The Conception of Order – Review

The Conception of Order – Jan Fitzpatrick – Review

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‘In all things that live, there are certain irregularities and deficiencies which are not only signs of life, but sources of beauty’[1].

The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin

The above quote inspired the photographer Jan Fitzpatrick to create her exhibition, using a series of Polaroid pictures, taken in the gardens of John Ruskin’s former home, Brantwood. What first struck me about this exhibition was the use of the Polaroid; the purposed use of the Polaroid process as opposed to other forms of exhibiting photographs drew my attention because it was obviously a conscious decision of the photographer. Unlike so many other photographers of the modern day, she did not opt for standardised framed photographs, something that I had been not been expecting upon my arrival. Fitzpatrick herself claims in the introduction that Polaroid’s allow for ‘an intimate appreciation of nature’, something you could instantly recognise in the exhibition due to the close up nature shots presented.[2] Following this, the sheer simplicity that the photographer had arranged her photos to be placed in was also an interesting concept, as stated in its name ‘the Conception of order’ you could really get the sense that Fitzpatrick had indeed placed the Polaroid’s in a specific order. In this case it went from the sky and clouds, a collection of yellow flowers, and finished with the plants in autumn, signifying nature’s cycle. This was all staged in the Blue Gallery, former dining room of the home, the blue walls instantly created the feeling of nature. This allowed these nature shots to look and feel free, as though they were still in their natural environment. This is because for me, nature takes place outside under the watchful eye of the sky, signified by the colour blue.

One of the most poignant and original parts of this exhibition that drew me to it, above others, was the use of the SX-70 Polaroid camera, something that has become rather disused and outdated in recent years in a world full of digital cameras and smart phones. The Polaroid has been used often to capture intimate scenes in life, such as the fashion photography of Guy Bourdin; this is similar to how Fitzpatrick wanted to capture nature in an intimate state through the use of the Polaroid. This reminded me instantly of the first photos by Louis Daguerre; the Daguerreotype. Just like Fitzpatrick’s these are original comparable to the daguerreotype in the sense that they will always keep their originality due to them both being ‘unreproducible moments in time’.[3] Similarly, the processing actions are similar in both Polaroid’s and Daguerreotypes in the sense that you can see the picture forming slowly as it processes, something that has been lost in the digital age. This can also be seen to resemble the idea that nature is cyclical, and like these photographic developing processes, you can see nature as it develops in its own unique way. As regarded by Sontag, Polaroid shots are a ‘fast form of note-taking’ and ‘souvenirs of daily life’.[4] This is something that Fitzpatrick also expressed in her exhibition, as it was as if she was noting the cycle of nature through her snapshots, enabling her and the spectator these botanic souvenirs.

Fitzpatrick was inspired by the works of John Ruskin, who believed that nature was the foundation of art, as it is there in its purest form, with no outside interference. In this case it is the surrounding environment of the Lake District and neighbouring countryside. These plants are there waiting to be photographed, needing no extra manipulation. It is for this reason that nature can be considered the foundation of art. This allowed the photographer to capture the ‘simple beauty and variety of forms that plants present to us’ by photographing the nature of the Brantwood gardens.[5] The idea of the plants revealing themselves to the camera goes back to the unveiling of the Daguerreotype. Daguerre himself offered the view that ‘the daguerreotype is not merely an instrument which serves to draw nature… [it] gives her the power to reproduce herself’.[6] He believed that the camera allowed for nature to be the active agent in its own reproducibility, as opposed to the agency of the photographer, due to the lack of human interference. This idea again links to the cycle of nature; something that is conducted spontaneously by plants themselves, which the snapshot Polaroid captures perfectly through this botany photography. Just as Fitzpatrick wanted, you can feel the raw, unaltered nature of these photos in just a glance, something that I believe is heightened by the use of the Polaroid; the snap-shot-like nature and inalterability of Polaroid photography, unlike digital photographic processes, seems to suggest an abstraction of a moment, a capturing of this moment in the sequence of time. The Polaroid photos in this exhibition are ‘spontaneous reproduction[s] of the images of nature’ as Daguerre defined his own photographic technique.[7] Albeit the process of photography is not spontaneous, what Fitzpatrick is trying to capture in her exhibition is the spontaneity of nature, and the change that occurs in the cycle of seasonal change. This older technique, which allows photos to be produced in 15-20 seconds, gives more of a sense of realness because the photo can be seen as soon as it has been taken, removing any element of digital interference, capturing the pure beauty of the plants, as is seen in the photo below. As Amy Lin points out ‘a few tweaks can simulate the blurry charm of SX-70 film and you can make as many identical prints as you like’ in this digital age, and it is for this reason that the Polaroid has a greater sense of realness.[8] You really felt like you were there with the photographer; everything was so simplistic, unlike the photo-shopped images of the 21st century. You can see clearly that there is no manipulation of the photo, just Fitzpatrick’s true artistic skill. This again shows the influence of Ruskin, who saw the importance of truth in art, claiming that ‘nothing but art is moral’.[9] There is often the debate as to whether or not photography is art, as has been discussed since the Photographic Society of London met in 1853 where they stated that photography was not art because it was ‘unable to elevate the imagination’; there was little human agency.[10] This exhibition to me clarifies that it is indeed art, going against the view that imagination is not used as the pure artistic talent needed to frame this photos perfectly is evident in the fact that the photographer only has one shot to get it right; there is no delete button on a Polaroid.

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Benjamin claimed that with modernity, came the destruction of the aura and originality of art because of the mass reproducibility of the photographic process.[11] This does appear to be challenged however in this exhibition. Although these photos were all taken in the space of the years 2012-13, the use of an older-style technique has allowed for the photos to keep their originality. Perhaps Benjamin is right, as it did take Fitzpatrick to use an outdated Polaroid to keep this essence, rather than a modern digital camera that has the ability to mass reproduce photos. The fact that her photos are unique and capture the exact moment they were taken makes this exhibition so different to many that are around today, especially those using digitally enhanced technologies, and are often highly reproducible, losing their originality. This is something that could not be taken from Fitzpatrick’s work. The spectator can see the exact photo that the photographer herself saw the moment the film was produced. There was nothing added, nor taken away, just an original nature shot presented in its simplest form.

One of my favourite parts of the exhibition was the inclusion of Fitzpatrick’s inspiration cabinet, including books, real plant matter, and photos that had all led to her creating her very own Polaroid nature exhibition. It gave you an insight into the photographers mind, allowing the spectator to gain an understanding as to why she chose to use Polaroid’s to capture the plans in the garden, as opposed to a newer digital camera. Examples of these photographic works are André Kertész ‘Polaroids’ book, along with Andrey Tarkovskys ‘Bright Bright Day’. Both capture rare intimate moments, as well as romantic landscapes of nature. It is clear that these have heavily inspired Fitzpatrick’s work, as both photographers have used their keen eye to capture the best shot, much like the photographer herself. Alongside these books she also placed leaves and plant matter, as a way of showing exactly what she photographed in its original form.

Overall, this exhibition proved to me that there is still an innocent originality that can still be found in photography, unlike as Benjamin claims in the argument of the loss of the aura because of the mass reproducibility of photography. The photos captured, had their own vintage feel through the Polaroid SX-70 camera, which did indeed create, for me, the essence of nature in an original snapshot, and thus the authentic aura of the work. Something that I did take from this exhibition was how it was in a way confirming what Sontag argues when she claims that in this day and age there is this constant need to photograph everything we see, especially objects in their natural environment.[12] This is not a criticism, more an observation of the view and how this need to photograph something in its natural environment has been exposed here.  This exhibition was indeed an interesting take on modern day photography, and especially that of botanic photography due to the snapshot image of these plants in their natural surroundings, free of digital manipulation that is now seen in the age of Instagram.

Bibliography

Critical Works

Benjamin, Walter, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 4 1838-1940 (Belknap Press, 2003).

Daguerre, Louis, a Practical Description of that Process Called the Daguerreotype (John Churchill, 1839).

Ruskin, John, the Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings (University of Virginia Press, 1998)

Ruskin, John, the Stones of Venice (De Capo Press, 2003).

Sontag, Susan, On Photography (Penguin, 1979).

Websites

Christopher Henry Gallery, http://www.artnet.com/galleries/exhibitions.asp?cid=192191&gid=424387067 (accessed 13/01/2014).

Lin, Amy http://chicagoartmagazine.com/2010/05/william-eggleston-at-the-art-institute-of-chicago/ (19/01/2014)

Progner, Michael, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/oct/19/photography-is-it-art (accessed 15/01/2014)

The Brantwood Trust, http://www.brantwood.org.uk/JanandDonFitzpatrickexhibitionsatBrantwood.htm (accessed 13/01/2014)

 

 


[1] John Ruskin, the Stones of Venice (De Capo Press, 2003), p. 171.

[2] Jan Fitzpatrick, ‘the Conception of Order’ exhibition, Brantwood, 2014.

[3] Christopher Henry Gallery, http://www.artnet.com/galleries/exhibitions.asp?cid=192191&gid=424387067 (accessed 13/01/2014).

[4] Susan Sontag, On Photography (Penguin, 1979), p. 3.

[5] The Brantwood Trust, http://www.brantwood.org.uk/JanandDonFitzpatrickexhibitionsatBrantwood.htm (accessed 13/01/2014)

[6] Louis Daguerre, a Practical Description of that Process Called the Daguerreotype (John Churchill, 1839).p. 13.

[7] Daguerre, Daguerreotype, p. 11.

[8] Amy Lin, http://chicagoartmagazine.com/2010/05/william-eggleston-at-the-art-institute-of-chicago/ (19/01/2014)

[9] John Ruskin, the Genius of John Ruskin: Selections from His Writings (University of Virginia Press, 1998), p. 120.

[10] Michael, Progner, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/oct/19/photography-is-it-art (accessed 15/01/2014)

[11] Walter Benjamin, Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings Volume 4 1838-1940 (Belknap Press, 2003), p. 254.

[12] Sontag, On Photography, p. 7.

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