Phillip Jones   Statement   



The architectural landscape around us is generally perceived in distraction.  As the background for human events, it's not itself the subject of life’s dramas.  However, perhaps because I’ve worked in scenic design for the theater, I’ve been compelled to slip backstage and photograph urban scenes precisely to uncover that which escapes notice.  In particular, foregrounding the infrastructure and industry which supports our existence.


The familiar bridges and utilitarian structures we pass by daily, when viewed up close or from an unfamiliar vantage point, can display an elegance and monumentality that is anything but prosaic.  Similarly, by photographing concealed industrial areas illuminated by their own artificial light at night, the shadows and tonal contrast of strong directional lighting convert these settings, like stage scenery, from taken-for-granted invisibility to unexpected revelations.


Unlike the theater, where the impact is calculated, these special conditions must be happened upon by a photographer. I become a searcher of promising sites; patiently anticipating the uncertain coming-together of a scene with a particular light, compositional elements and accidental events that may transform the functional into the poetic. 


Photography, like drawing, is a means of comprehending intangibles. Shooting in black & white seems to convey the structural underpinnings of an image, refining a scene into simpler graphic components. The emphasis on tone in composition conveys a more unified impression in the final print.  The decorative veneer of color has been peeled away to redirect the eye to the essentials. It provides clarity and directness, although it looses some of the sensual satisfaction that color provides.


The extended exposures required to record these night images, some
as long as twenty minutes, don’t register human activity except as ephemeral streaks of light left by car or airplane headlight. Rivers and clouds average out into a hazy bands of mist. The moon and stars arc as they trace the rotation of the earth but the steel and concrete structures that constitute our domain imprint precisely into the negative. I’m not freezing an instant so much as documenting the passage of time; both in terms of extended exposure and the endurance of these industrial artifacts.


While on a job assisting a set designer, my task was to sit through rehearsals and make notes about whether the sets and production were working together.  As the rehearsals switched back and forth from houselights to stage lights, I became fascinated how the set would come to life with the focused, intentional lighting.  Back on the street after a rehearsal, late night New York seemed like a giant stage; the ultimate production.


Security lights are un-natural light, very different from sunlight. I look for places where a banal scene becomes a transcendent moment.  Night conjures associations of fear, a time when we’re not supposed to be out exploring our world.  Night is when most of the world sleeps. I like finding shots of a busy world at rest, the serendipitous moment that is the pregnant pause suggesting “life” but quietly.


Each photograph represents hours of wandering.  Some trips may result in only a few images, but during the search I’m in a sharpened state of awareness.  I suddenly wake up to my surroundings.  The camera snaps me back to the present.  While engaged in recording these vast, unoccupied places I’m aware of the efforts of unnamed armies of human participants who have collaborated to create the physical structure of our civilization.


At first glance this series appears to have nothing to do with people,
but that denies the central role that the observer has.  The work is about a solitary person witnessing a series of remarkable settings and situations.  The viewer is alone but not lonely.  When someone looks at one of these photographs they stand in the photographer's shoes and the experience is recreated through the filter of photographer's sensibilities. 


I want to capture the feeling of being in a certain place at a certain time.  A moment that will never be repeated.  Any people in the photograph are sharing the experience with me, not posing for portraits.  The sense that “time marches on” is present in all photography, but I try to embed it as one of the primary themes of this series.


Over the years many lines-of-inquiry have emerged. These aren’t major themes but are simpler questions such as, “How do you take photographs of strangers without destroying the spontaneity?” or “What happens to lights on water at different exposure times?” or “Is this shot worth going past the ‘No Trespassing’ sign for?”  Not questions that get answered, just problems to work on.


Half of my life I'm taking photographs in some of the world’s most interesting places and the other half I spend locked in an darkroom getting my experiences down on paper.  Although photography is a personal way to explore and interact with the world, my primary interest is to share these experiences with people that might gain value from the work. That’s what drives me to imbue the images with an indelible quality.  I want them to be articulate and convincing.  Art must assert its viability.


It’s gratifying to watch people assign layers of meaning to my images. The photograph becomes a Rorschach test for the viewer.  Architects consider urban issues, critics discuss sociopolitical ramifications and aestheticians remark on textures and tonalities.  Like a poem, a successful photograph is one that compels the viewer to look for deeper levels and has multiple readings.


When I was a kid I got the idea that at some point in the distant past a
group learned people sat around and made up the names for everything.  That became the language that we speak now.  No one has invented this visual language that we take for granted but certain artists occasionally come along who's work is so persuasive that they shift our culture’s visual zeitgeist single-handedly.


Photography has been around for over 1 1/2 centuries and there’s been a legion of great photographers that have interpreted the art form and even influenced the way we perceive the world around us.  I doubt if we can escape the cultural conditioning that defines the artistic taste of our time.  A photographer must come to terms with these traditions and eventually try to put them aside before moving ahead.


I have no problem working within the mainstream traditions of photography.  In fact, I feel that if you can make a strong creative contribution within the established parameters of the medium, it may be a greater triumph than throwing away the past and yet destined to reinvent the wheel.


Many musicians still use traditional instruments rather than synthesizers because it’s a particular way to interact with the sound.  It’s the same with film cameras. I like cameras that don’t use batteries, especially for long night exposures.  I like having a negative is that doesn't need a computer, and I prefer a silver-gelatin print over and ink-jet printout.  The film seems to offer a more direct connection between the original subject and the final print.


I was photographing a mechanic in Scranton, Pennsylvania whose job was to maintain steam locomotives.  I was telling him about shooting with film and he said, “That’s us, the tailing edge of technology.”  Visitors to the gallery see my work and ask, “Now, is he in his 90’s?”.  I find this somewhat reassuring.  Perhaps it means that my photographs transcend current trends.


  When we were children, photography was always something that our father did.  Then on a family vacation in Cape Cod, when I was 13, dad saw that I the was getting tired of floating around Great Pond in a little sailboat.  He pulled an Olympus half-frame camera out of his bag and said “Shoot anything that seems interesting”.  The jewel-like camera, which took 72 shots per roll, evolved from a recording device to an artistic tool.  I quickly learned that a photographer could alternate between participating in activities or, in an instant, step back and record them as a bystander.


Dad spent a lot of time in the basement darkroom.  In the dimness of
a safelight, a blank sheet of paper would magically transform into a photograph before my eyes.  On mornings I'd go down to see the dried prints.  The creative harvest of a late night.


My brothers and I have great memories of piling into the station-wagon and going on dad’s photography adventures. With five boys in the family it was as though a clown-car would pull up and we’d all tumble out.  He’d take us to an abandoned hotel or along the Potomac river.  We were up in the Blue Ridge mountains a lot.  Places that required an energy-dampening hike.  He’d say to irate grounds keepers that he just wanted "the boys to have a look", meanwhile he’d get his shots.


At exhibits of my photographs I start to identify with the other viewers and see the work as a casual onlooker might see it.  I realize that they can't know about all the internal responses and tangential experiences that happened while I was taking the shot, all the things that won't get transmitted.  The art is now truly cut loose from its creator.  People who will have never heard of Phillip Jones will bring their own associations to the print.


Before this series Julia Coash and I worked in a studio photographing table-top assemblages of found objects submerged in various gels and lit from behind.  The project ran its course after we were pulled to separate cities.  Before that I worked in other fields of visual art such as medical illustration, oil painting and set design.  All these disciplines have influenced my current work as a photographer.  I still draw ink-sketches of many of the subjects that I photograph to clarify my impressions.


I haven’t given up on photographing nature, although it’s the interaction between the natural and artificial that provides the dynamics that I connect to.  A photograph is simply some marks and tones spread across a piece of paper. How can it compete with the vividness of nature?  That’s why the viewer must make the leap and meet the photograph halfway.  The best photographs invite the viewer to find the image’s meaning themselves.


There’s almost a perverse pleasure in seeing dangerous places presented tastefully in the safety of a gallery.  At a quiet moment just before the opening of my exhibit at the Fuller Museum, a couple walked through on the way to the quilt show next door. The husband glanced around without stopping and said, “Who’d want to look at all the stuff we have to drive by every day?”  Actually, part of my goal as a photographer is to show that the here-and-now is worth a look.  If we can just slow down and park the car, there are amazing experiences waiting.


When you make up theories about your creative approach it’s easy to become trapped by the rules that were supposed to give your work structure.  Art is like quantum mechanics;  once you pin it down with an explanation all of the amorphous states that made it more interesting collapse and vanish.  I make a conscious effort to avoid closing off options.  I try to see things for the first time, to be like a kid stumbling upon a treasure. It’s a search for meaningful first-hand experience, although the ghosts of all the photographs I’ve ever seen influence my vision.


 
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