BEAUTY OF THE LIGHT FANTASTIC
ON PIONEERING PHOTO ART
Written by JAMES ELLIOTT
A Superbubble Story with Fabadoodle Illustrations
One glorious summer Saturday when I was 7 years old, I went to a cricket match with my parents. I found the match boring so spent most of my time at the white refreshment hut, drinking over-steeped tea and munching my favour snack biscuits called Cheeselets. I glanced sporadically at the crack of leather on willow, but as always I was having my own little adventure. On the way back from the match, the coach stopped as it passed through the small town of Chudleigh Knighton in Devon. Everyone got out and went into the fish and chip shop.
The following day I remember taking my first ever picture with my marvellous new toy. It was of my dog called 'Lady' and I kept trying to get her to sit still, as she kept wandering off. I still have the photo. It's real rubbish but I keep it as a memento, as I could simply never have imagined just how fast and far I would journey from there. From snapshot crap to world master.
By the time I got the camera I already had a passion for music, fashion and painting, having won a painting competition the year before for a watercolour depicting musicians. Music I had discovered at four years old on a gramophone we had at home. I had started to buy my own music at the age of seven, when the new 45rpm vinyl discs arrived. Even back then I loved music with depth and substance. Not the usual pop trash, platitudes and tropes, with their 'Baby you done me wrong' refrains. I preferred music that stood aloof from the crowd and either excited or moved me. Creativity and emotion, not shallow populist imitation.
To fashion, or I should say style, I owe much to my mother, who bought me wonderfully tasteful little outfits, including berets and double breasted jackets. As for sculpture, I remember around that time my 'Bust of Caesar' being held up in front of the class for all to admire. Fascinating, as I had no idea who Caesar was, but I let the compliment radiate. I didn't contradict it. This taught me that different people see the same thing in different ways, especially in art. And also the way the brain interprets things in accordance with one's own experiences.
So by the time I acquired the camera, my life was already taking a creative trajectory, although I had absolutely no objective cognisance of my creative sensibilities, until I was very much older. Perhaps in my early twenties and it was not until my early thirties I fully realised the importance of what I had done, from a creative standpoint. Creativity certainly has a subconscious and automatic quality, if done well.
As a child and adolescent I was very curious about this life I had been born into and I was something of an adventurer. The things I tried and then mostly abandoned, make interesting reading. As do my new experiences. It was as if I were searching for my true self. It was like a series of exploding pyrotechnics.
In no particular order, the experiences and the areas of enlightenment I encountered, included inter alia, astronomy, quantum mechanics, sex, drugs, booze, canoeing, love affairs, gambling, cycling, rock climbing, poetry, music, graphics, sculpture, fashion, electronics, photography, painting, philately (yes), playing chess, youth clubs, rock concerts, pubs, dances, movies, television, playing guitar, glamour, horse riding, gymnastics, education by nuns, pop festivals, caving, going to the horse races, regattas, archery, snooker, tennis, serving at funerals, a mad mother, glamour queen girlfriends, dropping out of grammar school, motor boating, near death from ball lightning, ten pin bowling, motorbikes, endless seaside trips, exploring crystal clear streams, fun fairs, swarming with the Mods on Lambrettas, roaming the moors, juke box cafés, pinball, theatre, art cinema, funfairs, discos, nightclubs..... and that was all just the beginning, of what would become an extraordinary life. I was a young man totally connected with my time, even before I took up photography. Little did I know at the time, that all of these rich and colourful experiences were the best preliminary programming in the world for an artist. An inspiration and an education in itself.
So photography initially, was just a part of my adventure of self-discovery. I took some snaps with varying degrees of success and then abandoned photography like most of the other things. It was just a curiosity, but nevertheless a magical one. It struck me even as a child of seven, that although preparing photographs well paid off, it was a kind of magic to be able to render an image without effort. Just by pressing a button. But I noticed even then, that if you did so, the pictures were boring. That was my first lesson in an art I would later master..
Fast forward to when I was almost a teenager. I'm at grammar school and someone in my form walks into class brandishing a Kodak Instamatic. I felt an emotion I had never experienced before and never have since.
I knew I had to have one and my parents kindly gave me one for my 13th birthday.
But my good fortune was short lived, as not being used to carrying things of value, I left my new camera on a bus, three weeks later. When it failed to turn up at lost property, I remember being disgusted and astonished that the person who found it, kept it. All people are not created equal I thought.
Two pictures survive from that camera, both of a group of my friends. They are quite interesting, as much to my surprise in retrospect, you can see much creativity there, although this only occurred to me much, much later.
When I was fifteen I was in love with a young lady called Jane, who on hearing my camera sob story, bought me a replacement for my 15th birthday. Gorgeous and generous, how lucky can you get? Just perfect and I photographed my girlfriend constantly. At least a hundred times, as the relationship lasted two and a half years.
The camera Jane gave me however, came in handy for photographing the next love of my life, a glamour queen called Pauline. A handful of the pictures of her survive and she was pivotal in my development as a photographer, although she has no cognisance of that. She loved the pictures I innocently snapped of her. One day she asked me if I would take some pictures of one of her friends, for a model agency. Having no idea I was talented, I just laughed and said "Oh come on, my camera only cost a fiver!" but she fixed me a stare as serious as thunder and came back with
So, with many girlfriends and two love affairs behind me, there was nothing up ahead to get excited about. No job, no girlfriend and no expectations, I was staring at a void.
Inspiration is anticipation of pleasure and with nothing to look forward to, I felt uninspired. So I did a lot of thinking. Jane and Pauline were both my own age and gorgeous young girls. In a small town location, such as my habitat at the time, beautiful girls can be hard to find, even in neighbouring towns. The supply runs short in swift order.
My critical awareness and congenital aesthetic sensibilities, undoubtedly gave me an eye for beautiful girls. School friends would taunt me and say "James won't touch her because she's not the Queen of Sheba". I just laughed and thought them indiscriminate neanderthals. As they were with food. The school dinners were inedible, but 99% of the boys scoffed and gorged them down. I bought food with my school dinner money, at the excellent bakery on the High Street and walked to the park for lunch. You can keep your canteen.
As for choice of girls, boys of little discernable self respect, even had crass, parochial maxims such as 'You have to take the rough with the smooth'. What an utterly worthless, useless and stupid piece of philosophy that was. And is.
So anyway, with nothing much happening in my life, I did a lot of staring into space and thinking. As one does, assuming one has a capacity for such endeavour.
Eventually I took six months off to decide what I was going to do with my life. I would walk and think. Sit and think. Lie on the grass in the park and stare at the sky. And think.
The thought did cross my mind that the education system was and is, seriously flawed. Eleven years of intense schooling and five minutes with some plonker masquerading as a 'careers advisor', to discuss what you are going to do with all that education?! Sheer bloody lunacy. Even from an altruistic standpoint, that is hardly likely to optimise the efficacy of the talent pool. Education has vanished up its own vortex and become a thing in itself. How the hell am I supposed to know what I want to do? I have been taught nothing about potential vocations, never mind professions. I had just been taught tons of crap I would never use. I am 50 years down the line as I write this and still have found no use for calculus or trigonometry. Or Latin.
It took six months of reflection and contemplation, but ultimately I decided I was going to be either a photographer or a rock guitarist. Friends thought I had taken leave of my senses. I didn't care. §It's worth remembering that if people are not supportive of your dreams and visions, they probably aren't your friends, however well you know them. Certainly not friends in the worthy sense of the word. It was for this reason that when I really got going with photography, socialising went out of the window completely for 9 months and I never returned to the local haunts. I saw nobody. Again, so-called friends thought I was behaving in an extreme way, but I wasn't. I wanted no interference, influence, negativity or discouragement of any kind. I would not allow it. No-one was going to stop me, or put me off, they wouldn't get the chance.
But back when I was still deciding my definitive trajectory, in between thinking extensively, I would also lie on the grass in the park and read Shakespeare. Another reason to suppose I'd gone bonkers, apparently. But I liked the Bard. There was something about his natural exuberance which was amiable. As if he knew how good he was and was laughing through the lines. The kind of confidence that always accompanies great achievement. He had the work to back it up. That is always the principal criterion. I thought to myself, that I would like to do something so well, that it made me feel the same. Which photography ultimately did. Cyber art just enhanced it.
Once I had 50% decided my future, I did not hesitate, I started down my chosen dual carriageway immediately. I had no camera or guitar, no teacher, no studios, no darkroom, no connections, no experience, no band to play with and most importantly, no money. Coming from that perspective, you need to be a bit of a dreamer and a believer.
Initially I could not afford a camera at all, but I was keen to learn, so I would go to the local library in Buckfastleigh and read books on photography and the science behind it all. So before I even picked up my first proper single lens reflex camera, I already knew about the structure of the spectrum, the seven optical aberrations and the physics of light. I was something of a technical expert first and the creativity came later. However once I achieved a creative dynamic, this reversed itself and my ideas developed creatively, faster than my ability to technically render them.
Guitars were cheaper than cameras and I managed to find a Vox Phantom guitar, which cost £27. I had a Vox amp as well. Three days a week I would practice guitar, which apart from being painful to one's finger tips, also involved the most unimaginable contortions of the fingers. Like horse riding or skiing, it's not the fun it immediately appears to be.
About 9 months down the road and after much reading about the technical side of photography, I finally got the money together for my first single lens reflex camera, a Praktica Super TL.
It was fine to learn on, but it taught me the importance of engineering excellence in cameras, something it seriously did not have. So I quickly moved to a Nikkormat FTN. Nikon's entry level camera, which was beautifully engineered and boasted the finest lenses.
In the late 60s cameras were considered by the left wing government, items of extreme luxury, like fur coats, and attracted a punitive 55% supertax. So any half worthwhile camera was about 8 weeks average wages.
This is one of the reasons I have such an extraordinarily high batting average. I understand these things well and only create when inspired. I am not a commercial photographer. My introduction to photography was 6 years of creating photo art day and night, which I will come to shortly. Commercial photography has this kind of "Dance monkey!" thing about it, but as I say, inspiration and creativity are not available à la carte. I am an artist and have not set out to create an image for many decades. You do in the beginning, but it is not the best way. True art just happens. No plans. No scripts. No ideas. If I am not inspired, I don't create. I live. And there is to be found inspiration.
So anyway, initially I would go out sporadically, but it became a regular thing and I would go out traveling four days a week, hoping to find stimulating images. It quickly became apparent to me, both from my own assessment and that of others, that I had a natural visual aptitude. People would say things like 'Beautiful composition' or 'Michelangelo lighting' and I seriously had no idea what they were talking about, but it sounded good. Looking back, even though I had no idea what composition was, it is there, even in my earliest snaps. So is creativity, but I was oblivious to both at the time. I had a great enthusiasm to go out with a camera, but I always somewhat dreaded the painful rigours of learning to do bar chords on a guitar.
Epiphany 1 - Time To Fork Off
I realise looking back, that I am something of an acute character, although obviously it feels normal to me. I either do nothing or do it to the nth degree. I don't do things in half measures. The first journalist that ever came to visit me down in Devon, back in 1974, described me as 'intense' and 'analytical'. Probably about right. Yet despite my tendency to quickly gravitate to all or nothing, I was paradoxically doing the exact opposite in progressing my photography and music in parallel. I was driving two cars at once. If this is at all possible, it means you don't drive either car particularly well. Likely quite badly, so one day it just hit me: photography was fun and music was a pain. So music's loss was art's gain. Photography is vastly more technical than music, but has many advantages. You don't need to collaborate with others and I seriously wanted to get on with things. Go my own way.
Music and movies are very much art by committee in a sense and this eventually leads to mediocrity as individual egos jostle for prominence. This inevitably leads, in the case of music, to the rock band splitting up and bang goes the initial alchemy. The music business is littered with such inevitable disasters. Movies almost invariably have too many fingers in the pie and competing egos on both sides of the camera, invariably results in mediocrity. Budgets also constrict and invariably cause a gravitational pull to mediocrity, as everyone plays it safe to ensure good box office. The billions ploughed into mediocrity by Hollywood simply beggars belief. This is what happens when the tail wags the dog and money calls the shots. Simply put, the more people sat around a table, the more mediocre the decisions. The corollary of that, is that the ultimate creator is an individual. With no assistants.
I wanted an absolutely individual expression, no other person could mitigate, augment, diminish or interfere with. Pure art. All my own work. A simple but very beautiful idea. So one day I just made a decision and literally everything other than photography went out of the window. I became utterly and completed obsessed with photography. This was not just intense commitment, more like a raging fire of passion. As one astute journalist put it at the time, "He is devoted to photography. He does nothing else!".
So dramatic fork in the road though it was, I never once, even for a single moment, looked back in anger. Or indeed looked back at all. I never, ever thought, I took the wrong direction. I didn't.
Epiphany 2 - Be Yourself And Never Look Back
This clarity of vision induced by removing all the clutterjunk (Elliottonian word) from my life and focusing on the central issue, worked wonders and was completely cathartic. After this point I made incredibly rapid progress artistically and technically. I photographed intensely in black and white initially and subsequently in colour. Neither could I afford printing, so I just developed and contact printed my films. In 1971 I created my first darkroom. On its completion I printed for a month non stop, eager to see the fruits of my labours. I printed about 200 photographs, two years work, all enlarged to 10 x 8 inches (25 x 20 cm), which I thought was large at the time. I was used to prints of about 4 to 6 inches. Today,16 inches (30cm) is the smallest size I would consider. After processing, washing and drying all the monochrome prints, I laid them out all over the floor of my Darkstudio.
I remember well, glowing with pride over my first accomplishments, but such spiritual elation was to be short lived indeed. Over the next few days I would go in and view them. On day two I felt a certain relief I could finally afford to enlarge my work and had the facilities. On day three, I wasn't quite so sure about my work. The following day, I took one look at them and then took them outside and burnt them all. With the exception of a small handful of images which I kept, considering them 'not too awful'. On the following few days I tried to figure out what had happened. I kept viewing the single figure number of pieces I had kept to one side and wondered why exactly, they too, did not go to the bonfire.
Suddenly I had an epiphany and realised the ones I had kept showed originality and said something about myself and my view of the world. And they had substance. The rest of it was banal. As trite as contemporary art. I had not for the most part taken my own photographs, but rather, those I thought other people would like. All the tropes and clichés.
From that day forward I swore that never again would I create a photograph which was not true to myself.
Although to the casual observer, destroying the bulk of one's canon may been seen as destructive, the reverse is actually true. It is a huge creative leap forwards, as it means you have an objective critical awareness. It means you will not tolerate mediocrity. With this, one can progress.
What happens 99.9% of the time with fledgling artists, is that they over-rate their early work. Why wouldn't they? They are the ones who spent all the time and effort creating it. But unless they can detach themselves from their own idealised subjectivity, they never learn how to make a critical judgment. Of course many argue that one can never detach oneself completely from subjectivity, but that is not so. We are not automatons. We are perfectly capable of self analysis and objective comparisons. I am anyway, but there is just one caveat: you must tell yourself the truth. Be honest about your evaluations. Your triumphs and disasters. Critical objectivity is a sine qua non.
By far the best way to develop critical awareness is to be totally connected with the times and take a global overview. Take also a historical overview. Find out what has already been done, in both a contemporary and historical context.
Initially, in my teens, I did not perceive myself as being especially creative, but I did always have this extraordinary critical ability, which gave me an ability to finely distinguish between similar things. I think the former was and is perspicacity and the latter, perfectionism.
Later, in my twenties, when I started to discover other artists, I always had the critical ability to judge them and say 'These Picassos are good, but the overwhelming majority are rubbish.' This was a gift from the Gods and it came with the unequivocal understanding that one's observations are not just opinions. It is a matter of perception and critical thinking, which is quite different.
The great thing about perspicacity and critical perfectionism, is that from them, emanate a wellspring of creativity. Perhaps if I had a third gift, it would be my critical analytical ability to see when something is genuine and to see through hyperbole and bollocks. I question everything. How else does one arrive at the truth? I analyse all information presented to me and question its integrity. I do not accept new information passively. This has served me well in the art world, which is like a jungle of discombobulated half truths. You need to cut your way through all that, if you are ever to create great work.
Apotheosis of the nonentity is commonplace and many are the impostors. The art world has an infinite capacity for bullshit. Fortunately, in a way, the pretentious bombast reached me, even before the art itself. I grew up in a place where art simply was not part of the discourse. Music, theatre and cinema yes, but not visual art. Deep in darkest Devonia, there were no local galleries and no-one spoke of art. Hence my tremendous originality. No contamination.
I think it is important to mention that I went into photography out of the blue. I did not see the work of this or that photographer and become inspired. On the contrary, I didn't know of any photographers. I knew very little about art. Very little indeed. I could write what I knew about art on the back of my hand. Looking back though, how totally perfect.
When 'Vincent' by Don McLean came out in 1971, I thought it was incredible. Sheer genius. Better than the best poetry. Every line had been perfected. And beautifully enunciated, too. It's the only music I ever stopped the car for. That was the creative intensity I wanted in art. It's there in songs like 'Stairway to Heaven' by Led Zeppelin, as well. But it's rare as hell. It's when heightened creativity reaches the spiritual. Anyway McLean led me to discover Van Goghs work, but like Picasso whom I was vaguely aware of, it wasn't upper echelon to me. So in the early 70s that was all I knew about art, until I discovered Dali in 1974.
Back at grammar school as a teenager, I would amuse a group of friends by holding up both hands at ten to two, to stop the group in their tracks and then I would announce, "I think I am going to make this an original". And then I would leap forward and sign a wall, a post or any random object I set my eyes upon. Even at 15, I was already mocking the piss elegance of conceptual art. Good sign. Even though I did not yet know what it was. That displeasure came later.
Epiphany 3 - Plagiarism is for Pretenders
My mistake with my early photographs had been to emulate others with my monochrome snaps. As I say 'observational recording'. So they looked rather banal and barely distinguishable from the work of many other photographers. So they are best gone up in flames.
Needs must when the devil drives. hahahaha.....
I swore I would NEVER, EVER plagiarise, any other artist. Great art emanates from a place, deep down in the soul of the artist, not that of others. I made an absolute commitment, that if I could see an influence in my work, I would destroy it. Years later when I studied, pondered and analysed psychology and philosophy, I made many new distinctions. This included exactly why creative copies of an original are always a bit flat and never somehow capture the magic of the original. It is because with the original there is a great feeling of what one might term 'the spiritual elation of discovery'. It's like a 'Eureka' moment! This only occurs when one discovers something original and brilliant. When someone does a copy of an image or a cover version of a song, such elation of discovery is absent, so copies invariably look or sound flat. Exceptions to this are rare.
So why doesn't everyone just create their own original art?
Because it takes tremendous strength and courage to be yourself as an artist. It's like throwing your soul on the table! Letting people know who you are, without the mask, takes great courage. It's like letting people look around inside your head. Remember, the word 'persona' means 'actor's mask'. People do not normally present their true self to the world, but to create great art you must! It is a sine qua non!
Epiphany 4 - The Revelation & Great Epiphany
I can still remember exactly where I was standing, next to my enlarger, in my purple and lilac darkstudio down in the West Country, the day a revelation flashed across my mind. I had done enough to comprehend that photography had a truly MASSIVE potential as art, but it wasn't being used. I describe this epiphany on my 2009 video 'Revolution Innovation Evolution'. The following is a verbatim transcript of the opening monologue:
"Imagine if you will, you are strolling along the seashore of this far flung paradisiacal location and you are gazing up at the azure skies and staring out at the turquoise sea, feeling the warm, golden sand under your feet as you walk along, when suddenly you stumble across a huge treasure chest of diamonds and you start looking around furtively and thinking to yourself, "Oh my God! Nobody has seen it!" and it just makes you want to take it and run with it.
Now that metaphorically, is exactly how I felt when I came into the medium of photography as an artist. I got this incredible feeling that I had been born synchronised with the dawning of a new medium and that inspired me so much I went into this incredible work fit where I just worked day and night for about five or six years and everything else went out of the window, socialising went out of the window, playing guitar went out of the window..... the only time I took off was to see my girlfriend and apart from that I just lived and breathed photography and created these amazing works of art. which, when I look back on it was a pretty crazy thing to do because the world and his wife didn't think photography was art."
By 1971 I already knew the history of photography right back to the camera obscura, hundreds of years ago, so I knew its artistic heritage. Back in the day few did. And I was rapidly gaining a pretty good picture of where photography was in world terms. I had a good global overview of the state of the art, which of course, no-one thought it was. I knew they were all wrong and more than this, I actually thought it had the potential to be more powerful than all the other visual arts, because of its verisimilitude. This simply made it more powerful, but it was not being taken seriously by artists.
There was every kind of photographer one could think of, but they were all, however high end, guns for hire. I love art and I like money, but to mix the two is foolish. You can't be a virgin and a whore at the same time.
There were portrait photographers, fashion photographers, advertising photographers, wedding photographers, photojournalists, documentary photographers, war photographers, landscape photographers....... but you wouldn't call them artists, however upmarket they were. Nowhere, even globally could one point and say 'Here are a group of photo artists'. They just weren't there. How could there be? There was no infrastructure. No photo galleries, no collectors, no auction market.
All epiphanies occur by observing something relatively small and extrapolating the possibilities. I had done enough original and highly creative photography, to realise its true potential was exponentially greater than what I had so far done and more importantly, n times what had been done historically.
Epiphany 5 - Delving Down Deeper & Down
O.K. so the first thing I wanted to do with photography, was to free it from its chains. It seemed to me as if it was gagged and bound to this beautiful machine, which imposed upon it a certain rigidity. Photography back then was not at all fluid, like it is today, with the advent of digital imaging, which literally enables greater control than a painter. So I wanted to know what the parameters and possibilities were, as I appeared to have an extraordinary imagination. Which perhaps fed off that myriad of experiences I mentioned earlier. Without experience you cannot imagine. If you doubt what I say, try to imagine a colour outside the spectrum. You can't. You will simply multiply and combine existing data. If you do this enough you will arrive at something original, but it is still based on what you have experienced. And of course eventually even your imagined, dreamed or hallucinated experiences become part of one's references. Many states of consciousness contribute to experience.
So anyway, I began to delve the depths and discover what photography was made of. There were obvious things like colour, composition, timing, substance, lighting and perspective, but I wanted to delve deeper.
I knew instinctively that if photography was to become the powerful new fine art of today and tomorrow, it would first need to move from black and white to colour. And secondly it would need to move beyond observational recording, to a higher level of creativity. I immediately engaged with both. Also my art would increasingly become imagery pulled straight out of my imagination and no longer be primarily a form of creative observational recording.
I first experimented with perspective and the importance of viewpoint, by acquiring various lenses. Despite the beauty of stacked perspective as in 'Rooftops' (q.v), I decided very swiftly that I liked the normal to wide angle viewpoint. It had more drama, I thought. Less voyeuristic, more in situ.
Next I started to box clever with imagery unique to the medium of photography.
Photography tells beautiful lies and it tells horrible lies, but it rarely tells the truth.
It's an art form, so you can make it say what you want.
Well if you master it you can control it and make it say what you want. It's a bit like language. Everyone speaks and expresses something or other with various degrees of eloquence and laconicism. But when it reaches a certain level of creativity, writing becomes literature, poetry and art. Photography today is used mostly for vanity snapshots on social media, the modern form of photo album. A form of visual diary and self promotion, which is no more art than a the average written dairy is literature.
Anyway my seascape 'The Beauty Of LIght', was basically polychromatic, time lapse photography, using the spectrum split down into red, green and blue. This is where all those endless hours of technical study in the local library started to pay off. I had used poverty to my advantage. A philosophical lesson in itself. I remember being ecstatic when I saw the result, as in some small way, I had broken through the rigidity of photography and created something which, fifty years on, I still find breathtakingly beautiful. Is this a beautiful lie or a complicated truth? Either way, in an age of black and white observational recording, it was a real creative break-through.
Apart from perspective stacking, time lapse and infra red, I also experimented with desynchronised flash, shadow coloration, colour filters, flash coloration, long exposures, atmospheric lighting and so on, but a significant change came when I started to introduce elements of my own creation into the images, whilst combining this with advanced techniques. A great example of this is 'Angel Of Darkness' of 1972, where I first created the 'death watch'. Then using desynchronised flash and colouring it purple. I let the background symbolically fall into darkness.
This is of course, pulling ideas straight out of my imagination but using existing landscapes and scenarios. From there I very quickly transitioned to sculpting and painting the entire scenario for the camera. So this led rapidly to my first 'Symphony For The Camera' which is entitled 'Infinity & Eternity' 1972.
Epiphany 6 - Prolificacy Is The Antithesis Of Excellence
When I started to learn more about other artists and photographers, nothing would make me groan more than a photographer boasting a canon of 100,000 exposures. I remember thinking "Any good ones?".
Prolificacy is the hallmark of those who lack discernment.
Many years later I discovered that Picasso made 43,000 works. I wondered if that was why so many were so bad. Warhol made an extraordinary number and again, most are bad. Yet still imbecilic writers and journalists would speak of this prolificacy as if it were a glowing testimonial to an artist's abundant talent. It's nothing of the sort. It's called over-rating yourself.
I remember an art dealer boasting, "Of course, Picasso could do a painting in 12 minutes...."
As for my own output, by 1973 I was in the 3rd year of my seven year work fit and as I became more confident, I produced more successful work. I very soon realised however, that to do great things to a high standard, takes a lot of time. So in the following year, despite working even longer hours, my prolificacy dropped, but the quality shot up. I was just focusing more and more energy into a single piece. So I realised quickly that the thing to do was to create very few, very fine images.
Quality and quantity may envy each other but they have never met.
I made a decision in 1974 to give every picture whatever it takes in terms of time, money and effort, to perfect it. In one move I raised the quality of everything I did. This is something being an artist photographer very much allows, but commercial photography does not. The latter also restricts subject matter as there is the commercial reputation to consider. You wouldn't want anything too exciting. Commercial photography is a bit like creating catchy pop songs. It's fine, but after a while, you just need some real music. Fine art is one of the last bastions of freedom and there are no such limitations. And the key thing is one can innovate, which is really my forté.
It was not my intention to create such a round number of images. It was pure fluke. That was the yield from my devoted labours and I never did anything other than photo art and later, cyber art. Apart from making my canon the smallest and most exclusive in photography, probably ever, it is also a colossal achievement. A truly Herculean effort. The level of innovation, originality and creativity is unparalleled and I would be quite happy to write that down and sign it for you.
There are often multiple levels of innovation in a single image. Remember, a magnum opus like 'Superchromatic Spectrosynthesis' takes 407 hours of work to create - an entire summer! When you set the bar that high you can forget about prolificacy. And you should.
In my quest to overcome the rigidity of photography, I invented and incorporated many wild and wonderful new techniques, to carry out my ideas. Four of these were 'Shadow Colouration', 'Optical Light Masking', 'Introducing Creative Objects' and 'Split Exposures'. I used all four of these together in the widely loved classic, 'Remorse' of 1974. It took me a month to make my optical light masking device, which enabled me to remove the rest of the body with split exposures. Don't confuse this with double exposures. My device was like a small camera obscura which fitted around the camera, with masks at the front end. It could be mounted on a tripod. This required absolute rigidity to obtain zero movement, essential for registration of multiple exposures.
Secondly, I created and painted the white cross, which was then introduced in situ. This was to symbolically say 'church' and not 'castle'. It is essential that images 'read' properly. Finally my superb Optical Light Masking Device, enabled me to remove the actual person, via deft split exposures. The hand is in fact mine. It was all done on delayed action. This extraordinary device, now long gone, gives the smooth gradation on the arm, which is impossible with a cut and paste montage. A perfect impression of a body shaking off its mortal coil.
By the beginning of 1974 I was spending a huge amount of time on individual pictures and by the time I finished them I thought it would be apposite to give them a title. This was an unusual move as it was not the done thing with photography. The overwhelming majority of photographs were not titled at all. They were just given prosaic descriptions such as the location or the patently obvious subject matter. Worse yet was the ubiquitous 'Untitled', which is really just another way of saying you couldn't really be bothered. And it somehow suggests you are not serious about your work.
There are a number of innovations with my early titles and this developed over the years to the point where the titles in themselves are very much a part of the creativity. Initially I just titled everything in a creative way.
With 'Metasphere' and 'Pseudosynthesis', I knew the images were totally original, so I wanted the actual words to be totally original as well, so I created them. Titular creativity became a hallmark of the canon, as with 'Superchromatic Spectrosynthesis' and later 'Ultrametamorphica Supercybersynthesis'. Which are of course, Elliottonian words. Other innovations were the visual title, 'Voy(Ag)eur' and recently 'The Perpetually Perplexing Complexity of Physicality', where each succeeding word contains a part of the previous word.
I also experimented very much with euphony in titles like 'Kiss On Frosted Glass' which just rolls of the tongue and is a pleasure to say. It also has a repetitive sibilant quality which increases its effectiveness. I also love to use alliteration. It seems to me to be a form of order, which is the essence of beauty. If used creatively it is not a fault. I also use ambiguous or multiple meaning as in 'White Lady In Ruins' or 'Under Grave Snow'. In the interests of creativity, I would always break the rules rather than be a paragon of gramatical rectitude. When the talk gets around to tautology and split infinitives, my eyelids get heavy. Just how boring do you have to be for such things to be important?!
The complex titular innovations in the canon are too numerous and varied, for full discussion here. So I will mention but the relevant few.
Titles generally, often present themselves to me automatically, when I see the result. In earlier work, when I invented ideas first and then executed them, I often had the title before I even started work on it. This is evident from my diaries. But sometimes, on occasions, a title can seem impossible to find and literally hundreds of names are considered. I find it extremely easy to make up titles and yet sometimes the perfect synergy can just elude you. You spend days thinking about it. Fortunately that is the exception rather than the rule, but although one might have hundreds of titles for a picture, rather like creating art itself, you are always searching for that magical quality. And on occasion it does seem very hard to find. You can have 200 hundred titles and not one is intrinsically right. When this happens I know that if I abandon the search, the subconscious will present the perfect title in due course. When I stop thinking about it.
Everything in the canon is titled, but some examples of early photography titles are:
The Solemn Sleeping Silence Of Snow 1968
The later part of the canon has even more evolved and innovative titles, once again expanding the boundaries:
Ultrametamorphica Supercybersynthsis 1999-2001
Et voila! I think I can reasonably claim to have made a little art out of titling.
Epiphany 7 - Expanding Expectations
Sometime after I created 'Remorse' in 1974, I was in Plymouth looking for a poster for my darkstudio window shutter. The latter was about a meter square and flat, so it was just aching for an image. I was flipping through a horizontal, eye level poster rack, so arranged that one could flip through the posters like the pages of a giant book. I inadvertently came across a poster of a painting by Salvador Dali. An artist I was unaware of at the time, so it was the first time I had seen one of his works. I thought it was incredible and of a power and intelligence I had not seen before in art. I immediately saw the genius in that. It was his classic 'Sleep', painted in 1937, but not looking a day older. I had never seen art of that strength before. Time would teach me such talent was unbelievably rare. Before I left, I bought a poster of Brigitte Bardot for the window shutter. I had always been a glamour junkie. I still am.
By this time I was already an artist and I had already created some great things like 'Infinity & Eternity' (q.v.), 'Remorse' (q.v.) and 'Claustrophobia', so my trajectory was already set. For this reason Dali did not influence me visually very much. By 1974 my metamorphosis to being an artist had been rapid. Things usually progress rapidly when you are devoted to them day and night.
I understood immediately, that the reason Photography was not considered the leading fine art, was because the principal protagonists were not artists of that calibre. Photography had not historically attracted artists of that stature. And I decided in that moment, that this was exactly what I would become. I would create the first canon of Photo Art which could be held up against ANY artist living or dead and it would hold its own. And I would not imitate anyone. I would become nothing but Elliott.
I had previously, consciously decided to eschew all influences, as mentioned. I knew perfectly well I was capable of great originality, I had already proved it, so I had no reason to emulate Dali, but he still taught me a great deal. Things which shaped the future of my art. First he impressed upon me the importance of creative supremacy and technical virtuosity. One or the other will not do. Technical mastery is sadly lacking in most art today. The other thing Dali gave me was that I immediately wanted to create art of that stature and quality. Perhaps in isolated instances I already had, but I wanted to achieve that supreme level of art with great consistency. As indeed, Dali already had. His batting average, I later discovered was really quite extraordinary. As mine would become.
It is worth pointing out, that I considered what I was doing highly secretive, so I did not employ assistants, who undoubtedly would have copied my creative ideas and technical discoveries. Also, I had this obsession with a masterpiece being 'all my own work'. I didn't want assistantpieces (Elliottonian word). 'In Peace' is not a montage by the way. Everything in those days was done in camera using ultra sophisticated techniques. This gave my art a perfection and authenticity, lacking in images by other photographers who used montage or techniques 'done in post'. Montage always looks fake as some small anomalous detail, always gives it away.
With 'In Peace' I got the lighting exactly right, too. I wanted it to feel like 'a diamond on black velvet' and I achieved exactly that. It is highly likely, although I did not realise it at the time, that it was inspired by my actual subterranean exploration as a child, in real caves (as opposed to tourist ones). The caves went under the graveyard with the dead buried above on high. Strange thought. I had thus actually seen stalactites and stalagmites. The experience thing coming into play again.
A year earlier I had heard a beautiful piece of music on Westward Television and had written to them requesting information regarding it's authorship. They kindly replied stating it was called 'Buried Alive'. This turned out to be misinformation and it was actually the wonderfully poetic "Days Of Pearly Spencer" by David MacWilliams. The 'Buried Alive' title stuck with me though and shortly afterwards I created a piece called 'Requiem', on the same theme. But 'In Peace' of the following year was an exponentially greater masterpiece. I was so thrilled with my picture that it was the first piece I ever framed and hung on the wall in 1974. A 20 inch Cibachrome print.
There is no doubt in my mind, that from an artistic standpoint 'Metasphere' was the most revolutionary photograph of the 20th century. It turned photography on it's head. No artist had ever accomplished the same degree of creative control and mastery. Whilst the world orchestrated their cameras for reality, I orchestrated reality for the camera. The whole image was pulled out of my creative imagination and created by my own hands.
The title I coined as I wanted everything to be original, so 'meta' as a prefix means 'beyond' and I combined this with 'sphere'. It was inspired by a psychological feeling I sometimes get when I look at reality and only partly comprehend what it is. I mean at the deepest level. I intellectually know what everything is, obviously. But if you stripped everything of its familiarity and nomenclature, what is it then? Well it is an extraordinary and in some ways perplexing physicality. So that's what I created. Something which obviously is something, but you don't know what. Which is really what the whole of the world is, without the fog of familiarity.
All the foregoing images were created in my fine art studios in the West Country of England. They are pure art and there was no-one anywhere in the world devoting their life to the advancement of photography in this way. Progressing it as an art. Indeed no-one thought it was an art. I not only knew it was, I was providing the proof constantly, by raising the creative bar higher and higher. I wasn't going to create a cheap style, I was going to innovate every time.
It marked the end of the 'Obsession Era' or work fit, as I sometimes call it, which had just been total dedication. From 1970, my photography progressively built up a dynamic into an obsession and from then through to 1977, when I left for London, I had done nothing but create photography as fine art day and night. One studio had become three and the whole thing had been an exhilarating day and night roller coaster ride. It has to be said, I was unaware of anyone working in parallel, even globally, doing anything similar in the domain of art. Even today with a superior grasp of global photography, I still don't see anyone in a creative parallel. Although since I began others have become artist photographers and been influenced by my art. In the beginning, I did feel like a lone voice in the wilderness, howling into oblivion.
Tiny Unique World Editions Of Originals And One-Offs
Very few Ferrari owners can own an Elliott original. The illustrious car manufacturer creates about 8,000 cars a year. I create 10 works of art a year. This is unique. Masterpieces take time. It has taken 50 years to create 500 works to my meticulous standards. Photographers normally make hundreds of thousands of exposures.
When I started out as an artist photographer, nobody collected photography. I immediately identified that it was essential to strictly limit the number of originals. Increasing numbers would decrease value given the same demand. So I innovated something radical. I decided to release either one or a tiny edition of originals, with a maximum of ten.
This was unheard of.
Photographers of the day would breathtakingly announce an edition of 1500 or at least 250, as they saw their work as glorified posters or at best lithographs. The difference with me was that I didn't see any difference between my photographic masterpieces and an oil painting. Also I decided to print all my own colour, which on the darkroom side is incredibly rare.
About half of the canon, which comprises 500 works, are one-offs or editions of 2. By far the most common edition is ONE. Only 20 images were created in editions of 10. The other 96% are smaller, single figure editions. My average edition incidentally is around 3. So the rarity factor is extraordinary.
Back in 1970 an edition from one to ten was radical, but over the ensuing decades others started to copy this approach so in 1988 I innovated single figures only, from one to eight.
In 2007, I upped the ante again with the maximum edition size reduced to 4, with the minimum still one.
This is where I still am with it in 2020.
It's worth mentioning that I create Unique World Editions of Originals.
I think a number of originals are better than one, as there is a greater chance of a masterpiece surviving.
Also, look at it this way. Back when Dali painted 'Sleep' in 1937, the world population was 2 billion. Today it is 8 billion, so if I make an edition of 3, it is rarer than the single Dali painting was at the time.
And remember, a 500 work canon from a lifetime's devotion to art, is an even greater rarity factor. My exacting standards make prolificacy impossible. Picasso made 43,000 works. Most of them best forgotten. But the numbers are an interesting comparison.
I call my works 'originals' as when an edition of sculptures are cast in a foundry, anything less than 12 are called originals, not multiples, so my nomenclature is taken from that. Such sculptures vary a little or a lot from one to the other. So do my photographs. Sometimes prints within my edition of originals vary a lot. They are individually hand crafted by myself, often at different times and they can even be different sizes within the same edition. This makes my originals much rarer and much more unique than the average large edition 'banged off at the lab'. My masterpieces are meticulously and individually crafted.
I have hand printed every single image, whether colour darkroom or lightroom. This is the ultimate photograph one can acquire. Colour darkroom prints by the artist are extremely rare, due to the high technical ability required and the sheer cost of hand printing colour darkroom prints in small quantities. I owned and used colour darkroom equipment which cost the equivalent of a Ferrari.
Most photographers today issue multiple editions in different sizes or processes. I don't do that. The number I state is the number there are. And there are no proofs either. As I said, these are originals, not just prints.
Back when I started there were no galleries and zero auction market for contemporary photography. Photographs began to sell around 1969, but only vintage victorian stuff. The first photo gallery to open in the U.K. was the state funded Photographers Gallery which opened in 1971, but given its dreary paymaster, always had a really awful political bias. It was also a bit of a disappointment architecturally speaking. It was in the then run down Covent Garden. Let's just say the premises were 'unpretentious' and as uninspiring as the work on show. The second gallery to open in the U.K. was the prestigious Pentax Gallery in Mayfair which being independent had a more exciting agenda and showed more adventurous work.
The day I arrived in London I had a one man show at the Pentax Gallery. It drew critical acclaim. I was the first time work anything like mine had been shown to the public.
From my studio in Regent Street which overlooked Oxford Circus, my photographic art continued to develop, with many new trajectories. Images like for example, 'The Cracked Plastic Hat'.
The Emergence Of Erotic Art
When I started as an artist photographer, in the first decade of my work, there is no erotica. This was a deliberate decision. Eventually though, I increasingly thought it was hypocritical to exclude it. So I decided that were I to engage with erotica I wanted any such work to match the standards of my existing innovative 10 year canon. The thing which struck me about the erotic photography of the day, was that it wasn't either art, or indeed, particularly erotic. It had this kind of awful formality to it. I decided that my erotica would have to be as much works of Art as anything else I had done. And just as pioneering.
In 1983 and 1984 I created around twelve new erotic works in total and nothing else, with the exception of 'Kiss On Frosted Glass' 1984. All the pictures became famous and appeared countless times across the globe, with 'Kiss' becoming a widely published classic.
My diary for 1984 notes that on the day I completed 'Kiss On Frosted Glass', I built the wall for 'Streetwalker Blues', which became an erotic classic. This pioneering fetish erotica was as fresh and pioneering as the rest of my work. I wanted to up the ante in another field and succeeded in doing exactly that. The erotica continues to this day but it is a smaller part of the canon, probably about a third of it. I have always been a glamour junkie. And in an age where the Art Of Glamour has virtually disappeared, we need as much as much of it as we can get.
The most difficult aspect of creating 'Streetwalker Blues' was giving it a sense of dynamic spontaneity, which was not easy. Most of the 30 exposures were junk, but I achieved exactly the right dynamism towards the very end of the shoot. This was achieved in part by giving the picture a diagonal composition, which basically runs from top right to bottom left of frame. The strange thing about the dynamic of a shoot is that you build up a momentum until you reach an absolute climax and it is very common for the masterpiece to be last exposure on the roll of film or the penultimate. You subconsciously know when you have got it. I don't know how, but you just do.
There is nothing like moving studio to usher in new changes in one's life. After leaving my studio at Oxford Circus, in Regent Street, I had created a studio deep in darkest Cricklewood. I would in turn leave this location in 1986 and move to a new, largest ever studio in Belsize Park. The eponymous road not the area. The last two pictures I created in Cricklewood were both extremely important pieces. The penultimate piece was 'The Inevitability Of Circumstance (And The Fall Of The Dice)' of 1987. The later date is due to later completion, not actual shooting date, which was 1986.
'Inev Circ' as I referred to it, was an extraordinarily difficult piece to create and its creation is very well documented. Inspired by a tragic event I saw at the time, which caused me to ponder the philosophical riddle of Divine order versus random circumstance and chaos. Every cross has been offset using a positioning jig, so that from the camera viewpoint they all appear central. Normally the crosses would have progressively become obscured.
The multiple crosses are redolent of war graves. The lady is dressed in the attire of an executioner or a dominatrix and her expression is one of complete abandonment. Eyes closed, she does not want to see her destiny. One she is unable to avoid. An expression of resignation to one's fate. The dice formed a circle around her head be pure fluke. Pure circumstance. Set in motion but apparently uncontrollable. The cosmic joker laughs back.
15 years of living and breathing the pioneering of photography as fine art is a long time and although my photography would continue, I felt that I had accomplished what I had set out to do in photography. Indeed, I had far exceeded my expectations. I had consistently created things well beyond my self perceived capabilities.
In the late Eighties, digital imaging was in some ways, rather like photography a couple of decades earlier, reaching acceptable levels of quality, for artistic consideration by those with any kind of seriousness of intent. So I instinctively knew that the opportunities for the future exploration of the visual domain would be found, in the then terra incognita of computers. It was there that the new visual forms would be found. I would not abandon photography for cyber art, but rather, blend the two and progress them in parallel. I would also continue pure photography and pure cyber art. Photography without cyber art and cyber art without photography. And every possible cocktail in between. This, I felt would be the territory where the new visual forms of the future would be discovered.
Considering what I would go on to create, I think I extrapolated with considerable accuracy. Despite a world view which was ante, my early belief in digital was very much vindicated. As the BJP noted in 1995 "Elliott speaks intelligently about his life and work and presents the best case BJP has yet heard, as to why digital cannot be ignored."
I can still remember exactly where I was sat in Greencroft Gardens, 25 years after I took up photography seriously, when I realised for the first time that I had accomplished my artistic ambitions. This was something of a surprise, as a part of me never really thought I would, considering how high I set the bar.
There was now enough work of stature in the canon that you could hold it up against art in any field and it would at the very least hold its own. It was a quarter of a century of 70 hour weeks later, but that I had done what I set out to do, was beyond any shadow of a doubt. The work was just there, staring back at me. The mistake I had made 25 years earlier was in not realising that Dali had fifty years on me, in terms of experience and I was just beginning. How on Earth I didn't perceive that patently obvious fact, completely escapes me.
It's funny in some ways, because after years and years of not really believing I would ever get there and being totally aware that after a quarter of a century of being honest with yourself, you cannot suddenly lapse and lie to yourself, I was genuinely surprised to have reached that level. I had also pioneered the two most powerful new visual art forms in history, photography and cyber art. And way ahead of the pack. And I also had a mastery of colour and composition, the Dalis and Picassos simply did not have. So in more ways than one I had exceeded my aspirations, even more so my expectations. The work I created after the mid Nineties, year on year simply confirmed and consolidated my view. It reached ever greater heights of creativity which I could not even have imagined.
Perhaps the most important thing I did was to raise the level of creativity in Photography and Cyber Art to the point where only a fool would doubt its authenticity as fine art. And it has to be said, in 50 years, not a single person has ever refuted my work as art. On the contrary, comments like the following are common:
'Your work is the bridge between photography and fine art'
'You take photography some place else''
'You are the voice of a new generation'
'There's nothing this interesting going on in either art or photography.'
'I went in with a question.... is it art? I came out with a question..... what else could it be...?'
So even the skeptics were changing their minds.
It should be noted that Photography as an artistic medium took an awfully long time to evolve, even from a technical standpoint. For example, it was not until the mid Sixties that colour rendition and longevity reached a high enough standard for any serious artist to consider. The arrival of Cibachrome, initially named Cilchrome and later Ilfochrome, was the first generally available print material, with good longevity. The 3 names differ but they were all based on the same principle. The silver dye bleach process, which was also the first to reasonably render colour accurately. It was a material I would use extensively for decades up until digital printers became superior.
I printed all my own colour right from the beginning and have done so for more than 50 years. You have to if you want the ultimate in quality. Commercial printers are exactly that, commercial. And in a commercial lab prints are done to a certain time frame and to a certain standard. Compromises are made for economic reasons. I know this from experience with even the most expensive labs. Their raison d'etre is profit, not art. As an artist you can lavish an unlimited amount of time, effort and money to your art and your printing. This is not possible in a commercial environment.
Cibachrome technology evolved over many years, from Cilchrome being a material exposed via separate red, green and blue light exposures, to the more evolved version of Cibachrome which used white light and simplified one shot processing. A real breakthrough. So by 1973 was it was highly usable and of very high quality. This timing coincided rather nicely with my development as a photographer.
I have often said that had I been born a decade earlier, I would not have pioneered photography as fine art. The technology would not have been good enough.
It was indeed fortuitous that I was born synchronised with the dawning of a new medium. Both technically and creatively. One tends to go with the other.
If we take Niepce as the inventor of photography, well it took the best part of a century and a half to evolve photography into a full colour medium, suitable for consideration by serious artists. No artist wants their masterpiece to fade after a couple of years. Niether would they want to spend ages mixing shades of paint, as I do, only to have their masterpiece rendered in a somewhat different shade. One needs accuracy and stability. Both are a sine qua non.
There was no way a black and white photograph could compete with a full colour oil painting. If you don't believe me, try a vox pop. My generation would 'boo' and jeer loudly when confronted with the realisation that the film they had paid to see, was about to be screened in dull as drizzle black-and-white.
Sure photographs can look great in black and white, it's just that they look far better in colour, if the latter is used well. And there's the rub, few people use colour well, they just don't know what to do with it. That is a complete area of mastery in itself. Black-and-white was photography's technological work in progress. It was not intended to be an end point. If they could have got to colour first they would have done. The other thing is, without wanting to state the obvious, colour includes black and white but black and white does not include colour. There even exists today artificial intelligence software which attempts, with varying degrees of veracity to turn black and white into colour. Why would that exist? Patently because virtually everyone thinks colour is better.
Back when I started, there was a saying amongst keen photographers that black-and-white was serious and colour was commercial. That would definitely be a top contender for my 'stupidest things I ever heard' hierarchy.
Perhaps only eclipsed by the stultifying, ridiculous lie that 'anything can be art'.
Written by JAMES ELLIOTT
12,990 words with 32 Fabadoodle Illustrations
At Abbey Road, London, United Kingdom
© JAMES ELLIOTT 2020