A few weeks ago I went to the Photographers’ Gallery for a lecture by the Dutch photographer Hans Aarsman. I’d never heard of Aarsman before, but the description piqued my interest, particularly the line "if, and how, artistic ambitions, aesthetics and useful photography can coincide". I’m so glad I went! Aarsman described his journey through photography, and I found strong echoes with my own feelings and development as a photographer.
He started by talking about his early influences which, like so many aspiring photographers, came mainly from Magnum images. He showed some of his own photos from this period, I guess around the late 60s. He explained how, like the best Magnum photos and indeed all of photojournalism, they relied on conflict. Even a charming photo of girls and boys was mainly interesting because of the contrast between the girls and the boys.
And so, after a few years, he grew tired of this type of photography. He discovered the work of Garry Winogrand and described it as "an alien’s view of the world". He explored a similar aesthetic, using unexpected angles on otherwise-uninteresting subjects to provoke fresh ways of seeing. But this style was too unfettered for him. He imposed limits on it by buying a large view camera, which needed a tripod and a good deal of preparation. He drove around the Netherlands in a van, photographing chunks of the modern landscape, and finding ways to obscure the dreadful clarity and sharpness produced by a large format camera. But eventually, once again, he tired of this. He started to see echoes of centuries-old landscape painting in some of his compositions, at the same time as "art photography" was elevating faux-painterliness as its highest virtue (something I’ve written about before in relation to Tom Hunter). He realised that there was no way of taking a photo without his many years of visual training imposing themselves on the resultant image.
Disheartened, he gave up photography. For many years he didn’t own a camera.
This changed when he had to move into a smaller apartment, not long after his mother died. He had to get rid of many belongings, including little dolls which his mother had made for him while she was in terminal decline. He couldn’t justify keeping them, but felt that by throwing them away, he would be betraying his mother’s memory. So he bought a small point-and-shoot camera, and photographed every single thing he got rid of.
This led to a realisation: many things are important to us only because of the memories they evoke. And a photograph is a storage space for memories. Suddenly, getting rid of things became easy. He went even further with the declutter, rejoicing in the ease with which he could simplify his possessions. He even used this approach on potential new purchases: photographing things in the shop so he would never have to buy them (he showed us a photograph of a locked-down Powerbook in a shop, then pointed at the laptop which he was using to give the presentation: "I managed to delay buying this computer for 12 months because of this photograph").
Suddenly he became interested in photographs again. But not art photographs: rather, everyday photographs, photographs with a practical use. He would collect pictures of meat from the promotional supermarket leaflets which came through his door. He began to trawl EBay for interesting pictures, eventually settling on photographs of ashtrays (of which, he says, there are 8,000 new ones per week on EBay). He realised that many photographs have a backstory, and for him this is the most interesting aspect. Over three weeks, he realised (by comparing backdrops and wallpaper) that three of his ashtray photos came from the same person; he began to wonder why this person was selling different hotel ashtrays, and why one per week rather than all in one go.
He started a blog, analysing photographs, and through this he was offered a monthly column in a Dutch Newspaper doing the same thing. He ended the talk by giving a detailed analysis of a photograph of Iranian uranium enrichment, which he analysed for the newspaper. The photograph was originally printed alongside an article stating that Iranians were ramping up their nuclear capability, but by careful analysis of this photograph and others from the same source he was able to demonstrate that this was not the real story. What was actually happening was the Iranians were trying to demonstrate to the West that they were ramping up their nuclear capability. Numerous clues pointed to this conclusion, from the huge number of men needed to wheel a one-man trolley, to the dozen-or-so photographers in the background of what seemed ostensibly to be a hastily-snatched photo smuggled secretively out of the country, to the (meticulously researched) conclusion that one of the men in the photograph had dashed out of the toilet in time to be included into the picture.
Aarsman’s final slide was a quote from Garry Winogrand which he said now defines his relationship to photography. However, unlike virtually every other Winogrand quote I’ve ever read, this one didn’t quite ring true for me. Or at least, I think, it was badly worded. The quote, if I remember rightly, was "beauty is a fact explicitly described". But for me (and I think, if he’s honest about it, for Hans Aarsman), it’s not the explicit description which makes a photograph beautiful. It’s the information which leaks between the gaps; the backstory; the space left for the imagination; the painstaking detective work. Those are the things which, for me, bring a photograph to life and make it dance in the mind.