Welcome to issue 001 of Art & Attention.
I’m starting this weekly newsletter to give an insight into the process behind my pictures, to learn in public and to share things that I think are interesting. It’s ostensibly about the interaction between creative practice and the application of awareness, two foundational areas in my life, but it’s going to be much less boring than that sounds. I’ll include links to the books, articles, podcasts and music I’ve been enjoying over the past week, along with ideas I’m excited about, great work by other artists, and useful tools and techniques.
To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday. —John Burroughs
When the first UK lockdown happened, I was surprised that I didn’t feel an urge to head into town to document the empty streets or people stalking around in masks. From early on in the pandemic, I realised that I wanted to make something personal and specific, rather than shooting people behind windows, hands pressed to the glass, ghost town London or masked portraits. Masks in particular were something that I wanted to avoid. I found that masked faces depressed me out of proportion to the impact you would expect from the addition of a few square centimetres of fabric. Masks seem to extinguish something important—they form a barrier that blocks visible traces of mood and personality, and prevent the non-verbal communication that builds a neighbourly feeling with strangers. I didn’t realise how much I enjoyed connecting with people on the street with a smile or simple acknowledgment, until that possibility was removed.
In the end, Proximity wasn’t a project assembled around a theoretical framework, but rather an evolving process that I steered by paying attention to what I was paying attention to. It is an emergent rather than an orchestrated series of pictures. When I was doing a quick cull of images from my carry-around camera, I noticed that the scope of what I was shooting had contracted. I had been focussing on details within my immediate environment: moments of peace, a slice of light, a pleasing relationship between objects. In an uncertain time, I think that I was reassuring myself by searching for the sublime in the mundane, rather than reacting to the epic narratives that were being spun in the public sphere. 2020 was marked by a sense of interiority for me — both in the sense of being confined physically, but also by a desire to turn inward and reflect on what it means when the work that you used to define your status and character disappears. What does it mean to be a photographer when you aren’t photographing? What does it mean to be a hard-worker when you aren’t working?
I needed to create in opposition to the discomfort I felt at losing a central aspect of my identity. I had pretended that my career trajectory was unimportant to my self-definition, something externally defined that I couldn’t control and therefore didn’t cling to. This smugly held position was revealed to be both fragile and inaccurate when I found myself without work, without priorities, and in need of help with the rent. Photography is a way that I interact with and make sense of the world — it is a lens with which I focus my attention. I use it to discover what is important to me. When looking at the small ‘sketches’ that I had been making of my environment, of my girlfriend Imogen, my dog Woolly, of food, of walks; I realised that I was seeking out and photographing the things that sustain me and comprise the positive aspects of my lived experience. To abuse a German word, I was documenting my umwelt, the various aspects of the world I inhabit, defined by the limitations of my senses and experiences. In fact, it’s more accurate to say that I was trying to define the concrete things that are central to my life by paying intense attention to both the things themselves and my feelings towards them.
I first learnt about the Japanese idea of yūgen from my friend TJ, over pizza last summer — ‘a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe, beyond that which can be said or depicted.’ This was appropriate — if any food evokes a ‘mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe’, it’s pizza. (God, I miss pizza.) It’s so helpful to learn that there’s a name for a concept that was important to me, but I didn’t have a handle for previously; suddenly it is available as a tool to deepen your thinking. As soon as TJ said the word, I realised that instances of yūgen form the core of my photography. It’s the feeling I get when a seemingly banal moment strikes me with a force that suggests its beauty is somehow emblematic of something deeper — like I’m catching a glimpse of the sublime. These are the moments and feelings that make me reach for the camera, and these fleeting occasions of quotidian beauty are the foundations for the images in Proximity
I will likely be shooting more images during lockdown 3.0 but you can see the current edit here. I’d love to hear what you think.
“I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us.” —Henri Cartier Bresson
Three beautiful albums that are perfect to work or bliss out to:
Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar — Sam Gendel, Sam Wilkes Jazz inflected electronica — by turns delicate and hazy, underpinned by clipped beats
Clarinet & Piano: Selected Works, Vol. 1 — Group Listening Looping, melodic and bittersweet contemporary classical
Ethiopiques, vol. 21: Emahoy (piano solo) — Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou Hypnotic, meditative and beautiful Ethio-Jazz solo piano album
Life is Short by Paul Graham A concise and powerful argument to relentlessly prune bullshit from your life, so that you can savour what is important
Having kids showed me how to convert a continuous quantity, time, into discrete quantities. You only get 52 weekends with your 2 year old. If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times. And while it’s impossible to say what is a lot or a little of a continuous quantity like time, 8 is not a lot of something. If you had a handful of 8 peanuts, or a shelf of 8 books to choose from, the quantity would definitely seem limited, no matter what your lifespan was.
Squad Wealth by Sam Hart, Toby Shorin, Laura Lotti A strange, chaotic and provocative argument for the power of squads as a vehicle for value, support and creativity in the digital parallel reality. One of the weirdest and most thought-provoking articles that I read last year.
Yes, squads are friends empowered by digital tools, but this is much more than new chat apps and online “community platforms.” This is the movement. Squaddom is about new ways of being together, learning, and making meaning in an increasingly complex world. Squads are groups fueled by vibes, memes, and values, but they are not mindless swarms. Rather squads are proto-institutions that engage the world on their own terms.
The Thing Itself by Bill Jay (pdf) An essay detailing a pragmatic approach to documentary photography that I come back to again and again. I wrote a Twitter thread re my highlights which you can read here
If the subject of the photograph is the vehicle for profounder issues, then it is the photographer’s responsibility to think and feel more deeply about those issues. That sounds self-evident. But how is it achieved? By a seriousness of spirit. And how is that achieved? By engaging on a quest for self-knowledge which invests the act of living with greater energy and commitment.
Mathieu Chaze UK-based photographer documenting his family and the natural environment in intimate B&W images that are by turns tender and mysterious.
@m15nh An incredible Vietnamese photographer, currently studying at City University of Ho Chi Minh. He’s so talented — the centre of a Trent Parke, Ren Han and Sohrab Hura Venn diagram
How can I change what I do in order to change how I think?