olduvai Gorge.

Handaxe from the Olduvai Gorge.

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.

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

James Newton. From the To/From Series, 2012

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, 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.

Sound Holes by Christian Marclay


Christian Marclay

A few weeks ago I found some photographs playing possum.  Lying doggo. That is to say they were pretending to be merely transparent non-photographic representations of physical objects which happened not to be present.  I’ve been mulling over these pictures ever since, and like them very much.

I saw Christian Marclay’s Sound Holes at the White Cube in London, which is hardly like finding a hoard of pictures in an attic or flea market. They were definitely exhibited as fillers, older work added to accompany the gallery’s presentation of Marclay’s 24-hour video piece The Clock. 

The Sound Holes are a set of twenty-one photogravures dating from 2007.  They depict the cheap steel loudspeakers which form the outward end of door entryphone systems.  They are more-or-less life size, and when displayed on a wall, are shown at their natural height, somewhere just about mouth level.  Had Marclay merely accumulated a collection of the physical steel objects and displayed them, no-one would have been in the slightest bit surprised, but no-open would have been very moved, either.

 Marclay’s entire career has been concerned with sound and how it translates into visual forms.  He has sometimes been described as a turntablist. This brilliantly awkward neologism leads us to suppose that the turntable has become an instrument in its own right, by extension from the more familiar locutions: clarinettist, pianist, organist…Playing the decks is familiar now but Marclay has been doing it since the late 1970s.  He has made work with musical boxes, with the plastic sleeves CDs come in, with cassette shells.  He is a player/performer as well as an artist, and has turned around the subject again and again. Sound depicted graphically and visual expressions made manifest in sound: these are his subjects.    

So when he turns his mind to entryphones, it’s probably not merely as a collector of random street design.

Marclay’s entryphones are photogravures.  This delicate process, so rich in the mid-tones, is the very ideal process to suit the scratched and perforated steel of his little speakers.  Gravure is a magnificent process, more delicate in the right hands even than platinum printing, and Marclay has definitely got hold of the right hands to make these for him.  The physical tonalities on the paper are magnificently rich.

There is a first and quite deliberate pun here in the contrast between the cheaply designed and produced steel objects  (look on the street today – you’ll notice hundreds of them now they’ve been brought to your attention) and the museum-quality reproductions of them in a complex and difficult fine-printing process.  Cheap functional objects on the street ennobled by positively Medicean levels of craftsmanship and beauty in the gallery.

These funny little objects, irritating and sometimes embarrassing to use, become revealed as a strangely moving.  When you talk into one, the relation is lip to lip, a would-be whisper shouted over traffic noise and dodgy electrics.  Passers-by invariably hear a part of your business, although as often as not the person upstairs hears nothing much beyond static.  Remember how you feel when you use one: anxious immediately to pass up along it to be directly in the presence of the person on the other end, anxious to be properly understood. It’s a longing and a little trembling fear of rejection. Nobody had ever thought of entryphones as intimate before; but Marclay has made them so.

Marclay has drawn attention to the sound holes in musical instruments by his title.  How elegant of him to equate these efficient little perforations with the beautiful holes on a fiddle or a cello, product of Cremona’s finest. Man Ray liked sound holes, although his Violon d’Ingres was made as much for the jeu’d’esprit of the title as for anything else.  Violon d’Ingres means an interest on the side, and Man Ray’s model for the back-view was Kiki, his own Montparnasse bit on the side, photographed in a pose borrowed from Ingres’ first great nude, the Valpinçon Bather.

The tiny scrapes on the entryphones are more than merely the marks of repeated polishing.  They are made by the rings and the zips and the buttons of the people who have rung the bells over the years.  What a perfect surrealist object these entryphones become, hinting at the two great obsessions of surrealist art in one simple engineered steel piece.  They are urban, speaking as surely of crowded offices and apartments as a plunging New York view by Berenice Abbott.  And they are also anonymous.  Marclay does not give us so-and-so’s entryphone, but Everyone’s.  There are a few hints, no more.  Half a manufacturer’s marque.  Maybe a guess at domestic or commerical doorbells.  But the stories these discreet little machines have heard are ours to recreate.  Which lover returning after years found nobody home?  Which Father Christmas delivered just the right thing here?  Which nervous job interviewee rang the wrong bell or worse, looked at the bells and never dared ring?  We’re invited to dream.

Some of the grilles look a little like faces.  That’s fun — a steel mask against which to push your own soft face. The grilles are like the visors on medieval helmets, serving both to protect and to frighten. 

Under all of this, is the question of sound.  The engineering of these things has hardly changed since Edison.  Appalling, probably a single wire, with the cheapest microphone concealed somewhere beyond the grille.  Yet through this Heath Robinson contraption must pass all the complex intercourse of modern social life: that part of it, at least, which still actually takes place on the street and dares to meet face-to-face.

Twenty-one gravures.  A series of Etudes?  A Suite?  A Theme and Variations?   These are not merely mute reproductions standing in for the objects they allude to.  These are magnificent photographs in their own right, carrying a big burden of allusion with assurance and grace.  I’m glad to have seen them.

The complete set can be viewed by scrolling down to the very bottom of this: