IMAGES BY ANDY GREAVES
I’m both pleased and privileged that a friend of mine, Photographer Andy Greaves of Chesterfield, has agreed to join me in a discussion about the similarities and differences between our respective Arts. Andy has decades of experience, a deep-rooted passion for his Art, and great insight. I’ve been a fan of his work for a while now, and in my opinion it is exceptional. The following is what developed. I hope you find it as interesting and thought-provoking as I did.
Question 1- Your site uses the title Street-Photography Andy, it seems self -explanatory but I’m sure there’s more to it. Would you tell us a bit about it, the challenges and rewards.
AG – The term ‘street photographer’ is not a pigeon hole I’m particularly comfortable with. When I put the Blog Engage the Street together I needed a title which would draw people in, and give an idea of what I wanted the Blog to be about. It was important to ensure that it would not be just another ‘How to take Better Pictures’ Blog, camera reviews, that sort of thing. I wanted to be able to talk about all sorts of things around the subject which feed into it, even go off piste from time to time. It’s only recently in the past few years that I’ve classified myself as a ‘street photographer’ because that’s where I spend most of my image making time these days. Photographers like me need access, we crave it. If we can get access to a situation, we can make work. It’s becoming ever more difficult to get access to places, to be trusted. It’s incredibly hard work to try and explain your motives for wanting to make work about something. The street is easily accessible and even then it comes with its challenges. Essentially though, I just try and be a social documentary and reportage photographer. The Blog is an outlet for all this stuff.
NS – I’m immediately drawn to your point concerning access. This physical constraint is of course not something that hinders poets, but you’re finding it harder. Could you expand, give an example. Do you think it’s a reflection of how society is changing, perhaps as individuals we’re more insular, coveting privacy more or simply less friendly, helpful and interested in others. The ‘what’s in it for me culture’.
AG – I think there are a number of reasons. Firstly, I’m not that good at explaining what I do and what I want to achieve, and that can be a real hindrance. There’s a certain type of ‘art speak’ around these things and I find that really difficult. Have you ever seen an Arts Council Grant Application form ? [laughs]. I’ve always found it hard. Some photographers find it relatively easy. I had a friend ( sadly passed away now ) who negotiated his way into all sorts of places; an abattoir, steel works, police riot training facility and made some incredible pictures. He was confident and had his University Lecturer status behind him which no doubt helped enormously. Another photographer friend has recently done some work at a local children’s hospital. Get access and you can tell stories and make work.
I think there are a number of reasons, and yes it’s partly a reflection of society. Certainly a ‘what’s in it for me culture’. There are all these places, organisations and institutions who have accountants who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, if they don’t see a bottom line profit then they don’t want to know. They don’t and can’t see any other intrinsic value with which to seek benefit.
On the street the question I invariably get asked is “what’s it for ?” which is fair enough, and I struggle to answer because it’s difficult to explain without sounding pompous that you’re trying to document something you think is valuable I.e. the here and now.
Question 2 – In poetry, we say ‘a poet sees where others just look’ and we reveal the hidden by the use of words. I personally coined the phrase ‘word alchemy ‘ because we take ordinary words and transform them into the extraordinary. It strikes me your art is the same except using image. Would you agree?
AG – Yes most definitely I would. It occurred to me that poets make the visual out of words while we photographers make poems of the visual. You approach it from one end while we approach it from the other. I think poets and all artists are trying to make sense of the world. I’m thinking of the great Henri Cartier-Bresson who coined the term ‘The Decisive Moment’, he’s often regarded as a poet with a camera.
In terms of revealing the hidden, then yes I try to achieve that. With my images I’m trying to say “hey look at this, look what I saw”.
NS – Poetry is a niche art form, not many people get it or are remotely interested. In part it is likely due to how our brains process written and visual images. In poetry, the image is in the mind alone whereas in painting or photography it has a physical presence. As an artist in general, rather than specifically a Photographer, what’s your take on poetry’s limited appeal.
AG – I think poetry’s limited appeal is because it’s probably not been taught properly. My first introduction to poetry was Roger McGough and Adrian Henri the Liverpool beat poets. Later it was Ted Hughes and Larkin at O level but I can’t honestly say we were taught it properly. Ya know, to really get behind the surface of it.
After school I’ve got to give a massive credit to the London Underground’s ‘Poems on the Underground’ initiative. That was just a brilliant and simple concept. I’ve still got the books alongside ‘The Nation’s Favourite Poems’ Series. I think there’s also this “it’s not for our class” attitude.
Question 3 – I believe great art stimulates imagination and intellect. Poetry and paintings for example, need to appeal emotionally and then set my intellect thinking about the image or verse I’m accessing. It is the same for your photography. Most of the images I’ve seen absolutely blow me away. I believe I once said they reminded me of images one would find in ‘Time’ magazine. As the artist, what do you hope your photographs achieve.
AG – That’s very kind of you to say so. You said it! I want my images to appeal emotionally and work on that level. I want them to capture and say something about the times we’re living in. The space and time I occupy. I want them to have an intellectual level which is why I consider that everything I do, see, hear, read, feel feeds into my image making. For me a good painting, art work or indeed poem should be like an onion. It should have layers which can be unpeeled. I want my images to have legs so that they take on a life of their own. The best art stands the test of time and that’s what I want from my images.
NS – How does the creative process work. Everyone’s heard of Poet’s and their muses. I talk in terms of ‘opening doors’ in the mind and often find myself ‘becalmed’ bereft of inspiration.
I also use the terms ‘Tumblers & Teasers’ to describe poems that just appear or have to be worked on. Is it the same in Photography?
AG – I’m not really sure how it works for other artists and photographers. I hate the term but I’m pretty much self taught in that area having not been to art school or anything. I mostly take my inspiration from other photographers but basically I just go out and respond to what’s in front of me. If something catches my eye then that’s a pretty good excuse for making an image. Over the last few years I’ve made use of notebooks, collage and doing my own artworks.
Question 4 – The thing I find a little daunting, and yet fascinating in photography is the technical side. I believe it must be the most technical art form there is. You have these incredible instruments, with amazing optics and I wonder what your take on this is. How much technical expertise is needed versus the photographers ability to ‘ see’ the shot . For example you see a scene, your artist’s eye pictures, via imagination what you want to portray, but then I’m guessing you need the expertise to set the camera just so to be able to realise what you want to convey.
AG – [ laughs] Listen mate if I can do it !
You can be as technical as you want to be in photography, but for me it’s always been about the image. For me, mastering the technical is a means to an end. It’s a bit double edged. You need to know how to operate the camera in order to get the best out of it, to achieve what you want to say, and the images you want to make. Once you understand the basics of shutter speeds and apertures and how they affect exposure, then you should be able to operate any camera that’s put in front of you. It’s about the image though, I’ve seen brilliant images taken on disposable cameras by young kids. Brilliant stuff.
Question 5 – There is an obvious cross-over between poetry and song lyrics, indeed many songwriters are also poets,, Leonard Cohen springs to mind. However, not all lyrics are poetry. A great song can have banal lyrics, but the tune is so good the words are irrelevant, for example the Beatle’s ‘Love me do’. At the other end of the spectrum, bands like the ‘Arctic Monkeys’ or ’12 Dirty Bullets’ where the music is great AND the lyrics could be stand-alone poems. I’m guessing film is the closest to Photography. Is film a similar art beyond the obvious use of captured images, or would you say a totally different thing.
AG – I think film and photography walk hand in hand, absolutely. Many photographers are influenced by film and vice versa. It’s no accident that there’s an Oscar for best film photography or whatever. The best film makers understand precisely how a film should look in terms of its photography. You take a classic film like Dr Zhivago for instance, which If I remember got an Oscar for best photography, its photography is stunning. You take a film director like Wim Wenders and look how his films are shot. A whole lot of emphasis is on the photography of it, and surprise surprise he’s just had an exhibition of his Polaroids at the Photographers Gallery in London. Take Director Stephen Poliakoff ? A lot of what he’s done is around the questions photography raises. He even did a drama about a photography archive, it was brilliant. Then look at the recent Scandinavian noir films and tell me they’re not influenced by the New Objectivity genre of photography? I remember in Trainspotting they wanted a certain look which was influenced by a photographers work.
I’d like to take you up on this song lyrics thing though, because it’s an aspect that I’ve been interested in for a while now. I like to think there are song lyrics which I try and incorporate and which influence my photography. Indeed a lot of my notebooks are filled with lines from songs. You take The Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’ for example, look at those lyrics, just bloody brilliant. Those lyrics are English to the core, right there! At this moment I’m a big fan of Elbow, their songs like ‘The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver’ speak to me. If I can make images like they write songs, I’m a happy man.
By the way many photographers collaborate with poets. The obvious example being the landscape photographer Fay Godwin who collaborated with Ted Hughes. Philip Larkin was a regular photographer even [laughs] they were mainly self portraits.
Question 6 – There are styles, movement and fashion in poetry, the same as everything. While choice is a good thing, it can sometimes lead to elitism, such is human nature. What styles, movements or artists do you enjoy in photography and is there elitism at times.
AG – Elitism? Oh yes there’s elitism alright. I find it fascinating. The whole art world is a slippery pole to climb and photography is no different. It’s a complex conversation which involves shrewd judgement and getting in the right place at the right time. It’s a game and one which I’ve refused to play.
I enjoy looking at all art and I salute all those who travel down that road. I like to see the work of artists who push the boundaries and ask questions which can’t necessarily be answered. Past couple of years I’ve been into Outsider Art, Artists who just do it with no expectation of anything. They’re compelled to make work with no preconceptions. Some of it is just wonderful.
NS – I’d like to go back to two points. First the song lyrics . I’m fascinated that you use them for inspiration. We are basically talking about a definite melding of art between poetry and photography.
AG – You’ve got to remember we grew up in the video age. Linking lyrics to imagery is second nature.
NS – What first interested me in this, was an article I did on Punk Poetry. With it’s roots in the 60’s beat poets, it came to prominence in the 80’s with acts like John Cooper Clarke and Atilla the Stockbroker and many were musicians, songwriters as well. Patti Smith springs to mind. It was very much a performance art, highly political, and there is still a thriving performance-poetry scene.
Would you be able to expand your comment Andy, you mentioned writing down lyrics that grabbed you on some level for possible inspiration.
You also touched on class , including inverse snobbery, and there is of course academic elitism. How important do you think McGough, Henri & Patten and others were in changing class attitudes at all levels? Are there similar game-changers in photography?
AG – Rock and pop music has played a hugely important role in my life, seen me through some good and bad times. I find solace in a lot of music and the lyrics. It’s difficult to explain, and it’s not that I try and match an image to a lyric or vice versa. It’s not that at all, in fact I rarely title my images with anything. I think it’s more that they’re just an ingredient in the cake, if you know what I mean ? I mean, I’ve got some images and I look at them and immediately what comes to mind is the lyrics of New Order’s ‘Ruined in a Day’ or something like that.
I don’t know enough about McGough etc. to know whether they did change attitudes, though they probably didn’t care. My guess is that they operated on a different level, and they and the audience found each other. Yes in some ways they did change attitudes, but there will always be this class snobbery and academic elitism. You look at how long it’s taken John Cooper-Clarke (my favourite) to get into mainstream acceptance.
Game changers in photography? Yes ! Robert Frank is regarded as a massive game changer. Now there are a few knocking about, but it seems to me that at present there’s a struggle between those who want to academicize photography in order to get it accepted by the art establishment and those who reject all that obfuscatory nonsense. A few years ago you could maybe look at Richard Billingham and his ‘Ray’s a Laugh’ book and argue that was a game changer especially for the art establishment and how they viewed photography. Maybe Wolfgang Tillmans?
NS – Finally, Andy. You made an important point regarding how poetry is taught. Without going all ‘Dead Poets Society’ on you, I agree entirely. My son is one of those who has to memorize 15 poems for his English exam, which reduces poetry to a test of memory, or completely ignores what art is about. How would you change how poetry or art generally is taught.
AG – Learning poetry by rote is just ridiculous but we know why it is don’t we? Schools have been reduced to teaching to get results so they can get high up in the league table and it’s a complete falsehood. Nonsense!
Art forms need to be relevant and placed in context. It’s no good teaching Betjeman in schools these days. How relevant is church architecture to kids these days? If kids are listening to hip hop or whatever then start with that and find a way in that way. I was delighted a few years back when John Cooper-Clarke was on the O level English syllabus. It needs to be delivered in a way that is fun because we learn best that way. The great thing about the Internet is that all these things are accessible and immediate. Finally whenever I’ve taught photography for beginners I’ve always stressed the idea that their images should be about something rather than of something.
Thank you Andy.