> Down to Earth – A revaluation of British colour photography

Simon Bowcock / Down to Earth – A revaluation of British colour photography

July 2017


After the invention of photography in Britain and France, its development throughout the Victorian era is a largely European story. But from the early 20th Century, the mainstream history of the medium takes on an ever-more American narrative which soon becomes overblown. By 1976, we are to understand that the Tennessean William Eggleston’s show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art is THE pioneering art event in colour photography, despite a plethora of precedents (even at the same institution, such as the Viennese photographer Ernst Haas’s solo colour exhibition there in 1962). While it would be disingenuous to dismiss Eggleston’s importance and subsequent influence, it is more sensible to see him as part of a much longer and less dramatic continuum of artistically-motivated colour photographers stretching back to pre-Raphaelite Britain.

It is unsurprising, then, that in pre-1976 Britain the odd serious photographer was quietly producing colour work with more European sensibilities. A case in point is Leeds-based Peter Mitchell’s A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission, made from 1974 to 1979, in which the carefully constructed flat-frontal views of urban England owe more to head-on monochrome Düsseldorfer typologies than to colour-saturated American dye transfers.

Finally published in 2017 as a book, A New Refutation may not seem exotic today. But when it first landed as an exhibition in (Old) York in 1979, it was completely ‘out there’. At a time when serious photography in Britain was humourless and grey, presenting colour photographs as if made by an explorer from outer space was too ‘far out’ for most. Fortunately, Mitchell’s outlandish photographic odyssey to Leeds, London and elsewhere was enthusiastically received by a few young British photographers, not least Martin Parr.

While A New Refutation presents specific people and places, its underlying theme is universal. With its depiction of deterioration, decay, things passing their best and places on their way out, it reminds us of what Postcards from Scarborough suggested to Leeds’ finest musical export, Michael Chapman: “Time past, and time passing.” It is probably no accident, then, that Mitchell’s title is a play on that of Jorge Luis Borges’ essay, A New Refutation of Time. Like Borges, Mitchell makes a metaphysical argument. Unlike Borges, he contends that time is irrefutable. Mitchell’s photographs, then, are A New Refutation of a New Refutation of Time.

As well as the tide of time, a feeling of fragmentation also flows through the photographs, as their formal composition and framing gently divorce people and buildings from their surroundings. This reflects the photographer’s own status as an explorer in another sense: not an inter-planetary, a philosophical, or even a photographic one, but societally, as an outsider, a Southern boy settled in the North. Perhaps photographs as good as these are always self-portraits, no matter what is in the picture.

Mitchell handles colour in an understatedly British way. Typically, there is a single strong shade – such as a dab of green amid drab greys, or a block of blue against banal browns – which never overpowers the picture. Subtle also are the geometric correspondences between the photographs: a sloping horizontal in one picture mirrors that in the next; a picture with a cross is followed by another which suggests a cross. And loose themes creep quietly across images: a monumental funeral director’s precedes a line of paupers’ graves, followed by racks of repaired shoes, resurrected from the dead.

Many since have photographed in the ‘Mitchell manner’, but few as successfully. The past forty years have seen an endless stream of ponderous, impassive photographs without warmth or rapport (just think of many of the portraits in the annual Taylor Wessing Prize exhibition, or those in countless Sunday supplements). But while Mitchell’s painstakingly-prepared pictures are formally rigorous, they exude humanity, with an indefinable but genuine connection with both people and place. There is also humour: in a picture of a pornographic bookshop, for example, a carefully severed shop sign two doors down spells out an alternative sexual orientation. And the icing on Mitchell’s cake is his playful presentation: his witty captions, and the conceit of alien photographer exploration of Earth only serve to enhance this humour, this humanity.

So by the time Welshman Peter Fraser was taking pictures of Manchester in the early 1980s, colour was gaining a tiny bit more credibility in Britain. Like Mitchell, Fraser photographed scenes from his adopted city deadpan and in colour, but in a more oblique fashion. As Fraser’s vision developed through the Eighties, his pictures became less of places and more of things as he zoomed in on an increasingly micro level. If Mitchell is down to earth, then Fraser is in the weeds in his first book, Two Blue Buckets. Originally published in 1988, there is now a substantially revised 2017 edition, divided into three chronological sections.

The first section, work from 1984, is very much about colour, often with different shades of the same colour within an image: a blue car against the blue sky; a green wire fence amid green vegetation. Its careful and studied matter-of-fact-ness suggests the influence of William Eggleston (unsurprising given, in the early Eighties, Fraser had a joint exhibition with Eggleston and visited him in Memphis).

The second section, from 1985, has starker colour contrasts within images. While still echoing Eggleston, this work feels more British in its humdrum subject matter, such as a picture of a red-handled rusty saw and a grey rag on some pebbledash. But Fraser’s humdrum is never dull, and he occasionally renders the ordinary spectacular, as when a blue car’s incandescent sunlit-yellow interior seeps through its steamed-up windows.

By the third section, from 1986, Fraser finally moves clear of Eggleston’s influence and finds his own mode of expression. Colour now has a subtler role, and is used in careful balance with the geometry of the pictures, which includes the type of correspondence between images prevalent in today’s photobooks: recurring motifs – such as similarly slanting horizontals in successive images, or a sequence of similarly-shaped objects – abound, and seem just as important as the colour. So despite very different subject matter, Fraser’s use of colour and geometry here is similar to Mitchell’s.

But unlike Mitchell, Fraser lets his naked photographs speak for themselves, inviting viewers to ascribe their own meanings. One interpretation is that Fraser’s pictures have no meaning at all, which made them serious anathema to the UK’s serious photography scene in the 1980s, dominated as it was by a politically-motivated documentary puritanism. Another equally valid reading is to see Two Blue Buckets as a metaphysical inquiry: what is there in the world, and what are its qualities? But it is also possible to interpret the book on a symbolic level: there are lots of pairs (balloons, buckets, scales, flanges); there is violence and rupture (a dismembered doll, the saw forced into the pebbledash, a metal pipe abandoned amid destruction); there is a sequence of mysterious objects with disturbing religious undertones; and there is a marriage order of service tossed onto the floor. All of this suggests a solemn union and a traumatic schism. This is just one possible interpretation, of course, but whether this matches Fraser’s intention is unimportant: once out in the world, uncontextualized photographs have their own life. To paraphrase Garry Winogrand, the work is all there is.

This potential multiplicity of meaning (or lack of it) lends Two Blue Buckets a little more weight than much of the work made in a similar mode beforehand (such as by Eggleston) or since (such as by Wolfgang Tillmans), which tends to be neither more accomplished nor more interesting.

In style and in substance, then, A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission and Two Blue Buckets both seemed off the planet when they first appeared in Britain. But, just like Eggleston, Mitchell and Fraser are not dramatic pioneers, but contributors to the grand, rolling culture of photography. That said, the artistic (and even the philosophical) depth and complexity of both of these new books suggest that these two relatively obscure Britons are more important than many of their more celebrated forebears and successors.

As such, Peter Mitchell and Peter Fraser both deserve a great deal more recognition.

 – Essay by Simon Bowcock


A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission by Peter Mitchell is published by RRB.

Two Blue Buckets by Peter Fraser is published by Peperoni.