Pigment, Light and Film

Illumine. Photographs by Garry Fabian Miller

Retrospective by Martin Barnes (256pp, 35, Merrell Publishers)

First impression's not good, is it? I'm astonished that anyone dare risk the title Illumine, and a cover which at a glance comes over as red enso on black. It looks simply pretentious.

Garry Fabian Miller seems to allow various interpretations of his work, including the religious and mystical, whilst maintaining his work is to do with 'science' and 'light'. Whilst all art has to fend for itself in the world, the distinct lack of accompanying statement has meant photographs being attributed all sorts of meaning.

Doesn't that happen a lot though, an enthusiastic curator reading into pictures or interpreting them in ways the maker hadn't imagined, or was unaware of? It doesn't concern me much, as I don't usually bother with the text in big 'retrospective' picture books like this one. I did read this though, and found myself thinking, no it didn't really feel like that then (1970's/80's), no, weren't we all doing stuff like that...Anyway, Martin Barnes is Curator of Photography at the V & A so obviously he knows more about all this than I do.

Yes, of course art gets reinterpreted and recontextualised all the time. I'd be the first person to say that art [or writing, or whatever] has to fend for itself out in the world, and that if it is accompanied by some kind of dictatorial statement that allows only one meaning then it's failed as art. But I do find that Fabian Miller's work has ended up in all sorts of places that simply don't seem appropriate.

If I'd have written the book (this is like grumbling about the contents of an anthology) I'd have seen the work in different contexts. Series stuff for a start (all the leaves) - weren't there lots of series works in the 80's? (This has got me looking for all those prints I made, one snapshot at noon every Friday for a year...) I've also remembered herman de vreis's series: leaves, stalks and so on. And as I remember there was a Lot Of It going on, experimenting with materials in direct contact with the photographic surface, using 'stuff' in an enlarger instead of a negative - aquilegia flowers were good, different transparencies. It was Fabian Miller who persisted. And those are the characteristics that I think of in his work: (i) his persistence (ii) his series.

My sense of it is not persistence, it's marketing skills. And I don't say that as a criticism. Fabian Miller has always had the ability to network, meet people, influence people, talk to people, and get exhibitions. If you look at the exhibitions listed in Illumine, you'll see his first [acknowledged] exhibitions are impressive in themselves. I think he learnt very quickly to present his work in a certain way, in a certain context, which again seems a lot to do with the 80s. There's an interesting tension there between the artistic entrepreneur and the 'spiritual', 'ecological', or 'landscape' art he was producing.

What has always surprised me is that he stayed with the same paper, the mechanised high gloss finish of Cibachrome, when the rest of us were busy poisoning ourselves with cyanotypes and various concoctions we could embed in hand-made papers. (Mike Ware, a chemist as well as photographer deserves mention here; even colloidal gold could be made into images in his darkroom.) Gary Fabian Miller has none of this though - the same shiny flat surface every time.

You're the photographer - isn't that more to do with the fact that Cibachrome paper responds directly to the light in a certain way rather than its glossiness?

But maybe the notion of sameness, whether to do with materials [the glossy paper] or subject are part of that deliberateness, that persistence you mention? It's particularly problematic for me in the body of work that uses a blue cross motif from the windows at Petworth. Is it possible to reinvigorate a symbol/sign such as this, or does the symbolic matter attached to the form simply overwhelm it? Aren't they all a bit the same?

I find these tedious! It makes me realise than when I'm looking at, say, the leaf pages, I'm remembering seeing them on white gallery walls, in hallowed spaces, big. I've not seen any of the blue crosses. I don't feel the symbolism as page pieces in the book at all; they're graphic patterns. Oh, I'm probably mixing them up with the Tokyo night pictures as well, more white-on-blue patterns.

I think that's slightly unfair, a lot of Fabian Miller's leaf work was small, one could almost say domestic in scale. I've seen single images in the artist's own house as well as in a chapel at Lincoln cathedral. On the other hand, Miller did name some of his photos of leaves, perhaps making grandiose claims for something quite simple? Or maybe we're too cynical and not open to looking at certain images anymore.

Ah, titles. Yes, let's have numbers instead, look at what's really there.

Is it possible to be too simple? Fabian Miller's simplicity has sometimes gone hand-in-hand with a kind of naivety when approaching an institution such as the C of E church and its parish system - one of the proposals at The Journey exhibition & conference was that the parish system could somehow be taken over for artistic instead of spiritual aims. This seems to have resulted from a misunderstanding of how radical the theology [or anti-theology] of someone like Don Cupitt is perceived to be by most church people, and also a confusion between the concept of faith and spirituality [as opposed to the religious] and aesthetic response.

You were talking earlier about Fabian Miller's ability to make use of a variety of contexts; you make this sound like a good example.

Is the apparent simplicity more to do with focus and detail, stillness and attention, as a contrast to a busy world?

Attention's the good one. The small differences between images? I'm more interested in the small differences between hawthorn leaves, though, than I am between patterns of light-on-paper.

Why? Isn't photography intrinsically a graphic medium? It usually consists of a flat print [although I know you can paint with photographic emulsion, and I'm ignoring video and film here]. Photography is light on paper, something that Fabian Miller has at various times been keen to point out, sometimes in apparent opposition to the spiritual discussions his work has caused or been part of.

You're right of course. I have a sneaky suspicion I'd have come out of the exhibition 'Towards a Solar Eclipse' (yellow - orange - red circles in series) wishing they'd been photos of the actual thing!

Is it just me? - I remain distinctly underwhelmed by the horizon photographs. They seem to me like photos by any number of artists [many painters rather than photographers], and a rather clumsy attempt to backdate and make claims for an early body of work by Miller.

It was early work, and they're nice enough (I like weather and sea and all the ways they change). But it was how he found his way in to series works. (You're thinking of Kurt Jackson's etchings, which have a greater excitement as they retain the presence of the original image as well as the shifting one.)

No, it's not that Kurt Jackson etching sequence. It's a less specific response, a kind of knee-jerk response of mine that often thinks that any painter with an eye for colour, texture and form, can often take these kind of pictures in the landscape, reducing what we see to detail and pattern. My partner always moans about my holiday pictures being close-ups of garage doors, oil on puddles, wooden fencing and such.

Mine are, too. We should mention that those sea/sky photographs of horizons are prints made from film in a normal way. I've looked at them (there's a double page spread of 40 small images I like) more than once; something of a relief from the later work - that's what it feels like.

The recent work seems very slick and polished. Is photography a suitable medium for this work? What do we gain by knowing as a viewer that it is actually a pictogram of pigment and light and fluid?

The medium is
the work, though, so 'suitable' isn't the right question. I'd ask whether it grabs you when you see it - the real thing, I mean big, the glossy shiny slabs of flat colour. There are comparisons with Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman at the end of the book, (p 197: 'there is something even more intense about the colours of the photographs') and I think this is going over the top. I haven't seen these latest works big, but how long can one spend gazing at a sheet of photographic paper?

As long as you can look at anything else! Come on, that's not a valid question, you're being flippant. And as for being grabbed, why? I've spent years questioning the way big paintings overpower the viewer - it's one of the reasons I make small pictures. Viewers have to choose to engage with the work.

For me there is a problem with the Rothko or Newman comparison as - and maybe this is what you mean? - the intensity of Fabian Miller's colours doesn't seem comparable to the depth
of those two painters' work. There's little comparable presence - I can't describe it any other way.

Really, I have no problem with the idea of a photograph as a graphic pattern or texture, but isn't Fabian Miller's work presenting itself as something more than that? Doesn't it make a point, even a virtue, of declaring what it actually is? How it has been made? It's not something I find particularly interesting in the end, but the subject of the photographs is also the process - pigment, light and film. It's that kind of reductionist concept that encourages me to disengage, whereas earlier work, even when I questioned and still question the spiritual and ecological agendas, at least raised more questions and allowed more space for the viewer. I find the recent work quite reductionist and closed.

No it wasn't flippancy, but what you did pick up on and called 'depth' and 'presence'. In a painting wouldn't I be looking at a passage in the painter's time and struggle as well. Because the subject is here is the process, and that process is fairly simple, and the same every time, I can't imagine spending very long gazing at one of these. Which isn't to say that there aren't
contemplative photographs I'd spend a long time with.

             Jane Routh & Rupert Loydell 2007