From Powder Paints to Pixels

Inaugural Lecture given at the University of Derby, October 2006

The current relationship between the disciplines of photography and painting is the central theme in this year's festival of photography here in Derby.   My own contribution is a small retrospective at the Museum and Art Gallery.   The exhibition highlights my work across both media since the early eighties, and argues that their contemporary synthesis is to be found in digital practices. The exhibition presents examples of my photo-digital work over the past dozen years and I also provide a written commentary on each of the images.

Because of this timely context, it seemed to me that my inaugural lecture should further develop some of these themes, but without duplicating the material already on public display.   This will, in fact, be a two-part lecture as I am offering a related paper at the forthcoming conference entitled 'The Digital Past'.   Today I will tackle the painting/photography conundrum from an autobiographical stance, tracing my own relationship with both media since childhood, whilst at the conference I will deal with the same problem from an art historical perspective.   I find myself again at a familiar crossroads with these two intersecting lectures; one route is signposted 'personal' and the other 'historical'. It is at this very juncture that I have always attempted to situate my work.

I must admit that I am troubled from the outset by my plan for today, having sat through a great many autobiographical talks by artists.   The tendency when discussing work is either to get bogged down in the minutia of the creative process and its attendant anxieties, or conversely to make such sweeping and generalised claims as to seem immodest and a little pompous.   That one image or event follows on from another does not necessarily make either any the more interesting, and the self-assertion that ones work is significant can lead to embarrassed silences!

One way of entirely avoiding the problems of an autobiographical account is to place the work in another, and preferably grander, context.   In the eighties 'theory' provided just such an arena.   The declaration of 'the death of the author' further uncoupled the artist's life from their work.   But such accounts deny the essential ethical bond between life and work.   The backlash, when it came in the nineties, took the form of confessional art, in which every twist and turn of the artist's personal life and emotions were paraded raw and unprocessed by sustained creative work.   This was a world akin to celebrity culture in which pop stars who no longer make music are preferred to those who do, and artists who make headlines are valued above those who make art.

So how am I to tell my story without being self regarding, or denying what I have learnt from experience?

Fortunately the work itself comes to my rescue.   The artist's job, in my view, is to tell as fully as they possibly can, how it was to be alive in their times.   This means dealing with the social, political and historical worlds as perceived through the agency of ones own personal experience.   In my pictures I have dealt with childhood, art, family, love and loss, conflicts between nations, shifting cultures, and even this business of painting and photography.   So surely if I follow the pictures they will lead in the right direction?   To deal with them chronologically at my age, would take longer than we have, and anyway, I am not convinced that development takes a linear form.   I am often amazed that a half forgotten idea from decades ago resurfaces in a work, full of a vigour and life mysteriously gained during its latency.

I wrote this paper in the attic last summer whilst trying to put some order into my personal archive.   Like Walter Benjamin's 'angel of history', the detritus of my life is piling up before me.   Each exhibition generates not only the finished art works, but also a hoard of notebooks, correspondence, found images, studies, press cuttings, installation shots, and a small library of reference books.

In a rather thin file marked 'Girton/Kettle's Yard' I find some images of footballers from a 1950's boys magazine.   Their status as either photographs or paintings is uncertain. The sense of a 'frozen moment' and the trace of actuality belong to photography, whilst their 'handmade' quality and graphic idiosyncrasies belong to painting. Frozen in action, their form caressed by the retoucher's brush, the footballers have a strangely monumental quality, reminiscent of the sporting heroes created by Soviet artists.   There must have been a lucrative industry in retouching photographs in the fifties, as few reproduced photos seemed to have escaped their attentions.

Beside the soccer images are some filing cards with notes about various aspects of politics and culture during the fifties. Topics covered include the Cold War, TV and film, The Establishment, architecture, education, the Suez crisis, CND, art and literature, the Empire and youth culture.   In the file there is also a catalogue entitled 'The Atomic Yard', containing scholarly papers on some of these topics, reproductions of my artworks, and an interview I'd conducted with the nonagenarian, Jim Ede.

Jim Ede was the founder of Kettle's Yard in Cambridge, a domestic environment in which he arranged his collection of modern British art and artefacts, according to his own rigorous aesthetic notions.   I had been awarded the annual Artist Fellowship in 1988, which was attached that year to Girton College.   When I began work in the September my father was dying of fibrosis of the lungs and my thoughts often turned to my childhood in the fifties, which was also the era in which Ede began his work at Kettle's Yard.

And so I decided to explore the year of 1957, my memories of childhood and contesting notions of culture.   I was also interested in how we come to know the past; through artefacts, memories, documents, commentaries and oral histories. But the past, of course, remains elusive, forever in thrall to the ever-changing present.   Ones childhood for example, is a very different place when revisited at different stages in ones life.

As a dyslexic child drawing and painting were the means by which I could best express myself.   Grey sugar paper, HB pencils and tins of powder paint were the unpromising media provided at school. I had very few models available for how to paint as my family didn't go to art galleries, but the illustrative images to be found in comics had a lasting influence through their use of sequence in storytelling.   Anthropomorphic characters fascinated me as a child, and the caricatured and grotesque figures found in comic strips. These distortions chimed with the high fevers and vivid nightmares that always accompanied illness during my childhood.   I have experimented with the use of facial distortions in recent years and been influenced by the predecessors of the comic-book illustrators; the C18 satirists Hogarth, Gillray, Rowlandson and Crukshank and the anthropomorphic illustrator Isadore Grandville.

My family's interests were located in popular culture, especially in TV.   My father took a couple of roles of slide film each year by way of family snaps and sometimes shot 8mm films.   My grandfather painted occasionally in retirement and also recorded messages on a reel-to-reel tape recorder to his other son, who had emigrated to Canada.   On visiting my grandparent's house I always sought out the large Gladstone bag containing three family albums of photographs going back to the 1880s.   I am not one of those people for whom photography has been a lifelong love affair.   Indeed, my first role of film, shot on a Brownie 127 camera of my playmates in costume, was disappointing and I abandoned the camera. But the old sepia photographs were interesting, opening up a world almost as strange as that of my fevers.   A Victorian screen in my grandparents home also fascinated me, with its collage of brightly coloured prints of popular subjects and scenes. The random juxtaposition of images produced odd associations and strange stories.

As a child painting represented the imaginative world to which I was devoted, whilst photography, by and large, lacked this absorbing magic. Even in my pre-teens I found the suburban culture to which my parents generation aspired suffocating, and suspected that serious art existed elsewhere. This I first encountered when I was ten through a chance introduction, by a neighbour, to jazz and blues.   It was Big Bill Broonzy and Barney Kessel who first opened the door for me!   Broonzy spoke from the heart about injustice and love, and Kessel swung like crazy!   Never-the-less, home had a warmth to it entirely missing from the cool aesthetics on display at Kettle's Yard.

In the Atomic Yard series there is no single role ascribed Painting or Photography, but rather many roles are expected of each, and of each in combination.   The photograph sometimes fulfils its traditional role in documenting a place, a text or a face, but then it becomes indistinct, evoking a memory, or collides with another image creating a new syntaxical meaning.   The drawing is sometimes gestural, sometimes descriptive, restoring or obliterating, attacking or caressing.   The materials can be read as symbolic of the industrial north, where my family come from, or my father's illness - graphite powder, charcoal, pastel compound and wax on rough textured photographic paper.   Images float in an amorphous space reminiscent of that inhabited by memories and dreams. The pictures come from high and low culture, from the culture I knew as a child and that to which I aspired. The personal and the historical intersect, the past and the present collide.   And throughout there are film stills taken from European movies made in the fifties.   To explain their significance, however, I must move on beyond childhood.

I was fortunate during my last year at school to have been taught art by William Packer, who went on to a long and distinguished career as the art critic of the Financial Times.   He introduced me to the work of British abstract painters like Henry Mundy and Pop artists including Peter Blake. And so it was with a mixed portfolio of popish paintings that I set off, at the earliest opportunity, for art school.   There I got a rigorous training for two years in the formal elements of picture making along Bauhaus lines.   Form, colour, texture, surface, movement, rhythm, composition and scale where isolated and analysed, along with a highly disciplined approach to graphic materials.   It was the best formal teaching I received, and it was down to my tutor, Norman Griffith, who at the time I found rather intimidating, but with whom I'm still in touch forty years later.   I was a serious and committed student of art, and these were stirring times, especially musically. After college I spent many great evenings in clubs listening to visiting American R&B and Soul bands.

I next applied to St. Martin's School of Art with a group of large colour-field paintings, but my confidence in painting as a practice began to wane when I arrived in London.   Amongst my contemporaries there was a confusing profusion of styles; there were naiveists, hard edge, pop, expressionist and systems painters and barricaded into a studio somewhere in the far reaches of the building, Leon Kossof's students painting from the life model.   But none of these approaches seemed to me capable of matching the power of the music I was listening to or the movies I was discovering in the arthouse cinemas of the West End.  


Craigie Horsfield, John Goto, Tim Jones, Colin McDonald, Andrzej Klimowski at St. Martin's School of Art 1968

So I started working with 'new media.' I borrowed from my father his 8mm film camera and also worked with sequenced photocopies and photograms in book form.   Somewhere around the darkroom area I met two other students, Andrzej Klimowski and Craigie Horsfield, and an important and formative dialogue ensued. Klimowski was British born of a Polish family, and introduced me to the world of Polish graphics, animation and poster making -   to which he was to make an important contribution during his later years as a graphic artist in Warsaw.   Horsfield had a keen intellect and already had developed much of the photographic style and philosophy for which he was to gain international recognition some twenty years later.   To the conversation were added Terry Garland, who was studying musical composition at York under Maxwell Davis, and later the film animators Stephen and Timothy Quay.   I think that an enquiring and thoughtful student will always find their way to the ideas and knowledge they need.   The National Gallery, for example, I discovered during my student days and it has been a lasting influence on me ever since.   And at St. Martin's I learnt a good deal more from conversations within this circle of friends, than from the rather disinterested tutors.

Our project centred on the idea of a European culture that might offer an alternative to the pervasive culture of American.   These were the days of the Cold War and the further east our project took us, the more radical its politics seemed.   Film became part of our self-imposed studies, and we were fortunate to engage with European cinema during its last great period.   I have been re-watching some of these wonderful films recently, movies by Fellini, Truffaut and Borowczyk, and I am struck by how much our society has changed since then.   There is a kind of innocence in their romantic and humanist worlds, where people relied on each other and basic human goodness prevailed.   I too would have liked to have made films, but as the resources were not available, I settled for photography.   Chris Marker in his film La Jetée, showed how from a sequence of still images a narrative could be constructed, and it was in these terms that I began to make groups and series of photographs.

The next file to be pulled from the cabinet is marked Heteronyms.   It contains a letter from Juliet Steyn, dated March 1995, inviting me to participate in an exhibition based on Fernando Pessoa's use of heteronyms. These were imaginary authors Pessoa created who wrote in styles and expressed philosophies and attitudes quite different from his own.

By the spring of 1995 I had been working digitally for two years on a series set in Russia in the early 'thirties entitled The Commissar of Space.   As with The Atomic Yard, I combined fragments of old photographs, scavenged mostly from books and journals of the period, with my own photographs, made in the Urals city of Perm, which the soviets had named Molotov. The subject of the series was the painter Kasimir Malevich, an artist who had interested me greatly since my early days at art school. In the series I speculate on his final years in Stalinist Russia and juxtaposed this period with the society I observed in the early 'nineties.   En route I discovered that the digital process gave me unexpected fluency when constructing in perspectival space, such that the montages could readily take on the spatial appearance of, for example, Socialist Realist paintings or Constructivist graphics, as I chose. I had the final images printed onto canvas by an early enthusiast of digital printing, Bruce Pinkerton, who had built his own drum printer, which could handle substrata six metres wide. This inherent kinship, as I saw it, of digital media to the facsimile, to the quotation, and one might add to the forgery, drew me towards the idea of heteronyms.  

A series of heteronymic 'short stories' followed, presented as 'The Framer's Collection' in 1997. The piece I've chosen to discuss, which is digitally composed from some of my own early analogue photographs and a few found elements, explores the uncertainties of time and memory.    It will lead us back, from a different perspective, to my truncated discussion of analogue photography as I practiced it in my twenties.

The story which is attached to this set, entitled Djadyad, reads;

  Of my fondly remembered youth, few photographs and even fewer friends remain. These scraps survive from a journey to the disputed border territory where is situated the walled oasis town of Djadyad, then under the sway of Gram Moncur and his mercenaries. Linden, my traveling companion, was a spiritual young man with the appearance of a bandit from a Glauber Rocha movie. 'All things are interrelated,' he would tell me, 'our task is simply to find the true links.' We parted company at Djadyad, whilst he crossed the border in search of a Bedouin shaman reputed to be naming the grains of the desert sands, I returned to Europe.

The photographs attempt to rekindle the time of my youth, of journeys East and flirtation with mystical thinking and romantic longing.   They are printed onto a few sheets of Kodalith paper I had stored for twenty years, a paper which gave an unpredictable base colour between yellow and copper red, and a tonal range with fine separation in the highlights and dense, inky shadows.   I liked the graphic quality of this paper and its proximity to the look of etchings and lithographs.   Kodalith soon went out of production but I continued to try to subvert photographic materials away from the hard surfaced, continuous tonality they offer.

I received no photographic training at St. Martins so in the early 'seventies I enlisted as a photograph's assistant, where I learnt technique and discipline, and I also worked my way through the American photo-guru Minor White's version of the technical method known as the Zone System.   But I loathed the supper sharp, full tone photographs the Americans produced and it was not until I studied photography in Prague in the late seventies that I found a tradition of photography with which I could identify.

Cold War Prague was a seminal experience. Its austerity and beauty was as if from a dreamt of Europe, poised between past and present.   The Ministry of Culture directed that I should have access to the photographer Josef Sudek's archive, newly arrived at the Museum of Decorative Arts. When it wasn't raining I walked or photographed in the courtyard of a semi-derelict archive building, in which I had made an outdoor studio, and on wet days I went to the museum to look through the old photographic boxes containing Sudek's life's work.

During his early career Sudek worked within the international modernist style of photography, which emphasised dynamic form and strong geometric composition.   This style emanated from Soviet Russia, and like an ink stain on a map it spread across Europe regardless of boarders or ideologies.   It was as if for a brief moment the fascists, communists and liberals dreamt a collective dream named 'futura'. But towards the end of the 'thirties Sudek became increasingly isolated, as did Prague, firstly as a result of the Nazi invasion and then of the Iron Curtain. His images become more introspective and poetic, and over the next thirty-five years he produced one of the most remarkable bodies of work in the short history of photography.

There are many aspects of the prints I handled in the museum which would be unfamiliar to a person reared on American photography; spots, lack of definition, a seeming flatness and odd colouration might appear the result of poor craftsmanship.   But Sudek was in fact a master of his technique.

The image was not treated as a mirror of reality, but as a separate entity.   Sudek explored close tonality, often working only in the mid tones, with no clean blacks or whites.   The colour of the prints varied through browns and mauves to greens.   He sometimes used bromoil, tinted papers, toning and even sought out old paper stock for its individual qualities and colour.   He experimented with framing, working with the architect Professor Rothmayer, for example, on evolving a technique of sealing the photograph between sheets of glass and lead.

I empathised with this approach to the print as a physical, graphic object, and it was a revelation to see the way in which the artist-photographer Jan Svoboda extended this aspect of Sudek's work through scale, by writing on the surface of the print and projecting it away from the wall, such that it took on an active, architectural relationship with its environment.

On returning to London in 1979 I researched the rich history of European avant-garde photography in the inter-wars period and tried to rethink their images from a current perspective.   Rodchenko, Moholy-Nagy and again Malevich were central to this venture.   I also got hold of some printing-out paper with which I could draw directly using daylight. This early photographic paper developed in sunlight and the image produced is fixed using gold toner.   It allowed me to gain real control when making photograms and overlay objects into the compositions.

The trajectory of my development was towards an ever-greater engagement with European history, and towards a constructed photographic practice involving elements of drawing.   From here, in retrospect, it only seems a small step to collaging with photographs and paint, but at the time it felt like photographic sacrilege.

In the early 'eighties, working in collaboration with the painter Paul Eachus, I began to break up my photographs, physically tearing, cutting, and wrenching them apart. Analogue photographs do not readily yield to such treatment. I began again to paint, this time directly onto the photograph.   This fragmented world, of whose authorship there was uncertainty, pointed intuitively towards the heteronyms of the Framer's Collection and beyond to the yet unknown world of digital imaging.

In the mid 'eighties I bought my first computer, an Amstrad.   It had no graphic facility and was really only good for word processing, but the spell-check alone made the investment worthwhile!   I liked working at the screen, and it reminded me of my absorption when watching the new medium of television as a child.

By the turn of the 'nineties I started to notice the introduction of computers at Oxford Brookes University, where I taught, which could handle images.   I was fortunate to be in one of those strangely amalgamated Schools, which Universities come up with as a stop-gap measure, of Art, Music and Publishing.   It was primarily the publishers who were developing the use of computers within the school, as digital technology was revolutionising the way in which type was set and images composited.

This new media was like a dream come true for a montagist.   The essential tool at that stage was the software package Photoshop. The brothers Thomas and John Knoll began developing Photoshop in 1987 and 'version one' was released by Adobe in 1990. The program was intended from the start as a tool for manipulating photographic images that were digitised.   In those days this was done by means of a scanner, which was an expensive device.   The first Apple Macintosh computer kit I bought in 1994 cost me £8,000.00 and when I tried to sell it a few years ago I was advised that the best use I could put it to was 'in the garden to grow some flowers in!'   Had I invested the same amount in property it would be worth in excess of fifty thousand pounds by now - so much for my business plan!

My practice to begin with was to use an analogue camera and materials, and then scan the negatives for working with in the computer, and finally output via an Epson Printer.   By experimenting with paper and ink types I could vary the print quality to resembled, for example, a photograph, aquatint or woodblock print.   The stability of the inks was initially an issue, though this has been solved in recent years with the introduction of Colorfast inks with a predicted life of 200 years.   The first digital camera I saw was in the mid nineties, a massively expensive Polaroid digital camera, which took, by today's standards, very low-resolution images.   But I remember being astonished at seeing the photo immediately displayed in the camera back.   It is probably only five years since I bought my first digital camera and I am already on a third generation.   The medium format camera I currently use with its Leaf 22 digital back produces images of higher definition than analogue film used to.

"Digital is now the default position in photography," said the managing director of Dixons a few years ago, but even this realistic assessment was not enough to save a third of the chain of high street photographic shops from closure.   One by one, many of the big names in analogue photography have gone out of business - Leitz, Agfa, Bronica, Contax, Praktica, Konica Minolta and Yashica.   Ilford Limited went into receivership in 2004 but a management buy-out saved a scaled down version of the company. At the same time Kodak laid off 25% of its workforce worldwide and refocused its business on producing digital printers and cameras, as did Nikon and Canon.   Environmental concerns about emissions of methylene chloride during the manufacture of analogue film, and the pollution caused by toxic silver ions discharged from processing laboratories, has made digital technology the green option.   I must say that whenever I went into the darkroom, with its nocuous fumes and dim lighting, it felt as if I was stepping back to the nineteenth century.   It's not that analogue is dead, but to paraphrase Frank Zappa, it is beginning to smell funny.

It was whilst working with Photoshop that I began to doubt whether this was really photography at all, at least as it had been known.   The software had been modelled on the existing look of photographs and the kind of practices familiar to me through years spent in the darkroom.   So there were, for example, tools to 'burn in' and 'dodge' the image in order to make local adjustments to the tonality.   Filters could be used to replicate sepia toning or imitate grain.   But soon the designers began to add functions associated with other disciplines; typography, drawing and painting tools and increasingly web design software.   This invited manipulation of the photograph, using autographic and other methods, that was quite new.   It happened at the pixel level, and the pixel is neither photographic nor painterly, but rather a 'dot' of information, or an abstract sample. Software manufacturers design each application to simulate a certain look, and to connect with a particular graphic history, function or tradition.

Another example is the software package made by Corel named Painter.   This further expands the graphic tools encountered in Photoshop to include a complete range of painting and drawing materials from oils, pastels, chalks, and charcoal to watercolour and acrylics, which can be applied using a huge range of brushes, onto every imaginable substrata.   Again the result is a facsimile, an imitation, which grows from a certain understanding of the history and practice of painting.   We might say that painting and photography have become idioms within the language of digital technology.

Once an image is digitally encoded it can be imported into other software packages and combined with, for example, music, video and animation, or three dimensional games and designs.   Camera-phones easily combine image, text and sound in ways that were considered, until recently, to be feats of technical achievement.   Broadcasting via the web is relatively easy and inexpensive and the possibility of establishing a career as a web-based artist is now achievable.   I find all these developments exciting, as they are full of creative potential.

Digital applications have rapidly moved on from simulating a single discipline to a state of hybridity.   There are many who will regret the passing of the modernist tenets of 'essence' and 'truth to materials', but others, myself included, recognise that the floating world of digital practices, without boarders other than those contested through differing understandings of history, perfectly reflect the values and experience of our times.   Today's talk has been about the synthesis of painting and photography within the new technology, but it could equally be about the coming together of image and sound, architecture and games design, or indeed lecture presentation and filmic performance.

To summarise my own development; initially I thought off photographs as being like film stills. Edited out of a flowing narrative, photographs hung ambiguously, poignantly awaiting stories to be woven by the viewer.   I struggled to make photographs more physical, to grasp the mirage.   My hands ran over their surfaces, and this became a form of drawing.   I prized open the thin layers of silver, chalk, gelatine and paper, and glued them back with oil paint and wax.   The media of painting and of photography constantly swapped roles; at one time objective, at another interior; evidential then fake; seen then imagined.   The desire to speak of the complexities of history encouraged me to manipulate them in ways for which they were not intended.   Then came digital imaging, which was not so brittle. It was supple and my experience with both painting and photography gave me a particular purchase on the new technology. I began to construct in space, and became increasingly conscious of the historical precedents this new media called upon.   Fourteen years of working with digital technology has made me impatient, impatient with the photographic arts community who have barely woken up to these changes, but more importantly impatient with my own ability to seize this moment and fully explore its potential.   For sure, the show will move on.   Like a child, digital imaging presently defines itself by reference to its parents.   But one day, when it reaches maturity, it will find its own way, and stand alone.

John Goto

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