It’s taken me years to understand that something that has significant creative appeal for me is ‘the particular’. I’d grappled unhappily with a comparable, but oppositional concept – ‘the transcendent’ on a photographic course years ago (another time) but it was only recently that I began to read more thoroughly about the work of artists I have long admired and saw the unifying qualities they shared. One writer who’s illuminated this route for me is Ian Jeffrey (can’t find sensible link for the man – suggestions welcome) whose succinct insights are delivered in a thoroughly readable, and often wry style, not tethered to impenetrable cultural theories, but fluid observations of artists’ work in the context of their time and place.
In Photography, A Concise History, Ian Jeffrey writes a piece about Eugene Atget that takes up the theme of particularity:
“…Atget dealt with what was out there, rather than with his feelings; he invited his audience to inspect and to analyse rather than to dream…His pictures are sharply delineated and in them commonplace objects, such as cobblestones and roof tiles, appear as in a jeweller’s cabinet. Commonplace material, which in the normal course of events would be scarcely worth a second glance, is preserved and made to matter. Just how it matters is another question – but the items in an Atget photograph are actual to an astonishing degree, treasured for themselves, revelations of their own particularity [my italics]. Where many of his contemporaries studied phenomena for underlying meanings or essences, Atget seems to have looked through generalities to find original particulars”
The ‘particular’ theme is followed up in a section on the work of Walker Evans –
“Evan’s delight was in the particular. He perceived, as Atget had done, that we sense nothing in isolation, that we sense this for what it is only by reference to another thing which it is not…..Commonplace objects, preserved by Evans, take on the air of cherished relics. There is something like a correspondence, even a fusion, between his own art and that of the joiners, farmers, barbers and storekeepers – the original makers whose work is respectfully acknowledged, honoured and brought carefully into public view by the photographer”
(Credits for above images: Graveyard and steel mill, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania by Walker Evans 1935; Washstand, Alabama, by Walker Evans 1935 or 6)
“In 1940 with the familiar British landscape under triple attack from Germany, rapid urban development and major changes in farming practice, the Ministry of Labour and the Pilgrim Trust set up the project to commission artists to record the changing face of the countryside before it was too late. There was ultimately a search for particularity, for the voice and look of England and for engagement, not detachment, between art and society. Artists and photographers who were at the heart of this debate included Cecil Beaton, Bill Brandt, Lasazlo Moholy-Nagy, Paul Nash and John Piper. Alexandra Harris refers to this group as the ‘romantic moderns’, and seeks to step aside from the traditional fight between English ancients and continental moderns.”
Ian Jeffrey also writes on these ‘romantic moderns’, sometimes known as Neo-Romantics, in The British Landscape 1920-1950 – material for a future post.