Evolution And Metamorphosis
It was 1968. I was a teenager between girlfriends. A neophyte discovering a nascent art form.
I was also an artist without a model.
So inevitably my mind began to drift towards the dark and the deep.
At that time, nobody considered photography art, so not surprisingly, mortality and spirituality were not subjects anyone had ever really attempted with photography. Not artistically speaking, anyway. So I thought I would try. Oh it wasn't a conscious decision, my artistic trajectories rarely are, but for some reason I found myself drawn to graveyards and derelict ruins. Remembrances in the aftermath of departed souls. As a secondary thought, I realised it would be original and I have always held originality in extremely high regard. Anything less is like stealing a part of someone's soul.
NOf course, having now been ripped off thousands of times myself, often so many generations down that the imitator doesn't even know it was my idea..... I view it in a different way. Perhaps the inevitable contagion of great ideas. But I still smile when I see my ideas being used by the latest Pop Princess, celebrity photographer, advertising creative or whatever......
Eerie, haunting, dark and mysterious, four decades on the early Gothic Period remains much loved and timeless. It is worth mentioning right at the start that the Gothic Period dates right back to my first art photograph 'Under Grave Snow' 1968. An image of flowers on a child's grave laden under the weight of heavy snow; their own death just a cold snap away. The irony was not lost on me. Nor indeed the colour of life against the lifeless cold grey of the background.
It is also true to say that the Gothic work evolves into something new and continues way beyond the Seventies and indeed throughout the entire canon. But in the original early Gothic period, the work is sharply defined and very much environmental and predominantly observational. There is however, as early as 1971, a great deal of my own creativity imposed upon the vision. It slowly evolves and ultimately metamorphoses into something quite different, as I impose more and more autonomy to create my own vision. And the landscape is ultimately reduced to an almost insignificant detail.
So later, unsurprisingly we see the emergence of Neo Goth, where the imagery is very much created, in the style of my 'Symphonies For The Camera'. This begins around 1973 and evolves through the Eighties, long after I abandon the original Goth. In fact the original Gothic period pretty much ended when I left Devon in May of 1977, although I did return to complete one or two works. Final image was masterpiece "The Burning Cross" 1980. Note that my use of crosses predates their appearance in pop culture generally and the burning cross was also without precedent, although much imitated subsequently. It was inspired by the easily observable decline in orthodox religion, at the time. Especially in London. In 1978 It was astonishing to see London churches being turned into flats! Historically unthinkable!
Fast forwarding a moment to "Ashes, Roses and Lace", a perfect example of Neo Goth, created in my London Studio in 1981. If ever an image powerfully divided the waters of opinion it was this one. It is visual poetry, so I won't turn it into prose by explaining it.
However, defining masterpiece of the Neogothic period must surely be the Intelligentsia's perennial favourite "The Inevitability Of Circumstance (And The Fall Of The Dice)". A philosophical tour de force which questions divine order versus sheer fluke and their possible coexistence. The Neogothic work is probably deeper but also much more considered.
Later still in the Nineties, there is the emergence of Cyber Goth, with radical new Gothic imagery being created with photography and computers. A great example of this would be the ground-breaking "Aftermath" of 1996. The literally thousands of crosses in this masterpiece would have been impossible to create without the advent of cyber art and digital imaging technology. Note the anthropomorphic aboriginal face (mask).
Having identified and pioneered Photography as the important new art, a quarter of a century earlier, it was easier for me than most to identify Art's new baby. Computer Art. Or Cyber Art, if you prefer. And whilst the world and his wife debated the validity of computers vis a vis Art as we knew it, to me this attitude was very much déja vu. I had seen it all 25 years earlier. People's reluctance to accept a new Art or indeed change of any kind. I knew from the outset that computers were the road ahead, and said so very loudly.
However, Cyber Art was not the first new art in centuries, like Photography. So ultimately computer art has become widely accepted by artists, but the Art World as always is slow as a bus. As I write this, decades after I started pioneering cyber art, you still don't see any in the Art World. Not one gallery in London is showing it. Things change at glacier speed in the art world. Photography took 150 years to start getting accepted as art. You could also argue that technology held photography back. Photography did not become usable as an art form until the Sixties and this may well be the key to its slow dawn. Certainly, had I been born a decade or two earlier, I would not have become a photographer - the materials would not have been good enough! And I always saw black and white as technology's work in progress
It is also worth mentioning that I stated decades ago, in a published interview and on video, that the evolution of my work was "centrifugal not linear". Unlike other artists I do not work on A, finish it and then go to B, but rather I work on the whole alphabet simultaneously, improving when and where I can.
So I advance everything incrementally and when I feel I can evolve the idea no further, I leave that specific trajectory alone. Often I return to it years later, in order to evolve ideas yet again. Sometimes I abandon them entirely. For this reason the "periods" in my oeuvre are really nothing of the sort, they are more like recurring personality traits. Or indeed, the evolution of Elliott. Me changing over time. That which fascinated me twenty years ago, may or may not interest me now, or ever again.One thing is clear: the Gothic imagery, has a perpetual thread which can even be observed right up to 2011. Although the latest work would perhaps be more aptly described as Spiritualism. A great example being 'Gravity Of Destiny'.
My congenital but evolved perspicacity enables me to progress an idea rapidly and exponentially. I am an exceptional extrapolator. I don't need to work on it a hundred times, boring myself and everyone else to death in the process. By picture three or four I have taken it to the limits and know that given my current wisdom, talent and expertise, I cannot do it better, right now. I have just done my best and then some. I even have cognisance of the simple fact that I may not have any idea what my best is or could be. But I still know, somehow, that I have pushed it to the limits of my current abilities. Maybe in ten years time when I am wiser still, I will return and do it even better. But then again, I may not, as I don't know who I will be in 10 years time and whoever I become may or may not be interested in that particular thing.
However brilliant, and however much more substance the later works may contain, one thing is clear - the original Gothic Period is incredibly "atmospheric" and certainly causes the viewer to be drawn in and reflect. It has thrown forth some great imagery like "Remorse" - a timeless expression of conscience and regret. The haunting "White Lady In Ruins", with its beautifully ambivalent title and "Shapes" with it's eerie atmosphere and almost spiritual glow. All are masterpieces in their own right.
'White Lady In Ruins' also deserves a special mention, as there is just such a strange story behind what is doubtless also, a very powerful image. Too many math-defying coincidences. Read the 'White Lady' story for yourself, and see.
The early Gothic Period can be seen to end with "The Burning Cross" of 1978, as I say. It almost ended a lot more, too. I very nearly set fire to myself more than once whilst creating this masterpiece and in fact singed off both my eyebrows. I needed passion in the flames, which was not easy to achieve. It was extraordinary to discover how bland fire looks in most photographs. Hardly what I was after, so endless attempts were necessary. I also recall with some amusement, dragging the huge six foot cross on my shoulder, through the gorse bushes, up the side of the mountain on Dartmoor. I kept thinking about the story of Christ and groaning to my model girlfriend, "We all have our cross to bear!" and then laughing hysterically.Weakened by my mirth, I kept collapsing under the weight of the cross into the gorse bushes! I still laugh when I think of it today.
I was mad in those days.... I've worked my way sane....... some might say! Hahahahaha.........
I would not use fire for more than two decades and again almost caused a disaster when the fire got out of control, whilst working on Cyber Goth image "Ashes to Ashes, Heart To Heart. The Queen Of Tarts Had A Very Rich Heart". Since my very first art picture I have been evolving the structure of titles. As one wit quipped "I want to buy the title'.
No more fire. It's odd because I always say I am done with Goth but it keeps metamorphosing into something else and coming back to haunt me. Incidentally, it's not a religious thing in the orthodox sense. There are no crucifixes - only crosses. A very important distinction. It's symbolic of mortality and spirituality, sure, but it's not about orthodox religion.
I believe in the Gods in the deepest, most profound sense. Anyone with my powers of perception would have no choice. But I don't believe in the Gods which Man has created ex nihilo. Having been subjected to the normal brainwashing of a Catholic, which I found obscene, I had rejected all orthodox religion by 13. For about 5 years I neither believed nor disbelieved in anything. It was really through my teenage interest in Astronomy and Quantum Mechanics, that I came to believe in the deepest sense, in powers beyond my own. If you can seriously consider the atomic structure of inner space and the awesome and incomprehensible vastness of the Great Beyond and not perceive anything at all, well, hmmmm......... perhaps you are spiritually bankrupt. And please don't give me the imbecilic "Oh that's nature!". Thanks Einstein.
I certainly perceive a colossal ordering force, unexplained by science. Contradicted by mathematics. Perhaps this is why the imagery persists. Who knows?!
I grew up around Buckfast Abbey. After the dissolution of monasteries ordered by KIng Henry VIII, Buckfast was the only monastery rebuilt and used for its original purpose. The nuns and monks there were great people. Very wise. I went to school there, when I was seven. I have been everywhere in the Abbey, including the private areas, such as up the Tower and down in the sacristy and met the stained glass makers and wine producers. Although I could never quite get my head around orthodox religion of any persuasion, at the age of eight the Abbey recruited me as an altar boy to serve at funerals. I remember two things. First watching the coffins being lowered into the ground and also returning to to Abbey's sacristy where the priest would open a gold chalice and take out half a crown and give it to me. A nice big chunk of money, especially to a child. I still like nice big chunks of money. The religion later left me, but the atmosphere and imagery lingered.
Life's great ambivalence is that everything is evidence of God - or nothing is - depending on how you look at it. It's like the 'half glass of wine' philosophical dilemma.
Is the glass of wine half empty or half full?
What exists is a half glass of wine.
You will see this more clearly if you keep your opinion out of it.
The optimist thinks it's half full.
The pessimist thinks it's half empty.
For greater clarity still, delete the label 'half glass of wine'.
We made that up too.
Just stare at the object without conditioning or nomenclature.
Better yet delete language.
Do this enough and one day you will see the miracle object as it really is.
It's shape, form, colour, atomic structure. It's complexity.
The incomprehensibility of it's existence.
Eventually you may even understand that you don't know what it, or anything else, is.
Enlightenment indeed. In the deepest sense.
People float from cradle to grave in a mindless fog.
They look at everything but see nothing.
In a church, a ruins or a graveyard, you can definitely sense something. Who knows what it is? Maybe it is just your own mortality, but without question something pervades the whole atmosphere. I'm not talking about ghosts or any other sort of man-made myth. I don't believe in ghosts. I have been in graveyards in the middle of the night and walked alone in deserted ruins miles from anywhere, including the most haunted house in England. I never saw anything and knew I wouldn't. But you can definitely sense something in these places. Whether this is empathy, who knows or cares?! But you can't deny the feeling. It was this I sought to capture in my Gothic imagery.
Ironically, it would not be the grandiose splendour of Buckfast Abbey that I would photograph for my gothic imagery par excellence. In fact I never took a single snap of the Abbey. It was instead "The church on the hill" in Buckfastleigh that I would return to hundreds of times. The church and graves were gorgeous. I love spires and turrets and pinnacles...stuff like that... things that reach for the sky. They just look so dramatic and elegant. Apart from the Abbey, there were four more churches in my small home town, but the church on the hill was aesthetically superior.
What is extraordinary about this is that I probably had an aesthetic eye even before I began, but was completely unaware of it at the time. Everything was entirely intuitive. I began to gain what one might call objective cognisance of my abilities in my early thirties. I can still remember exactly where I was sat the day I realised I had created extraordinary work, just as surely as I can remember where I was standing a decade earlier when I realised Photography was new, and I had been born synchronised with the dawning of a new art form.
Anyway, back to the original Gothic Period. Late in my teens I pursued photography passionately. I did my 39 sunsets. I worked for two years in black and white and colour and although I developed my film, I had insufficient money to print them. After two years of this, I became very frustrated with all the effort and no result, so I built my first darkroom.
It took me a whole month to print up 2 years work and I created 200 ten by eight inch prints (25 x 20 cm). A size I remember considering "huge". It would in fact become smaller than my smallest size. It is also worth noting that as I became critically more evolved, I would later spend days printing a single image.
The story is quite well known. Having concluded my month long sojourn, I spread out the 200 prints all over my darkstudio floor. As I relate in the video "Generation Of A New Voice", on day one I felt rather pleased with my efforts. Everyone was complimentary. There were comments on my "Michelangelo lighting" and "fantastic composition", but somehow, something was bugging me. I just had no idea what it was. But even today I have a seventh sense which tells me something is wrong, a very long time before I know what it is. It has never failed me and this is the principle reason I do not listen to praise or criticism.
On day two, I was not so sure about my new creations. On day three they began to look rather bland to me. And on day four I took one last look at them and subsequently took them all outside and burnt them. I later saw this as 'a sacrificial elegy to formalism'. And so it was. I had created the photography of my time and found it lacking. But lacking what.....?
In the process of taking out my images to the bonfire, I would occasionally notice one and think "Mmmm.... that's not so bad..." and I put just a few images to the side on the baseboard of my enlarger. With what would now have been a fantastic historical record gone up in smoke, I returned over the ensuing days to peruse the handful of images I had kept and persistently questioned myself over and over, as to why I couldn't bring myself to destroy these images.
Over a period of many days I pondered these pictures and suddenly had an epiphany, a flash of enlightenment, so clear, that I felt obtuse for not having seen it sooner. I suddenly realised that the images I had kept, were images of things that meant something to me. I sensed in a heartbeat that this was the way forward. The others I had taken were the clichés of the day. The same as everyone else. Subjects that were meaningless to me. My energy was new here and I wasn't going to be a clone. This small handful of images somehow expressed something about who I was (at the time). Destroying these images would have been like destroying a part of myself.
And yes. You guessed.
Written by James Elliott