The Story Of 'Remorse' 1974 by James Elliott
Contains a small amount of strong language (like Shakespeare and The Bible).
'Remorse' was pure alchemy, like a magician conjuring an image out of the ether.
Countless people have asked how I did it. Now there's a question.
Even when I tell them, it produces a blank stare.
They also ask, "Where do you get your ideas from?". As if I bought them in a shop somewhere.
Now there's an even bigger question.
People search for happiness in the same way, as if it were something you could find under a rock somewhere.
Not realising it is within. As are ideas.
My influences, anyway. What were they? Where did they come from?
I grew up in the West Country of England, where art isn't really part of the social discourse. The only photographers in Dear Devonia, were the commercial High Street horses for hire. Jobsworths and hacks. I knew nothing about painting or contemporary art and even less about photography. And what scant acquaintance I had, was either uninspiring or completely unedifying. Thank the Gods for my ignorance! It's always a good place to start. I was free of contamination. Free to evolve in a pure and natural kind of way.
In retrospect, my first influences, were the gorgeous girlfriends I had as a teenager. My first love at 15, I must have photographed a hundred times. Alas, two and a half years later, when the love affair was breaking up, in a fit of teenage angst I burnt them all. This was at the suggestion of a friend. Never take advice on archiving, from a well-meaning friend. This was not the last bonfire either. I later burned my first two years serious work, in black and white.
The general pub wisdom at the time, was that black and white was serious and colour was commercial.
The world was labouring under a complete misapprehension.
This was just piss elegance. Utter babble.
Didn't even qualify as casuistry. There was no clever argument or reasoning.
Much nearer the truth, as with cinematography, was that monochrome was photography's technological work in progress.
Having no heroes, mentors or influences, I was able to make such distinctions, better than most. I could always see that if you took the colour out of oil painting, it was much diminished in power. The fact that black and white went into overdrive decline, 15 years later, simply proves I was ahead of the curve.
I did not however, burn my first two years serious work, for the reason some may think. Not because it was in monochrome. I burnt it because the images looked like everybody else's. I was taking other people's pictures, not yet my own. This epiphany was key in finding my own unique trajectory.
The second love of my life, at 17, was a gorgeous glamour queen named Pauline.
She told me, "Your pictures are great and they are different!"
I'll believe anything a beautiful girl tells me.
So girls were the primary influence.
My secondary influence was the extraordinary childhood and adolescence I experienced, which was like a series of exploding pyrotechnics.
My myriad of experiences 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, rock concerts, pubs, dances, movies, television, playing guitar, glamour, horse riding, gymnastics, education by nuns, pop festivals, caving, going to horse races, regattas, 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....
You get the picture. Not so much a bucket list, as 'Things I DId Before I Was 20'.
The tertiary influence was music.
My art is what music would look like if you could see it.
I had listened to contemporary music since I was a child and became increasingly drawn to it throughout my teens.
'Remorse' was partly inspired by the words and music of Wishbone Ash, a progressive rock band, highly regarded by the cognoscenti.
There is a track on their album Argus, entitled 'Throw Down The Sword' . It has a closing refrain which I love to this day:
"To walk the road, the load I have to carry,
a journey's end, a wounded soul."
"There were times when I stood at death's own door, only searching for an answer!"
Cue the most amazing twin lead guitar solo ever! A stunning, harmonising, twin guitar solo in a beautiful, soulful, minor key.
Music was my first cultural passion. I started listening to music at the age of four on the original, easily smashed, shellac 78s. I bought my first vinyl single 45 at seven and have been playing music almost every day since. At six I discovered painting, at seven photography and at eight sculpture, but music was my first exposure to culture.
Whilst writing this piece I played the music again and was once more inspired, along with some visual electronica I was working on, to create a completely new piece entitled 'Argus Nexus'. I worked on it for six months and completed it in January 2017.
In classical mythology, Argus was a giant with a hundred eyes, but the word eventually came to mean any observant, vigilant or watchful guardian. My image is probably more next generation, than ancient myth. 'Argus Nexus' was a title I already had, from years ago. It was a title without a picture. I had originally created a picture in the NIneties, but grew to loathe it, so as always it was destroyed. Despite this, I always loved the title, as it was innovative and euphonic.
Destruction of images is quite common with me. One has to honour the Art and destroy anything not consistent with one's standards, which perpetually rise up with ascending mastery. So good is no longer good enough. Perfectly good work looks sub par. This is an ongoing evolutionary process and so my current canon of about 470 pieces does not really get any bigger, it just gets better, because as I create, so I destroy. I don't deal in 'good'. I search for and always find, something much higher. At worst a piece should be superlative. At best a masterpiece. I want the art before me as I create, to impress the hell out of me! To give me a sense of awe and wonder. If I don't find it, I completely abandon it. Nip it in the bud. Cancel that particular trajectory. If it gets as far as film or chip, then I destroy it. It's all a question of honesty. You cannot lie to yourself. There is only one of you, so the same person creating the lie also hears it. Perhaps self delusion only works with bi-polar artists. Who knows?!
Even at 21, I would take a global and historical overview of Photography. "How good is this, vis a vis everything else already on the planet?"
My fourth influence was Salvador Dali, when I was 23, but 'Remorse' was created before I discovered Dali. I first saw the work of Dali, late in 1974. He did not in any case, influence my visual style, the trajectory of which was already set. But Dali definitely inspired me to greater things, as I had never seen a genius of that calibre before. And in the domain of painting, I have not seen it since. I wanted to create art of that stature, whilst remaining absolutely Elliott, with honesty, veracity and integrity.
So for 'Remorse', my secondary and tertiary influences were the relevant ones here. Life's experiences and music.
I served as an alter boy and at funerals for Buckfast Abbey, the famous church. This was my first paid work, as an 8 year old. I was also taught by Nuns for four years. These were undoubtedly influences. By the time I created 'Remorse' in 1974, I had already rejected orthodox religion in its entirety and after a period of teenage agnosticism, finally perceived the existence of metaphysical superpowers. I am not an atheist. So note the cross is not a crucifix, but rather it is used as a universal symbol of mortality. And because skulls are corny, tasteless and unoriginal, even for hamlet. So crosses are common in the canon, but there are no crucifixes. Finding such a cross proved impossible, despite scouring most of South Devon, so I made my own from wood and painted it white. Without such embellishment, I felt the door could easily be mistaken for that of a castle, which would not have the spiritual feeling I desired. I shifted the colour for the same reason.
Given my innate critical ability, if I think something is amazing, you can take it to the bank. More importantly, I know a great many others will share this feeling too. The magic an artist photographer instills into an image at the time of creation, is transferred to the viewer. This is my philosophical bedrock and it has never failed me. I am the converse of that beaming beacon of self deluded arrogance, which is the standard personality template of most young artists. They seem to believe everything they do is great, when clearly it isn't. If you believe such nonsense your art is probably extremely poor and more importantly, will never improve. Great art is born of humility not arrogance. As I said, I burnt my first two years work. There is no harsher critique. To improve exponentially and rapidly, you must first acknowledge how bad you are, simply because all neophytes are. There's plenty of time to do the peacock strut. Pride should be commensurate with accomplishment. Glow with pride later. Leave it until after you have created something great. For then it is an absolute must.
The only thing worse than a neophyte declaring genius is a genius feigning modesty.
They are both forms of hypocrisy.
Not every piece by a master is a masterpiece. You only create masterpieces when you are inspired, on fire with desire, giving it everything you've got, on a sunny day, with the wind in the right direction and the Gods on your side. Mix that up with a cocktail of imagination, determination and chance. The only way one can create at the highest level consistently, is to chuck away the good stuff and keep the great. And yes, I've lost count of the collectors who have said, "Chuck it my way." hahahahaha.
Many people mistakenly think that because my oeuvre is the smallest of its kind in the world, my failures have been many and I have rejected hundreds of images. Not so. Early attempts aside, very little comes in under expectation. In the first few years, of course, more things failed than succeeded and dramatically so. But with mastery comes consistency and the equation reverses itself. So for decades now, I have discarded very little. In fact since about 1973, the overwhelming majority of my endeavours have succeeded. The oeuvre is in fact, not small at all, it is huge for one of such quality! Some masterpieces take months of continuous work to create and it is very much the implementation of extremely high quality standards, which keeps the number low.
Prolificacy is a questionable virtue, as quality always suffers.
My masterpieces are honed and refined to the nth degree. To within an inch of their lives and this takes time. I have fenced with chaos often enough to know the nature of perfection. I know when to pull back. To step no further as I am about to destroy. This is where neurotic perfectionism and obsessive compulsive disorder become a distinct liability. You need acute perception to realise your creativity is progressively destroying your accomplishment.
Are my pictures perfect?
Of course they are. If I had wanted approximations I'd have been a painter.
More than one journalist described my first exhibition in London as 'meticulous'. That was then, this is now and said critical ability is now exponentially evolved. I am objectively cognisant of the simple fact that I perfect things, not just beyond the pale, but beyond the pale horizon. Beyond the point where any sane person would notice. The point is that I notice and anyway, I can't switch it out. I am not trying to create works of art, there are already more than enough of those. I am only interested in masterpieces, icons and images of amazingness. Images which capture the essential spirit of things.
One masterpiece is worth a million minor pieces.... it's worth more. In fact, there is no parallel. How many average saloons equal a beautifully designed, high performance sports car?
Music is not entertainment, it is an art. One of life's absolute essentials. Like all the greatest art, the soul cries out for it.
It is a dull movie indeed that has no music and life without a soundtrack is just unthinkable!
Beauty is order and music is ordered sound.
Great music gives us an infusion of spirit. A spiritual fix. The feeling it's great to be alive!
And if that is not important, pray tell me what is?!
'Remorse' was inspired by other things too. The notion of shaking off one's mortal coil after a life full of evil and regret. What will you regret in your final hour? I was young, my life was before me. Would I use it well? The answer was obviously yes, but I didn't know that then. And last but not least, the fact that I had just invented the technology - a portable camera obscura masking device - to make it all possible. It's my own hand in situ. Alchemy indeed.
People have this tendency to give something a cursory glance and blurt out a fatuous remark. They are always trotting out ignorant inanities, when they see something technically challenging. Such as "Oh you can do that in Photoshop these days". Well actually you can't. Think it through. You could create a sort of pseudo looking version, that lacked photographic verisimilitude, but not an exact copy. And it's worth pointing out, that in 30 years of digital imaging, no-one has actually has created anything, anywhere near it.
How many are doing anything significant with digital imaging? They number but the few. Computer generated imagery is widely used to create horrifyingly dull Hollywood movies, but few create great art with it. Technology provides the means but not the meaning. That must come from the human mind and alas Photoshop cannot replicate that. It doesn't have an Elliott filter.
By 1974 I was a number of years into pioneering a new art form; photography. By definition I had no heroes. The generation of photographers before me were all commercial photographers, however high end and well-hyped, they were nearly all guns for hire. And the world and his wife did not consider them artists. And neither did they themselves. In fact, many well known photographers pointed out that they were not artists, which is fine because strictly speaking, they weren't. Being paid to do your own thing is one thing, being paid to do someone else's is quite another. Photography was considered a career choice, rather than an art. So there weren't any real artists. They were all commercial illustrators. To be munificent, they were Ertés rather than Dalis.
Apart from fashion photographers making stylistic statements (some aesthetic, but always without substance), there were also photo-journalists, taking pictures for magazines and newspapers, documentary photographers taking horrifyingly dull pictures for reasons no-one could discern, high street guys recording weddings and portraits and of course advertising photographers chasing the big money. But NOWHERE, could you search the globe and say "Here are a group of artists using Photography as their chosen medium." They just weren't there. So I felt alone in the wilderness, but I didn't care, as I knew I was on to something significant. Photography was a nascent art and still mostly monochrome. It was a technological work in progress.
The big difference with what I was creating, was that for the first time nobody questioned that it was art. 50 years on and tens of millions of viewers later, the question still hasn't come up. People just assumed it was (because it is). One early collector commented that my work was, 'The bridge between photography and fine art.' An intellectual observer commented 'Your photography begins where other photographers leave off.' An American art dealer dubbed it 'Voice Of A New Generation', which is where the video title came from.
No artist of any calibre, creates art just for the money. Or at least they shouldn't. And within the art market, becoming an artist as a career choice, is the domain of whizz kids not geniuses. Many of them do very well financially, as in the art market, many are those with deep pockets and shallow minds. Nota bene, I said the art market not the art world, for that is something quite else and far, far, away from there. Art created for the art market is just awful. It's not even art. It's just whoring. Disastrously dull at best, ugly and repugnant at worst, usually substituting the pseudo-controversial for real talent.
Pseudo-controversy doesn't break the rules of art, it just breaks the rules of art in accordance with the rules of breaking the rules of art.
I haven't seen anything in contemporary art that is controversial.
An enfant terrible is just an idiot singing loudly out of tune at the back of the choir. They achieve nothing artistically, they aren't intelligent enough, but it is certainly a lot easier than mastering something. So just smile and let baby throw his creatively bankrupt tantrums. It's the only way the dumb little fucker can get undeserved and temporary attention. Have sympathy. And do expect the media to be complicit in making them annoyingly famous. Apotheosis of the nonentity is very much in vogue. It's all part of the democratisation of art, which is quite frankly killing it.
Only a completely free and independent artist like myself, ever breaks the rules of art. Those who come up through the system are too conditioned to do so. A pioneer or innovator breaks the rules in a myriad of ways, but without even the slightest intention or forethought. Vital difference. This is the exact opposite of coerced controversy. I pioneered the two most revolutionary new art forms in history.
Certain notes on a musical instrument harmonise specifically with certain other notes to form a chord. Other combinations discord. Certain colours harmonise with others and some combinations clash. You catch my drift. You cannot ignore the universals because they are as harmony, rhythm, tempo and melody are to music. Remove them and you have only sound, not music. The colours or musical notes are either in or out of harmony. This is not open to debate, they are absolutes. It does however, presuppose certain finely tuned sensibilities on the part of the viewer or listener. To the plebeian plonker, kitsch is king. Crass is queen. They know no better.
Certain foundational strictures, or if you like rules, are required for the freedom to create great art.
Universals are the quintessential rules of art. Without them art ceases to exist. As surely as if the correct number of protons are not present in an atom, the substance simply ceases to exist. It becomes something else. 79 protons make gold. 80 and it's mercury. You just have to acknowledge it is no longer art but something of a lesser constitution. Remove the universals from visual art and it becomes mere craft. Remove the craft and it is just junk. Not all creative endeavour is art. That is something much higher. The reason so much contemporary creativity is weak, is because it ignores the universals. It isn't art.
To create lousy art, there are absolutely no rules.
To create good art, there are a few rules.
To create great art, there are lots of rules.
Interestingly if one had to choose between commercial artists and career artists, the latter are significantly inferior to the former. Some commercial artists are actually rather good. I have certainly seen things one could call 'art' in the commercial domain, but not so much in the art market. And placing an object in a gallery doesn't fool me for a nanosecond. Decontextualisation is nothing.
The Achilles heel of commercial endeavour, is that because it is perpetually seeking consensual validation and it must otherwise it would not be commercial, little of originality or depth is ever achieved. This is not the purpose of commercial activity, that is money, so the work is invariably lightweight. It can be beautiful and there is much to be said for that, but it is always lightweight. And like pop music which only requires a couple of plays before satiation sets in, it is more sensationalist than serious.
Fashion fizzes fast but fizzles faster. Style sustains its sizzle.
When the money moves in, creativity is always diluted. Dumbed down for yer average punter. Such is commercial creativity. The more people involved in a decision making process, the greyer the outcome. It is impossible to make great art by committee. And with commercialism there is always a committee. No-one gets carte blanche. Great art emanates from an individual with a singular vision and the ability to cast from his mind any notion of consensual validation or money.
I dismissed that as piss elegance. I always detested pretentious twaddle.
In fact the reverse was true, as in those days many publications still had mostly black and white pages, as colour reproduction was extremely expensive. So it was monochrome which was 'commercial', as there was greater demand for it.
To me black and white was always photography's technological work in progress.
I stated in a published interview in 1975 that 'I hardly think Victorian photographers would have worked in black and white if they could have walked out and purchased Kodachrome II.' To them it was 'Penny Plain' or 'Tuppenny Coloured'. Hand coloured, of course. Even when I was an eight year old boy, photographers were still hand colouring. I remember a photographer calling one day to do a family portrait. I was wearing this snazzy cream jumper which had a very graphic and colourful zig-zag pattern around the chest, a design common at the time. When the photograph arrived, I was astonished to find my cream jumper was now a beautiful shade of blue. This amazed me as I preferred the blue one to reality. Perhaps an early lesson in creativity. Art is not about accuracy but rather it is about creating something imaginative and beautiful.
My first photographic lessons, the year before when I was seven, were first of all that everything comes out in a photograph, even the stuff you are not looking at. So I immediately learned the difference between the way a camera sees and the way a person does. Eyes scan things of interest selectively, in any given scenario and then the brain interprets this sequence of impressions subjectively. Cameras record everything objectively, including the bits you didn't scan.
Therefore to become an accomplished photographer one must learn to scan everything in a scenario with an almost robotic scrutiny.
Secondly, having painstakingly created nine pictures and eager to see the results, I just 'banged off' the three spare frames in the garden. I was astonished to find they came out so well or even at all. I had somehow presupposed one had to try. Put in some effort. I noticed they were boring though, so threw them away. So lesson two: although effort does not equal result, casual snapping does not produce anything worthwhile. Which is not to say effort is never required. Far from it. I went on to create photographs which took a truly monumental effort to create, like 'Superchromatic Spectrosynthesis', which took a colossal 407 hours of work to create.
One day, very early on, when just beginning my photographic journey, I showed my mother, Elsa, a snapshot picture in a photo magazine and told her:
'Is he indeed?!" she snarled, with an undertone expressing complete contempt for the picture.
She immediately left the room without saying another word to me and looking again at the picture, I murmured out loud, "That's funny..... I thought it was shit, too." I soon learned to ignore received opinion and make up my own mind about things. I always had this tremendous critical ability. If I had a gift then it was perspicacity. Powers of discernment. A great capacity for critical analysis of my own endeavours and that of others. Perspicacity is a much more important gift than artistic flair, for armed with it, one can master almost anything one desires, not just art. Useful, as both Photo Art and Cyber Art are sciences, too.
A couple of months later, I made the same mistake with my mother and showed her a picture by a celebrated landscape photographer and said
Again her face clouded over like thunder. "Black and white?" she retorted, aghast with incredulity. "Colour is better for nature, I think."
Argue with that.
Colour is better for everything, I mused.
Whilst my marvellous mother was still alive, she told me a tale of how, as a child I had a gift for colour.
She recalled that at 18 months old I could name all the colours. One day she pointed to something blue and I said 'Blue." Next she pointed to something green and I said "Green." Then she tried to trick me by pointing to something turquoise. 'Blue-green." I said, all my limited vocabulary would allow.
So anyway, back in 1970 there wasn't really much in the way of photography, you could really call great art. Little of substance, anyway. Nothing which would compare favourably with the great master painters. Nothing of that calibre. So my inspiration came from everywhere else but photography. Mostly the dramatic childhood and adolescence I had experienced, which was a bit like a series of exploding pyrotechnics. I look back with great fondness at the vast number of dramatic and adventurous experiences I covered in my first two decades, which were either sought out or thrust upon me. I was just trying everything and destiny and circumstance were trying everything on me. I was sampling life, immersed in the very fabric of it. Finding out what I loved and what I loathed.
So in the early Seventies I decided, I wanted to create photographs which would stand comparison with anything in art. And in glorious, wonderful Technicolor and the inimitable exactitude of Photography. I wanted to explore the medium and find greater, deeper, more meaningful truths. Emotion in the machine. Images of substance and great beauty.
'Whatever happened to beautiful art?' I pondered.
And did I achieve my ambitions? Yes, but it took me 25 years of 70-100 hour weeks before I could honestly say so. I was 46 by then and I can still remember exactly where I was standing when I realised I had done it. By 1997 you could hold my Art up against any artist living or dead and it would hold its own. I had probably achieved it incrementally, but just realised it suddenly. Artists have little objective cognisance of what they are doing. There is always a point at which the scales tip. As time wore on and I created more and more extraordinary things, I only became more and more convinced of this view.
So worldly influences, yes, they were numerous and complex, but I had no role models. Anyway, the phrase 'role model' was unheard of in those days. Nobody cloned anyone, but music was definitely one of my biggest loves and influences. I even played lead guitar as a teenager, so I knew my Les Paul from my Fender Strat. I always loved the former. Those sustained note pick ups, which had that velvety, mellifluous, soulful sound. Each note sustained until it ran into the next. Gorgeous! Just divine.
I lived through 'The Great Guitar Race' with every progressive rock guitarist attempting to outplay each other with the maximum number of notes per minute. Most of it was rubbish, with the emphasis on speed disastrously lowering the quality of music. Play notes in a meaningful sequence first and then speed it up! If you put speed first it just sounds awful, too random. Fast lead guitar can sound amazing in context, but keep the chaos out of it and keep the notes in some kind of order. Many of the greatest guitar solos are actually quite slow. Like Mark Knopfler on the track 'Brothers In Arms', for example. Even where it slithers into a little speed, every note is perfectly in place. That's art! Proper art, anyway.
I played a Vox Phantom, it sounded shit but it looked fantastic and you could always tweak the sound at the amplifier end. It looked ultra modern and unlike any other guitar. Still does. I should have known that in selecting such a guitar with its ultra modern graphic shape, I was giving precedence to the visual and not the aural, but that and many other distinctions escaped me at the time. Like for example, the photography and graphics on the wall behind me, in the snapshot, which I had created with magazine pages. Also note the pictures are all of girls, as is my Art. Unusually for an artist, there are no men in my entire oeuvre. Observe also, the alternate strips of wildly different wall paper. Despite these screaming clues, the thought that I may have visual talent completely eluded me.
The upside of my flirtation with music, is that today I have a huge understanding and deep appreciation of great guitar solos and music in general. I know when someone is off key, even slightly. I know when opera is great or ghastly. Most guitar solos, like a great deal of classical music, are just acres of formless meandering improvisation, or worse yet, a display of technical virtuosity, whilst creativity secretly slips out the back door. But a guitar played by one of the handful of masters, who you can probably count on the fingers of one hand, well, they are just amazing. Still sends shivers through me, when done exceptionally well . And knowing technically how it is played greatly enhances one's appreciation also.
I have a kind of sneering scorn and contempt for people who fail to recognise genius. And even greater contempt for the apotheosis of the nonentity, as both concern themselves with people who don't know their ass from their elbow. And this has nothing to do with opinion. Some know whereof they speak, others do not. It's perspicacity not preference.
There are four fundamental reasons genius goes unrecognised:
1. Ignorance of the audience, who may well lack the creative faculties or intelligence to recognise it. Annoying, but forgivable.
2. Jealous rivals, who will bend over backwards and do somersaults, NOT to recognise genius.
3. Hidden agenda. Social posturing dictates the taste of the pretentious.
4. People hate change. People say they know what they like, but in truth, they like what they know. It brings a feeling of safety and comfort. Not to mention stagnation.
But back to Dali......
I knew I would not imitate Dali, but I was determined to create art of that power!
There is a scene in Woody Allen's rom-com fantasy flick 'Midnight In Paris', where the pseudo-intellectual (superbly played by Michael Sheen) is holding court with friends at an art museum. As they mosey around they come to a painting and the pseudo-intellectual announces to one and all, "Now here is a superb Picasso!" It makes me laugh hysterically, as the painting is a complete crock of shit! And no-one dares say so. In just a few seconds Allen brilliantly parodies the pretentiousness and stupidity of so many in art circles. Most of whom could not recognise genius if it fell out in front of them in noon day sunlight.
Anyway let us not dwell upon the bad. What did influence me about Dali, in a very profound way, was the incredibly high standards he held himself to. Both creatively AND technically. Dali could paint like an old master but had the creative genius they all lacked. This would influence me profoundly. To this day, I revere above all, the art - and especially photography - that has both creative supremacy and technical virtuosity. Most artists disagree, I know. I don't care, as I know why they disagree - they don't have this duality of mastery, as it is extremely rare. In effect they just defend their position, their lack of mastery in one area or the other.
Mastery is mastery and excuses are just excuses. A synergistic synthesis of creative supremacy and technical virtuosity is a sine qua non and a driving force behind my work. I believe it is the way forward and the only way art can evolve. The art of today is too tribal, too primitive. Too much of the chuck-the-bucket-and-fuck-it school. And the "Hey, man, I'm expressing myself!' Yeah well I'm sure you enjoyed that, now go and master something so that we can enjoy it too!
Dual mastery of creativity and technique is extremely rare and extremely difficult foe a very simple reason : it requires the use of both sides of the brain. Creativity and technique are polar opposites. People tend to evolve one side of the brain or the other. Rarely both. Sloppy technique in photography is just unthinkable, given the immaculate technical nature of the medium itself.
Creativity is more important than technique, but only just. Creativity is 51%. Technique is 49%.
Technique alone won't even get you past the middle. It's the smaller part of the equation, but still nearly half. So a very important part.
To be a great photographer you need the mind of an artist and the brain of a scientist.
My very earliest Photography up to 1970, is observational like everyone else's at the time. Little by little as time progressed, a metamorphosis can be seen to take place and I begin to introduce creative elements into the picture. I also start to experiment with altering reality. Or in the case of 'Remorse', both. Introducing and removing things to orchestrate on film exactly what was in my mind. I was very much working against the 'rigidity' of Photography and the imbecilic notion that 'The camera never lies'. Photography back in those days, was not at all fluid like it is today, with the advent of digital imaging.
For decades I have used writing as an analogy. You can write fact or fiction, the choice is yours. One thing is clear though: fantastic fiction can often reveal greater truths than mere documentation. There's a place for both, but to an imaginative, indulgent, hedonist like myself, simple documentation falls beneath the radar. Beneath my notice. Usually if you crux down what any person desires in life, the sum total of their ambition, you can distill it down to two words: more excitement! In one form or another, excitement is the essence of desire. The feeling it is great to be alive. Clearly different people arrive at that in different ways, via different routes, but the destination is always the same.
Anyway, originally as a photographer I perceived Photography as painting the entire canvas in mid air and chucking it all at the canvas in one hit. I knew that to take Photography to next level, I would need to control and introduce alchemy into this process. So I thought lets begin by increasing the number of exposures, introducing layers of light and moving away from the ubiquitous instantaneous snapshot. Above all I wanted to creatively and technically master control of the medium. To do with light, time, space, mass, perspective and viewpoint, what painters did with paint. Perhaps a little more. To find emotion in the machine. Passion and fire. Perhaps even a little of the Divine. And to paint with technology, a truly universal art for the electronic age.
So now, being as I was in my Gothic phase, I wanted to create images with just elements of a body. Floating heads, arms, hands...... but I couldn't find a way that worked flawlessly to the standard I required. I always thought montage looked amateurish. It looked pretty much like what it was - cut and paste. This was unacceptable. It would require the perfect lie, a perfect work of fiction, to reveal something deeper. Perchance something of the spiritual.
I tried a myriad of attempts to mask the image at the lens, which just produced many crude failures. Eventually, I came up with the idea of creating a miniature, portable, camera obscura masking device (a portable dark chamber for the camera). This would completely enclose the entire principal camera, but with rear access to the viewfinder. A camera within a camera, but at the front end, instead of a lens, there would be masking devices. The whole assembly would fix between the tripod and the base of the camera and feature rigid, sliding, spring loaded masks, as well as removable glass panels for more complex masking.
A huge tripod was required for stability. I bought one, which extended to 2 meters and was solid as a rock. It had really robust legs and retractable rubber feet, so that metal to ground contact was possible, as this gives perfect rigidity. I cost a weeks wages at the time. I established via trial and error that my portable camera obscura would need to be ten inches from front to back, in order to have the blades and masks at such a distance, that the degree of fade in and transparency would be perfect. Too abrupt and the hand would look chopped off. Too smooth and it looked undefined and like a wishy-washy mistake. I needed to work at f8, for sufficient depth of field, balanced with a sufficiently short shutter speed, so I designed the camera obscura for that.
The finest film in those day was Kodachrome II which was painfully slow at 25 ASA (now ISO) and an even more painful ten days for Kodak to process it, but the quality was significantly higher than any other film. Virtually the equivalent of medium format film. So the film was part of my default modus operandi. I had tried every 35mm film on the market. There were about fifteen as I remember, and Kodachrome II was significantly superior to all of them. I would project each different emulsion a metre wide and then attached a diaphragm to the projection lens, to stop it down and so remove peripheral aberrations in the lens. This allowed me to examine the quality critically with a bright light source. Enlargers were much too dim. For the record, the faster film, Kodachrome X at 64 ASA, was just ghastly! Not in the same league at all, so this was not an option. I used it once, shrieked in horror and never used it again.
The entire camera obscura assembly took about a month to make. I constructed it out of plastic, aluminium and wood. There was endless filing and honing to make the plastic blades of the masks a perfect fit, a lightproof join. Try it sometime! I would file and sand both blades down and then hold them up to the light to test them. Took ages. But the amazing thing is this: when it was perfect, it didn't work! It caused neutral density banding. A strip of underexposure where the image was joined, although the integrity of the image itself was flawless. So this was evidence that the image had been tampered with. A technical imperfection. This was initially baffling and rather like badly done CGI today, completely unacceptable. If you are going to create a magical illusion, it MUST be as authentic as reality and absolutely perfect (yes there is such a thing, for practical purposes).
After much head scratching and reflecting on the optical theory I had learned at the library, in my days of poverty, I eventually put this down to diffraction of light. The light hitting the edge of the mask and altering its trajectory slightly, not to be confused with refraction, which is a slight alteration of light path as it hits a transparent medium and alters its speed. It did also occur to me that the masks being about 1mm thick, were only invisible from the lens position when absolutely central. At an oblique angle the thickness would mask a fraction too much light. Increasingly so towards the edges. I also considered the possibility of film movement during the three exposures required, but I doubted this would cause such a wide and consistent band. The underexposed band was the thickness of the fade in, so quite wide. A good few millimeters of film, or to put it in perspective, a couple of inches on the final print.
The camera was not designed for double exposures, never mind triple. So I would tension the film using the rewind crank and then tape it down so the film could not move and then depress the rewind clutch whilst cocking the shutter. This was a work around. Anyway, I decided the solution was to test by trial and error and calibrate my masks, so that they could be manually adjusted slightly off to compensate for the underexposure and 'Presto!' it worked like magic. I never completely identified the problem but I did solve it, which is infinitely more important. A lesson in being solutions focused rather than problem focused.
I originally shot the picture in it's natural colour. The natural wood of the door was brown in colour. The result was ghastly. I detest brown. And I was trying to create something with a metaphysical atmosphere. So I experimented with shadow coloration, another new technique I had invented. This was achieved by pre-exposing the film with a critically precise amount of light of the colour required, colouring the palette as it were. And subsequently making the exposure on the same frame. It worked beautifully here. This is the exact opposite of putting a purple filter over the lens, which gives highlight coloration and increases contrast. My innovation coloured the shadows and lowered contrast, giving beautiful gradation. I always travelled with about 40 Kodak Wratten colour filters, so that I could create any palette I wanted.
Much later in 1982 when I studied colour psychology, I discovered that 'purple represents the spiritual'. Nice coincidence. Even nicer that I just instinctively made the choice that turned out to be exactly right. That happens very often with me.
Few appreciate the importance of all visual things 'reading' well in a photograph. Hence the afforementioned, custom made cross. A vase must look like a vase, if this is not clear because of a particular design, then flowers will help. The point is it must 'read' with clarity. This is the purpose served by the cross. An identifier. It also reinforces the idea of mortality and the idea of being shut out. Making the cross was good practice, as 12 years later when I created my masterpiece, 'The Inevitability Of Circumstance', I had to make 44 of them.
Speaking of evil, as I took this picture, a slight aversion of my glance would bring into view the tomb of Richard Cabell, a local resident who died in 1677. Described by people of a pleasant disposition, as 'an absolute bounder' and by those less munificent as 'a monstrously evil man'. He was known to beat and abuse his wife. One evening she escaped his grip and fled with her faithful dog onto the moors. He followed on horseback and killed them both. According to local legend the dog returned to haunt him and one night Cabell was hunted to the death by a gigantic hound breathing fire.
Richard Cabell and Brook Farm definitely inspired the story, as it was first related to Conan Doyle's by his Devonian friend, Bertram Fletcher Robinson. The name Baskerville Hall was probably inspired by Hayford Hall, given its proximity. Local legend certainly has it so. And the front of Hayford Hall is known to have been covered in ivy, as Conan Doyle's described it. Although he probably added a sprinkling of his own imagination to the mix.
I did not know any of this at the time I shot 'Remorse'. The tomb in the graveyard gives you a weird feeling as it is completely enclosed. Just a glassless observation window with bars, like a jail. Inside is a sarcophagus with a massive stone slab on top of it. Apparently both were designed to keep him from wandering. Such was people's fear of him. I guess back in those days, people believed all kinds of stuff, but certainly the tomb serves as a monument to how appalling the man was.
Anyway, before I vanish once more into a vortex of tangental legends and myths, suffice it to say that 'Remorse', was an early artistic triumph. And a technical one. Although created over 40 years ago, it remains today completely timeless.
Having now actually stood at death's own door, many decades on, the music and the picture have an even greater personal poignancy. Imagine if you will, a golden revolver loaded with nine bullets and one empty chamber. You play Russian roulette, not just once, but twice and miraculously survive it. Such was my fate.
The extraordinary thing is that at the time I stood at death's own door, I was working on a masterpiece entitled 'The Ephemerality Of Physicality'.
Interestingly with photography, people often ask 'How?', 'What?' 'When?', 'Where?' and 'Who?', but the question they probably should be asking is 'Why?' That is the important question, the others are all trivial and largely irrelevant.
Likewise when people ask me what I am going to do next, I don't know either, as my personal history has shown that there is no way of telling. I have whilst writing this piece created my first two masterpieces of the year. I had no idea I was about to. Spontaneity is especially relevant today as I create without preconceived ideas or even parameters. I create in real time, on-the-fly as it were, as I know this guarantees originality. If I didn't have the idea a second ago and I am already creating it, how can it not be original? It's a great way to work and requires phenomenal confidence, which I did not always have, but I do now.
Vanishing bodies and disappearing doors.
Given that my former home in Wallaford Road had also disappeared during that same period, perhaps what we really observe is a triple irony. A mysterious monument to the passing of time. I started by relating the alchemy of pulling 'Remorse' out of the ether. With the passage of time, things I thought would just always be there, vanished back into it.
'Remorse' was first exhibited at my Debut Show in the heart of the West End in London.
'Remorse' has been exhibited at six of my most important solo exhibitions in London and New York. It has been published in magazines, seen by literally millions of people on the web and is much prized by collectors. It has gone on to become a world classic. 'Remorse' also features in the movie 'Voice Of A New Generation', where it immaculately dissolves into reality and I am momentarily seen walking away from the door in a cloak, hat and boots. As I was back then. This worked beautifully, even though the movie aspect was shot 17 years later, just a year before the church went up in flames.
Another well known critic described the piece as ".....deep, moving.... perfectly executed.."
Typical of the extreme reactions it garners.
Much has been made of the fact that I created work of such gravitas and maturity, so young. In fact, my first ever art photograph 'Under Grave Snow of 1968, created when I was just 17 years old, is every bit as heavyweight.
'Under Grave Snow' depicts a small mound covered in snow. It is an impoverished child's grave with no headstone and features flowers also laden under the weight of heavy snow, forcing them to bow, their own deaths just a cold snap away. This also had musical inspiration from Francoise Hardy's 'Mon Ami La Rose'. A gorgeous dirge about the life, beauty and death of a rose and its disappointment, as its bowing head perceives its own mortality. It is allegorical, of course. And really quite beautiful. I had both the original French and English versions, back when I was a teenager.
'Remorse' is just as popular with the public.
One admirer was literally jumping up and down in front of it exclaiming "James! Man! This is fucking amazing!".
Forgive the expletive. It was his not mine! hahahaha
The most recent public comment, as I write this, was "For some strange reason I found this very hypnotic, but lovely."
As is well known, I am never swayed artistically by consensual validation or money, but they are both wonderful to have.
Philosophically the image is ultimately about the question of our existence and the preciousness of life.
The onus upon us to use it well. The question of conscience and culpability.
Why are we here? Why do we have the intelligence to ask?
And why do we feel strange when we contemplate the question?
Is there life beyond physicality? Beyond the invisible.
The big philosophical questions all remain unanswered, but the same perplexing feeling, perennially returns to haunt each and every one of us.
Could this all really be for nothing?
I think not.
Or so I thought, for one must think to think not.
'Interesting thought', I thought.
Written by JAMES ELLIOTT
© JAMES ELLIOTT 2016
'Remorse' 1974 is a Unique World Edition Of 10