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Photography in the eyes of the beholder

Richard Wentworth reveals his take on photography in response to the Barbican exhibition Constructing Worlds

A friend of mine mislaid her phone the other day. A domestic cliché, but one associated with an onset of panic and that sense of rehearsing dementia. The slippery phone was eventually tracked down to its hidey hole, tucked away beneath her partner’s pillow. It didn’t take my friend long to realise that this was the act of her two year old. Even more captivating was the discovery that the phone now carried a fresh picture of the child, recorded by its own inquisitive fingers.

I am from the last generation who were taught aspects of perception as a matter of course at art school.

Who are we to say what this child thought it was doing in this fairy tale? What business is it of ours if the child enjoys hiding its own image beneath its father’s pillow? Were we to ask, what would the child reply, and would we believe the answer?

Once upon a time, when photography was inventing itself it was a game of chemicals and light and different materialities, glass and paper. Black boxes, darkened rooms (camera obscura), lenses and chemistry.

I grew up with the tail end of this world, mostly men who knew about apertures, depth of field and f-stops and who were eloquent about the fall of light and ‘the blacks’. Will the child ever know what all this stuff means?


Richard Wentworth

Why not try cataloguing all the ‘photographic images’ which you see in a single day? Like Michael Pollan’s ‘edible food-like substances’, we have now invented a diorama of visual equivalents. The intelligent retina is constantly snared by its encounters with the set dressing of modernity. Might I propose a new category − Wall Wear? Thus far we seem to be able to negotiate this material without going mad, while each of us still hopes to retain editorial control of all this flickering inside our brains.

Although looking may not be seeing, I am one of those people who sees in images. Even if this is part of my ‘literacy’, it’s a very untidy condition. I marvel that looking is not so far away from the miracle of assembling adjectives and nouns and verbs into conversational flow.

For me, the puzzle has always been to search out some syntax for the things which I see, while reluctantly accepting the clumsy frame of the photographic image. Imagine being the format controller in the early 20th century when the proportions of how we see were so profoundly established.

At any time in culture, there are always tribal migrations, people moving more or less in the same direction, though not necessarily for the same purposes. Sometimes this companionship is a comfort, sometimes a hindrance. How do we reconcile Robert Smithson’s records of entropy with Mr and Mrs Becher’s formal ennobling of declining coal mines? Black and white unites them and we can feel some sort of conversation, but nonetheless they are produced with very different energies. Perhaps it’s not so very different from how we understand the child secreting its image beneath the downy pillow, an atavistic human desire to communicate by images, ‘to tell someone something’.


Richard Wentworth

The real test lies in the eyes of the beholder. Beholders detect intention and can feel what the motives are for making and sending images. We are excellent detectives of prurience, shallowness, condescension, propaganda, love and concern. Each of us carries a policeman in our own head but it’s hard to tell people what they are allowed or not allowed to perceive. We are good at making judgements at the point of display.

Why is that picture there?
Who put that picture there?
Who is it for?
What is it doing?
What does it say?
What does it say about us?
What does it say about them?

The individual pictures − such a different word from ‘photographs’ − which make up the anthill of my work known as ‘Making Do and Getting By’, could never rehearse the ways in which they are expected to relate to other pictures, sometimes taken many years before, sometimes many years later.

For me it is the friction of their encounter that interests me, much the same way as one sees the relationship between one brick and another being mediated by the once pliant mortar.

Constructing Worlds

Where: The Barbican
When: until 15 January 2015

Jack Self’s review of the exhibition

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