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© 2017 John Kiely        john@purlieu.photography             Phone +447736849388

Without Concept

February 10, 2019




My work, especially over the last decade, has been strongly concept led.  This has not only influenced my personal output, but also my teaching.  Since I stopped running commercial photography courses and started teaching on foundation, foundation degree and degree programmes I have encouraged students to develop a concept and then produce their work around this.




In one of his rare video interviews Lee Friedlander, along with Richard Benson, stated how they were concerned about photographers no longer carrying cameras with them all the time, and how they felt the need to be working on a project.  Freidlander stated that his working practice was to always carry a camera and shoot what interested him.  He would then review the contact prints and realise that he had a themed series developing.  This was more or less my method when I shot general landscapes  I would walk regularly and shoot, always having two or three series in production at any one time.  Since moving to teaching on Higher Education programmes my practice changed, and so did my love of shooting.



In the summer of 2018  I visited London to meet up with some fellow photographers to see the ‘Victorian Giants: The Birth of Art Photography’ exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery, which I found a little disappointing.  I went a day early to visit other exhibitions with included  ‘The Shape of Light’, an exhibition of abstract photography at the Tate Modern.  This proved to be more influential than I imagined.  Not just the imagery, but letters written by Minor White in which he questioned the description of his work as abstract.  He discussed how this wasn’t his intention when shooting, that he had reacted to subject matter.


While exploring the other galleries in the Tate Modern I came across Stephen Shore’s series American Surfaces.  I have had high regard for Shore’s images for several years, mainly because, like Freidlander, his output works well in book form.  Both photographers produce images that look simple, almost naive, on the surface, but both lead to multiple viewings that develop a deeper understanding of their view of their worlds.  I revisited both exhibitions the following day.  I also discovered Birdhead at the Tate.  They are a duo from Shanghai who work in a similar vein to Shore and Friedlander.  They print their images to 16x12 and display them without frames in tiled sequences.  The seed had been planted!



On the evening of the first day I thought about my work, I reflected on what I had seen and how this could influence my practices.  I was intending to carry on shooting for my ‘Borders’ project, but I wasn’t entirely happy with how this was going.  It seemed that the images depended too much on an explanation, it was becoming an intellectual exercise more than an exploration of visual imagery.


On the second day I just walking around London and responded photographically to trees, and tree related subjects.  This seemed to me to be a good way to finally close my years of using trees as a subject matter.  I was staying at the Crystal Palace camp site, so I also spent some time shooting there.  Since then I have visited several locations near to my home and in Wales.  The key aspect of each of these days was that photography was not the prime activity.  Dog walking featured highly as a activity, or accompanying other photographers as they worked.  I decided to restrict myself to shooting without a tripod, so no long exposures and large depths of field.  It would all be digital, using my Hasselblad CWD with a 16 megapixel back, or my little Fujifilm 10X set to shoot square.  All images would be black and white with minimum manipulation.  I would restrict myself to edging and minor contrast control.  I would output all using the same Photoshop action and get them all printed at the same lab, so no hours of print control.


From the start I planned to exhibit the work, but influenced by Shore and Birdhead they would be tiled, rather than framed as frames seemed at odds with the avoidance of the ‘precious’ element in the work.  Once I started to assemble the work I realised that I would have to publish it in book form as well, my fifth book to date. 


Now that the work has come to an end - in an attempt to avoid a concept have I just created a different one?



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