The banal might be described in two distinct ways. Firstly as the ordinary magnified to an extreme degree, the ordinary as an extra-mundanity. Or secondly, banality might be described as the ordinary without adornment, a sneak preview at the passivity all objects possess at their core. Below I want to describe and discuss how photography often battles between this contra weight of the banal and the impact this has had on my own practices as a photographer.
In 2011 I began photographing a series of walls. I conceived of these initially as places where history had happened, walls with divots from crisis, event walls, trauma walls. However as I began to invest more deeply into the series, these first thoughts about the photographs I had taken and their meaning began to lose weight. Somehow I just couldn’t get the pictures to mean in a faithful way. The more the photographs sought the site of their historical trauma, the more unstable (or rather unconvincing) they became. Perhaps, I thought during those early trysts, that a ‘blue plaque’ system might be needed for each site, an extra-descriptive system to baluster this representational lack. Eventually it dawned on me then that in order to represent the emotive condition of things now it would be necessary to go back to their original source, I mean back beyond the point of trauma. Of course we can’t do that.
Trauma Wall, 2011
It was only sometime later, having virtually abandoned the series that the problem began to become acuter. There was nothing to see, history had either been cleared up or pushed away somewhere much more clinical, into the plethora of museums or classrooms. As I began to take theory and practice as a simultaneous and contradictory will to photograph I returned again to the images of walls with a renewed sense of purpose. Foucault describes this shift in thinking a little more succinctly, “It would be false to say, as the Maoist implied, that in moving to this practice, you were applying your theories.” No, I didn’t follow history into the museum (a different kind of banality) nor take its practices back into the world, but remained to photograph its lack, the traces of its loss. I knew this would cause other, separate problems. Perhaps the viewer would have to work harder to find meaning, that perhaps without ‘siting’ or signposting an event the photographs might simply be dull or worse, meaningless. Whichever way it had become impossible for me to search for ‘content’ in the subject through a perceived academic methodology. I wanted to stay where I was and photograph what I knew.
Up against a Brick Wall, 2011.
Up against a Brick Wall, 2011.
The resulting set of twelve images, photographed over one weekend, seemed to move closer to this ‘lack’. If photography is supposed to ‘mean’ by capturing the decisive moment, then these photographs seemed to do the opposite. I attached a generic title to the images, ‘Up Against a Brick Wall’ to both describe the literal and terminal extent of this morass. After publishing the photographs in a public forum, the lack of interest seemed only to confirm what I had suspected. Where these remained in a cultural backwater, unloved, other photographs I was publishing simultaneously seemed to gather support. This only added to my feeling that there is a prejudice toward photography as a fully functioning representational tool, that history is rarely recognized through banality.
If every photograph has to ‘mean’, if that is the very essence of the photograph, then are these ’unsited’ walls simply an anomaly, an exception to the rule. Was the lack of interest because they hadn’t enough meaning attached to them or that their meaning had not been fully realised? As I began to think a little more deeply I realised no, these photographs weren’t simply an aberration, an exercise in futility. Rather that throughout the history of photography itself, the struggle against representation and the manifestation of its loss has been continuously fought over. An early precursor of this struggle might be Roger Fenton’s photograph of the Crimean war. The cannon balls almost blend into the rock and boulder landscape. Not so much a witness to the world but a struggle against it banality. Or, shifting through to the contemporary canon, an example might be Paul Graham’s Ceasefire, a series of photographs based around the troubles in Northern Ireland. What we see at first is a cloudscape, then as the eye adjusts to meaning, at the bottom left of the photograph appears a different kind of cloud. We’re left to surmise from there. The point being that both Fenton and Graham disrupt the coda of representation, landscapes become marred, but almost imperceptibly, too much meaning versus too little.
Roger Fenton, The Valley of the Shadow of Death, 1855.
Paul Graham, Ceasefire, 6th April, 1994.
Richard Prince, Cowboy, 1983.
Perhaps another way to describe banality in relationship to photography would be to see it as exposing the artifice of the new. What I mean by this is that photography often ‘means’ more after it has been culturally processed as meaning. For example, in Richard Prince’s Cowboy series, the images are re-photographed, re-posited to the point where the cowboy myth becomes simultaneously banal and (in)credible again as myth. William Eggleston is a master of refocusing the viewer on the already banal. He puts his camera into a showroom clean oven to show use as useless. The banal as sublime and its counter-weight, the sublime as banal, seem here to go hand in hand. The first is easier to imagine, showing something in a new light, exposing it beyond the advertisers remit. But to show the sublime as banal?, a much harder trick to pull off.