A Conversation with Photographer Peter Fraser
Peter Fraser discusses his storied career with friend and fellow photographer Jem Southam.
Peter Fraser and I first met at the V&A in the early 1980’s. We had both travelled to London, he from Manchester and I from Bristol, to hear William Eggleston give a talk. It could have been a seminal moment in the history of British photography, but he didn’t show up!
While waiting for the embarrassed curator to try to rustle something else up, Peter and I fell into conversation, and we have been talking ever since.
Peter subsequently spent 7 weeks visiting Eggleston in 1984 at his home in Memphis, and travelling with him in Mississippi, and returned to move to Bristol. He has spent the forty or so years since making distinct, characterful and challenging bodies of work, continually questioning and pushing the boundaries of colour photography as an artistic medium.
The significance of his achievements is celebrated in the Tate monograph of 2013, the first such publication by a living British photographer.
His latest project Lacuna, which was awarded the Pollock Krasner Foundation Award can be viewed below.
Jem Southam: Is it possible to characterise your pictures in any way? They all seem very eclectic. Is there a Fraser signature, and if so how might you talk about it?
Peter Fraser: In 1975, at the age of 22, while a photography student at Manchester Polytechnic, I was travelling from Accra in Ghana to Algiers overland with local transport. By the time I arrived at Tamnrasset in Southern Algeria and admitted to hospital I was very seriously ill with Dysentery and Hepatitis. After three weeks in bed on a drip, a doctor suggested if I would like to see the flowers in the courtyard. A nurse would help me as I was so weak. After slowly making our way to the doorway, the blinding Saharan sunlight illuminated six or seven Bougainvillea trees. What happened at that moment I understood intuitively, but couldn’t articulate for many years, in that every flower seemed a crucible in which an eternal struggle was taking place between the impossible beauty of the world and its irrefutable fact. That tremendous shock of recognition that nothing is what it seems to be, and indeed, is much more than it seems to be, is the running thread through everything I’ve tried to respect through my photography practise since. So each time I begin a new series, I’m testing the same philosophic preoccupation from a different position, in alignment with my current interests. I suspect this is the time when I sensed that the grandeur and profundity of colour would become an obsession.
JS: Could you talk then about what photography, and in particular the still photographic print/picture, brings to this quest?
PF: Well, given my answer above, perhaps a moment of intense emotion can be understood to accompany those instances when all the right components collide to produce a record of the experience, and what a still photograph can then achieve is a document of extreme verisimilitude combined with an emotional or psychological shock, which carries great freight. The real complexity to be found here is this document can be simultaneously, enormously mysterious and, in the best work, often is indefinitely.
JS: From early on you have set out on journeys to pursue the making of pictures. It is a very deliberate process. You are working, generating an intensity of purpose. Is that at all accurate? Could you talk about this?
On a different plane, you also have an Instagram account @peter_fraser9 with the intriguing by-line: ‘nothing so mysterious as a fact clearly described’, upon which you put up other pictures, made on your phone one presumes. How does your approach differ with these?
PF: To answer the first of these: yes, you are right, it’s a very deliberate process. It is, in essence, going to work. I discovered very early on that travelling frequently led to the shock of the new, which is of course a classic experience used by artists to stimulate new ways of thinking and feeling. The going to work phrase here means in particular, that I'm extremely focused on a specific task to the exclusion of others. In other words: tremendous concentration. And, I think this leads directly to addressing your following question, because when I make images with my phone for Instagram, I am in a playful mood, simply enjoying looking, but not seeing.
The former for me involves a wholly different order of involvement with all one’s faculties profoundly engaged, as opposed to scanning one’s environment for pleasing visual arrangements. Perhaps they are an equivalent to either writing a poem, or a postcard to someone.
JS: You make bodies of work, structured series of individual pictures, drawn into relationships with one another by an over-arching conceptual framework. Could you talk about how and why this happens?
PF: That’s an interesting question. I think what I discovered very early on was that if I went out into the world without an overriding concept to reference while making work, even a simple one like 12 Day Journey, there was an opportunity to make a coherent statement through the cumulative effect of a series, which was lost. What is particularly interesting to me, is in late 1982 and during 1983 when I, like many others including Paul Graham, Martin Parr and yourself began working with a high performing handheld camera, I made a series of images which were pure experimentation, exploring what the new freedom allowed me, which I showed at Arnolfini in Bristol alongside William Eggleston’s work in 1984. This work, which hasn’t been published or exhibited in 37 years, led directly to my series 12 day Journey, and the other works in Two Blue Buckets and will be published soon as a beautiful book: The Arnolfini Works, 1984.
JS: That was an exciting time, and at that time I felt that your pictures found an interested and eager audience within the photography world. As you have continued to push forward with a radical questioning of the medium’s potential though, it would seem that in recent years the world of photography has had other priorities, and that you feel more understood and accepted by the broader art world. Would you agree and could you discuss this further please?
PF: It was an exciting time, in which we all felt there was so much new territory to be won for art photography, and I felt very supported in those early years by fellow photographers and curators, and intermittently by art curators, and indeed the two commercial galleries which showed my work in late 80’s and 90’s were art galleries. The picture has become more complicated in recent years, as often photography curators have seemed to find my recent work too problematic, so much so, that an influential European photography curator a few years ago actually said he couldn’t show Mathematics because it would be too challenging for his audience. It was of course a thrill to be the first living British photographer to be given a Tate retrospective in 2013, and a bit of a shock to discover that it was Tate Modern British art funds that subsequently purchased my work for their permanent collection, not Tate photography funds. I take solace from the idea that if one looks at much art and photography which has lasted well, we can see that, very often, work which confounded categorisation at the time prospered from the gaze of history. This thought does give comfort when I ponder the fact that I have no representation anywhere in the world at this moment.
JS: We have been talking about the making of pictures, now let’s turn to the issue of how you establish ways to present the resolved work to the world. We use two primary means to do this: the exhibition and the book. Could you talk about exhibitions first — how you have developed relationships with galleries and museums, and how that has changed and how you view the situation for an exhibiting artist nowadays?
PF: Back in the 80s, as you’ve mentioned, there was a lot of excitement about photography and what it might explore, and I think I, like many others at the time benefitted from the grants, gallery start ups, exhibition possibilities, cultural interest, discussions and publications, and it somehow didn’t seem difficult to find exhibition opportunities near and far. Over the years given how I photograph alone, it’s been a pleasure to work with galleries, museums and publishers who have responded to the work energetically, in collaboration, as an enjoyable shared creative experience.
As you might remember the Arts Council had a specialist photography panel funding initiatives across the UK and it powered rapid progress within British photography, which many current prominent British photographers might acknowledge. If we fast forward through the last few decades during which physical works on a wall have largely been a de facto standard for exhibiting photography, we are increasingly engaging with new forms of presentation like non-fungible token digital works, which utilise a very different conceptual position and are generating considerable excitement. And I would expect there will be increasing numbers of artists and photographers exploring those areas. However, my feeling is that we as human beings inescapably have mass and volume and are wedded to navigating the world physically at a most fundamental level, so much so that as our lives integrate ever more deeply with digital technology, we might in the future even pay to visit places where we go to feel the weight and shape of objects. But I confess to still feeling that a physical work on a wall for example can offer tremendous meaning and satisfaction for some time to come.
JS: Do you favour presenting work in exhibitions or in books, or perhaps what is of importance is the relationship between these two modes of presentation, something which has changed significantly during the past 20 years?
PF: Without doubt publishing my work in books has been very important over many years and Two Blue Buckets introduced my work to a fully International audience in 1988, which led to many opportunities, and Tate’s Monograph covering 30 years of my work published in 2013 was a landmark for me. Also, I’m excited for the launch of my upcoming book mentioned above. But, a deep love indeed for me has been the crafting of images for an exhibition space, and to work hard to try to make something exquisite and compelling, with real physical presence which can draw the viewer in, which then begins to present increasing resistance to interrogation. This is where a work can help to ensure it’s longevity, because you can never exhaust it’s meaning.
JS: This year you were awarded a Pollock Krasner Foundation Award in New York to make new work in the UK and across Europe in response to the pandemic. Can you talk about the significance to you at this moment in your life and give an indication of what you are doing, thinking and planning in regard to this award?
PF: The award meant a lot to me for several reasons. It came at a time when I needed to acquire new equipment and I was feeling strongly motivated for the challenge to make work during a time that I knew it would be difficult to travel across Europe with the many inevitable restrictions due to Covid-19. I was also told it was very rare for the foundation to offer an award to a photographer, and my submission was supported by my most recent finished series Lacuna, not yet exhibited, images from which accompany this exchange. I began working in May 2021 in the UK, and travelled to Portugal in June. July and August were taken up by my mother-in-law’s illness and subsequent death, and in September I travelled to many cities in Germany and then to France, continuing to work. During this winter I’ll be photographing in the UK, and when next spring comes, I particularly want to travel to Trieste, Sarajevo and Greece amongst other places. The images are giving evidence of both my, and my sense of other’s, responses to this extraordinary time we’re living through.
JS: What other fields of contemporary artistic endeavour do you find particularly inspiring?
PF: Perhaps because my mother painted, sang, and played the piano, from an early age I think I was sensitised and open to those art forms, and I would add literature and sculpture from my 20s onwards.
JS: And finally, away from the world of photography, can you talk more generally about your life, your interests, how you spend your time when not working?
PF: Well, born in Cardiff in 1953. If I’m honest I’d say I was happy to leave at 18, to study in England, and it took some years to pass before I began to understand the poetic beauty of the Welsh soul. Indeed it seems to me that if you go to most less well off places in the world you’ll find a poetic beauty in people. Since, then I’ve been lucky to travel to many parts of the world to make work and, health permitting, I hope to continue to do so for a few years yet. Certainly I enjoy music, theatre and cinema and the company of friends, but as I’m being candid, I will confess that my wife Urve thinks it would be good if I found a hobby, but alas I seem to be too concentrated on pushing the work forwards while I’m lucky enough to have the energy.
Peter wears our brown corduroy suit, and Japanese linen shirt. To see more of Peter's work, please visit his website here.