The Sense of an Ending by Glenn Adamson
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Imagine this. You are a country potter with years of experience. You spend your days throwing one vessel after another, glazing them, firing them in a kiln you built by hand years ago. You have a steady market: not the road to riches, but a living. In fact your world is built around this craft; there is a continuum between your family life, your experience of home, and the hours you spend at the wheel.
Then you find out there’s no more clay.
That is the situation that Garry Fabian Miller has on his hands. He is a photographer of the most artisanal stripe. His pictures emerge through daily experiment in his darkroom. Here he conducts his ‘exposures’ – in a way that brings new meaning to that term. The photographic paper is left to react to carefully controlled light conditions, sometimes for minutes, but often for as long as twenty hours. He can be off doing other things, spending time with family, walking the surrounding land, experiencing seasonal change, but all the while he is making his work. As the exposures happen, he occasionally re-enters the space, making adjustments, intervening, working in active collaboration with the forces of nature. Most photographers snatch bits of the external world as it passes them by, or sometimes as they stage it. Fabian Miller does nothing of this kind. All his achievements – aesthetic, practical and conceptual – are realized in the darkroom. This is quite literally where the magic happens. He describes it in terms that are reminiscent of a country potter’s shed, or perhaps the ‘primitive hut’ described by Victorian architectural theorist Gottfried Semper. As a building it could not be simpler. Though the processes happening inside are optical and chemical in nature, its rudimentary character as a structure is inextricably linked to the essential, visceral physicality of the work.
And here we come to the crux of the matter. Fabian Miller’s darkroom, and indeed his practice, are grounded in a unique process which he has mastered over decades, and this technique is premised on the use of a specific material. It’s called Cibachrome, or latterly Ilfochrome, a dye destruction print paper. Originally invented to make stable, non-fading prints from colour transparencies, it is made both as a paper product (this is what Fabian Miller uses), and also as a film stock used for backlit displays. Fabian Miller makes use of the paper unconventionally to create direct colour positives. Each of his prints is unique because it has not been made from a transparency or negative. The chemistry involved is very direct, a descendant from the light-sensitive plates used by the earliest photographers in the middle of the nineteenth century. Dyes in the paper are activated by the light, and subsequent processing bleaches away the unactivated materials. Day after day, for thirty-five years, Fabian Miller has pursued an intense and incremental engagement with Cibachrome. He knows its capabilities like a concert pianist knows a keyboard.
Once upon a time there was considerable demand for this material. It found widespread application in commercial photography, and was also fashionable among artists in the 80s and 90s for large-scale colour prints. Another, rather different client was the Royal Air Force, which used Cibachrome for its aerial photography. But tempus fugit – and the digital revolution has come. The raf moved on, as did commercial users. As a result the material steadily rose in cost, and even artists who specialized in Cibachrome photography abandoned it in droves. Fabian Miller is one of the few holdouts, one of the last members of an endangered species on the wrong side of natural selection.
Now, at last, the inevitable has come to pass. The factory in Switzerland that makes Cibachrome announced in 2012 that it would cease production. Fabian Miller can tell you exactly how long his dwindling supplies will last. It’s not just that he’ll run out of paper: the undeveloped material is not entirely stable, so any stock he hasn’t used by about 2016 will be more or less wasted. His darkroom has become a clock, counting down the days until his career – as he has known it – comes to an end.
How has he reacted to this extraordinary artistic situation? I’d use the word stoic. Speaking to Fabian Miller in the garden of the Victoria and Albert Museum recently, I felt like I was talking to a man who lives at the bottom slope of an active volcano, but has decided that he set out his front door until the lava is flowing past his threshold. He is clearly sad to see Cibachrome go the way of the dinosaurs, and in some ways it has happened too soon. He is mid-career, still at the peak of his creative powers, constantly finding new things to explore. But viewed in another way, Fabian Miller has been given a great gift. Few artists get to craft the ending to their own stories, and fewer still get to do so on a clearly established schedule with plenty of advance notice.
This returns us to the question of craft. Fabian Miller speaks movingly about his daily experience as an artist, which as I hinted above, he likens to that of a production potter. Richard Batterham, for example. This stalwart of the functional ceramics scene is a favourite of Fabian Miller’s, who loves to eat and drink out of his sturdy, well-thrown, earthen vessels. He makes a habit of visiting Batterham in his country workshop, not because he sees anything new each time but precisely because he doesn’t: ‘all sorts of things are going on in the world, but in this place, there’s this man throwing pots eight hours a day, and no one’s taking any notice of him. Like an act of witness. And as time passes, perhaps it will be vindicated.’
To my way of thinking, Fabian Miller touches on something absolutely crucial about the artistic life here, particularly artistic lives conducted out of the spotlight, without the immediate gratification that the media and the marketplace afford the lucky few. When you have chosen a certain path as a maker, every day becomes a justification, a way of living up to past commitments. As Fabian Miller puts it, ‘you just have to hope that the decision they’ve made has been the right one.’
This quality of dedication is absolutely intrinsic to Fabian Miller’s work. His photographic oeuvre is built up slowly in what he characterizes as ‘accumulative daily activity,’ gradually forming a stratigraphy of form and meaning. To enhance this effect he generally works within series. Each picture stands on its own, of course, but it is also a reaction to the previous day’s picture. Even more than most artists, his body of work is more than the sum of its parts. His first show of camera-less photographs, held in 1985, included every picture he had made in the process so far. He remembers thinking that he should not impose an external standard of judgment on the work. An individual viewer might find certain standout images in the collection, but for Fabian Miller it was more important that they been seen as a totality, in which all the photos ‘have equal value, whether they’re successes or failures.’ He has broadly held to this stance ever since. So for example, he sometimes feels that the most resolved and rigorous pictures he produces are not the ones that find buyers easily, but this does not concern him. Perhaps, he reflects, someone has seen something he did not and so it should be allowed to survive. In any case each piece takes its part in the whole.
It is entirely in keeping with this holistic method that he has decided that his last series, in which the countdown to the post-Cibachrome era is made manifest, will include every picture he has made since 2009. This of course raises the stakes, already high given the preciousness of his materials, to an even higher pitch. There is no room for error when you aim this high, and Fabian Miller is applying every bit of his hard-won, soon-to-be-obsolete expertise in making this last group of photographs. ‘I want them,’ he says, ‘to be the most beautiful, blissful, last-thing-you-see-before-you-die images.’ Notice the quality of release in this phrase; for all the pressure he is putting on the project, he also sees that its end will be a type of liberation. Who wouldn’t want to have the chance to start again?
With this in mind, Fabian Miller is indeed preparing another way of working, and is finding a way to embrace the digital era. For the moment, this involves working with a trusted collaborator, John Bodkin of the firm Dawkin’s Colour. Bodkin is a highly skilled artisan of a very 21st-century kind. His specialism is in processing for large digital printers, and more particularly in manipulating the ‘colour space’ of an image to maximize the potential of this equipment. It may seem odd to call him a craftsman, as his work is entirely in a non-material realm. He works from Fabian Miller’s prints to create a resolved digital file. This is then sent to Metro, in London, one of the few printers able to make the large scale Lambda prints, whose surface aspires to the liquid surface of Cibachrome. In many ways, this collaborative way of working is an evolutionary bridge between the historic and the futuristic, the analogue and the digital. Fabian Miller and Bodkin’s partnership echoes distributed production arrangements that have long been used in photography – specialist developers often help artists realize their prints. And the process allows Fabian Miller to edition his work, as any number of copies can be made once a unique Cibachrome photograph has been digitized. The process still relies on the original, but each subsequent copy (if it can be called that) is just as remarkable an object, thanks to Bodkin’s skill and the astonishing capabilities of the tools involved.
As with many artist-artisan relationships, this collaboration is an extended reality check on both sides. Bodkin recalls that when Fabian Miller first approached him, he had to ‘acquaint him with the reality that what he wanted would not be achievable.’ What they did achieve however is remarkable: each digital print is made from four large-resolution camera captures which Bodkin stitches together. He then works across the digital colourspace, making innumerable minute corrections of hue and intensity, so that the eventual result (once processed through a Lambda printer) will be as close to the original as possible. As so often with very fine craftsmanship, the essence of his work is to efface itself. For both men it is a ‘labour of love,’ and one that benefits from extended practice: over time Bodkin has become intimate with certain shades that appear in Fabian Miller’s pictures, and has learned how to replicate them in the prints. If Bodkin does his job perfectly then the art work will approximate, more or less exactly, what Fabian Miller gave him in the first place. That the two men are working at the very extremes of photographic technology – the camera-less and the meta-digital – perfectly emblematizes the transition currently sweeping through the medium.
‘ We happen to be alive at the end of 150 years of chemical photography,’ Fabian Miller observes, ‘and we’re just at the beginning of the digital.’ Who knows what might be possible in a further 150 years time? Whatever may come, it will doubtless make his current work look rudimentary in comparison. We’ve been here before, of course. Henry Fox Talbot and the other inventors of photography managed to create pictures through means that now seem astonishingly primitive – at first without using cameras, just as Fabian Miller does. (The V&A’s 2010 exhibition Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography, curated by Martin Barnes, explored the continuity of this fascinating photographic subgenre.) Yet those early pictures look ‘wonderful today, almost sacred,’
in his judgment. Many would agree. The Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, for example, has made large digital prints from Fox Talbot’s surviving paper negatives, enacting a communion between the deep past and immediate future of photography in a way that parallels Fabian Miller’s exploration.
‘Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future, and time future contained in time past.’ These famous opening lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets speak to the riddling knot of temporality conceived as such – outside of simple linear sequence. This complex, tangled perception of time is present at all times in the everyday – we all feel it as we navigate life with only our memories and hopes to guide us – but perhaps it can only be approached through the poetic.
This, I feel, is the true aim of Fabian Miller’s final project. He is at once scriptwriter and leading player in a temporal drama, acting out the last scene of the production; the denouement is rich in retrospective implication. It is a standard motif: the prop that has been sitting on stage since act one, only coming into dramatic focus at the very end. Certain longstanding features of Fabian Miller’s photographic output suddenly seem to have been imbued with prophetic import: the dark shadows that constantly impinge on their edges, his suggestion of distant horizon lines, his attraction to sublime voids. In hindsight his oeuvre is newly legible as a protracted near-death experience, with all the trepidation and transcendence that phrase implies.
Fabian Miller’s images have often been described as spiritual. Like the paintings of Rothko or – better – the light installations of James Turrell, they lend substance to that old adage about the eyes being the windows of the soul. The enormous pictorial space they seem to contain is of course illusory (and the fact that the pictures are physical objects, chemical dye on paper, ever present to the mind). Even so, they are so luminous, so capacious, that they almost demand a quasi-religious response. But perhaps it’s only now that the content of this spirituality has arrived. It is, perhaps, in the nature of a prefiguration – a trope
familiar from Christianity. Just as the Old Testament is considered to form a template for the story of the messiah (Moses for Jesus, Eve for the Virgin Mary), Fabian Miller’s spacious pictures, often horizontal in orientation, seem to visualize the horizon line of his practice. Like the prototypical film ending sequence, these images glide into the distance with a sense of sublime resolution. When I asked him why these pictures, which address such a serious and possibly upsetting subject, were so vibrant, he agreed: ‘they don’t look like the pictures of an “old person” made at a time of endings. I still believe after all these years in this thing called the future.’ If he is a man riding off into the sunset, he is doing it with his eyes open.
© Glenn Adamson. First published in Bliss, by Garry Fabian Miller
HackelBury Fine Art and Filtow, May 2015
Glenn Adamson is the Nanette L Laitman Director of the Museum of Arts and Design, New York.
He was Head of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until September 2013.
Dr. Adamson is co-editor of the triannual Journal of Modern Craft, and the author of Thinking
Through Craft (Berg Publishers / V&A Publications), an anthology entitled The Craft Reader
(Berg, 2010), and The Invention of Craft (Berg, 2013). His other publications include the
co-edited volume Global Design History (Routledge, 2011). He was the co-curator for the
exhibition Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 to 1990, which was on view at the
V&A from September 2011 to January 2012.
Bliss by Garry Fabian Miller
Published by HackelBury Fine Art and Filtow, 2015
Printed on HP Indigo presses, with lay-flat perfect binding.
164 pages with 53 full colour illustrations.
Essay by Glenn Adamson, Director of the Museum of Art and Design, New York.
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