Monday 1 July 2013

David Moore: Pictures From The Real World

Ahead of his book signing at Les Rencontres d’Arles (13:00 5 July, Le Bal bookshop stand, The CLUB), 1000 Words Deputy Editor Michael Grieve speaks to David Moore about his most recent publication Pictures From The Real World - a collaborative project between Here Press and Dewi Lewis - that focuses on families on a housing estate in the photographer’s home town of Derby, UK, made between 1987 and 1988.

Michael Grieve: Pictures from the Real World are photographs that were taken between 1987 and 1988. After all these years how did the book come to be published now?

David Moore: The collector, James Hyman bought many of the archive prints from 1988 in 2011. That resurrected the Project. It was almost 25 years, and it felt right. I had no idea that the work would be so popular as they are part of my own history and therefore have been ever present, for long periods away in boxes, and dormant, but nevertheless always around in my head.

I scanned old negatives, worked on an edit on the Mac and put together a PDF that I then transferred to Kindle on my iPhone. I was in Manchester judging a competition with Dewi [Lewis] and showed him and Caroline the work on the phone initially, and we went from there. The work was a collaboration between Dewi Lewis and Here Press in London, where I am based, and it seems that that arrangement worked very well and the book has been very well-received at all levels.

MG: During this time you were a student at Farnham and your tutors included Martin Parr and Paul Graham, innovators of the new colour documentary photography attitude in the UK. How did they help shape and inform your practice? Who else influenced your approach?

DM: I like the description of it as an ‘attitude’. Paul and Martin were around as tutors and obviously influenced what I did as did other students from that time and place that is already well documented. Of the two, Paul Graham was more of an influence in that I had managed to see a copy of A1 as soon as it he self-published it in 1983. I found it in the Derby College of HE library. This was pre- Farnham….. I started working in colour transparency soon after, alongside more conventional black and white work. This was very exciting, and a personal ‘discovery’.

MG: You must have been very aware of ‘stereotypical’ representations of the working classes. Social documentary photography had previously tended to depict the working classes with pride, as somehow heroic and stoic. They knew their place with a fixed identity. Or representations showed abject misery. Your images reveal a sense of fragmentation and uncertainty. How conscious were you of these differences and what decisions did you make to convey a form of representation that did not objectify and victimise?

DM: The original edit of the work was a little harder than the current one. In revising the work I have also been able to see other photographs that I was mature enough to make, but not confident enough to bring forward to an edit. This could have been for several reasons. There was a momentum at the time, particularly at Farnham, around the new color. It was very competitive as well, and sometimes subtleties were lost. The other aspect here is that whilst our ‘practice tutors’ included Martin Parr and Paul Graham, our ‘theory’ tutors were both graduates of Victor Burgin’s at PCL! And they came with an entirely different ideological agendas on the representational questions you are addressing, ideas that opposed and challenged the inherent modernism of ‘new colour’, forced mine and others’ practice through a Marxist grinder and made us aware of the power relations inherent in this sort of practice. For me this provided grist for what came later. Much of this I can see retrospectively, at the time it wasn’t an intellectualised space at all

The work was very much about the medium also. David Chandler refers to this in the fantastic essay he wrote for the book, I was trying things out, as an artist, being a bit wayward. I was conscious of the stereotypes but my intentions were to see how the medium could observe other things in the family dynamics, social relations not just what it looked like. I have never been interested in just what things look like, but of course, particularly now, with the exotica of recent history is what partially accounts for the works’ popularity.

But with Pictures From The Real World I feel that the work I am showing now, from then, has a real equilibrium to it. It is a blend of youthful energy and psychological projections alongside an editor calming things down in a benevolent and almost fatherly way. I have advised and reassured my younger self of some small ability at least, and that, in spite of the Foucaultian shadows, there was no malicious intent. 

MG: To be a concerned photographer at this time was beginning to be perceived as condescending and naive. Ideological motivation was idealist, unrealistic and indulgent. Your photographs are certainly not sentimental. In a sense, they just show from a more subjective stance. But how do you reconcile this sense of being concerned, as obviously a prime motivation for this work is one of anger and injustice? Is it a frustration of not making a difference that is ingrained in Pictures From The Real World?

DM: Your agenda, not mine. You make assumptions because of the ‘subject matter’…. Why is that?

There are still many people working as ‘concerned photographers’ right up to the present day. You have to explain the context of this to a younger audience I feel. Tom Stoddart is a concerned photographer who, by his own admission, has to resort to negative stereotypes to raise money to emancipate those his practice visually objectifies as victims, because that’s how it Works. Your assumption here is that because these people were poor and they appeared in pictures they needed help. I find that condescending and naive!

Being ‘concerned’ wasn’t the main motivator at all, I found myself here because the estate was close to where I lived. I was walking around as one does (or one used to do) taking pictures and one day I thought to knock on doors and push it a bit. One of the other books I had just discovered was Larry Fink’s Social Graces and I loved his documentation of the blue collar Pennsylvanian family life in that.

I never saw the work as ‘concerned’ practice. Nor had any faith in photography to change anything societally, with a few exceptions of course. I hated The Tories and what they had done but there was no way I would intentionally use these people as metaphors for my political beliefs in this manner. Looking back its hard not to see anything else perhaps: the beginnings of the emergent underclass maybe but I didn’t think this at the time. It was all quite familiar to me, it became a normal. 

MG: The decade of Thatcher was an increasingly complex one politically, economically and culturally for issues relating to identity and class division. Your work reveals a historical moment of displacement from working class to a new under class denied access to the labour market just as the consumer society began. In hindsight do you think your condensed story adequately signifies this juncture?

DM: I don’t see this as a ‘story’, that fits, oh so neatly, into an editorial context. There is no ending…. I am not trying to control a narrative, or offer anything that is significantly linear; that belittles what I was trying to do. I see it as a record of a particular time and place, of me then, and, though it might sound grandiose, of British documentary practice at a particular time. BUT, conversely, later I did offer it to the Sunday newspapers as I recognised then that one of the medium’s great strengths was its elasticity. But, at this time, in the end, nobody wanted to use the photographs in an editorial context.

MG: Children feature in many of your photographs. Why is this?

DM: There were always lots of kids around.

MG: The formal elements in your work edges on the dissonant. Wholeness gives way to the confusion of human form colliding with the domestic interior of patterned carpets and non-generic furniture. The photographs are direct and blunt, and you work well within your limitations of space. In the actuality of photographing how difficult was it for you to make visual sense while adhering to a 'freed up' aesthetic?

DM: Good question. A very good friend of mine, an illustrator, asked me about my composition and I honestly couldn’t answer. I never think about it. I just know when it balances. It is intuitive, working like this ‘at speed’ as David Chandler says seeking recognition… I honestly think I can remember actually taking every picture, actually standing there and pressing the button. To go too far into this sort of stuff leads you towards cul-de-sacs of the uncanny! But also as a colourist, the same applies. I can see in retrospect, clear plots emerging that I cannot remember thinking about at the time.

MG: How did the families react to your interest in them? Did you find that there was a sense of complicity or did you always feel like an ‘outsider on the inside’?

DM: I was always an outsider in reality. In the interests of rigorous exploration practice, I did work with some families on a series of staged works that were introduced by me, but collaborative. It made one or two successful photographs, but the ‘momentum’ I touched on earlier won out in terms of which work became public. But it was foreign space to me initially and whilst we all got on, there was only a partial social reconciliation between myself and the people I worked with.

MG: In the mid 80's the new colour documentary photographers started to move towards different, more conceptual ways of representations. How did you feel about this and after Pictures From The Real World did you follow this trend? If so, with what projects?

DM: My work developed in obverse ways. In my next project, The Velvet Arena, which was my first solo show in London at The Photographers’ Gallery in 1994, I continued the ideas of working in defined spaces, attempting to observe undercurrents of communication and dynamics of societal relationships in another foreign space of the private view and society party in London. It was a way of me being able to engage with the city and work in different spaces, with very different sorts of people. The work changed from here and developed into a more directly politicised practice, engagement and observation of The State via, my books The Commons, 2004, and The Last Things, 2008, and the series 28days (unpublished, but exhibited at The Bluecoat, Liverpool in 2011). It is not difficult to follow the thread from Pictures From The Real World to the later work; turning around the camera 180 degrees, observing physical centres of institutional power, rather than what might be seen as spectacular symptoms of the underclass in the other, there is an obvious connection. 

MG: What do you think the legacy of Pictures from the Real World is? And as a counter point how do you understand and feel about contemporary documentary practice?

DM: On a personal level it’s made me want to photograph people again. Contemporary documentary practice is still an exciting place to be if photographers are willing to experiment with, rather than accept, realist paradigms, and work in challenging and appropriate ways that may borrow from fine art practice as equally as photographic histories.

In the last 15 years or so students have shied away from representing people, it has understood as a potentially problematic area and this has proliferated a conservatism, a sort of sedentary engagement, that challenges nothing and is easily commodifiable. This I find dull and lazy.

There is still more work to be done around representation, around issues being communicated, and in doing so space for the actual modernity of the medium to be challenged as well, i.e; the work can also progress what the medium can be, at the same time crucially maintaining links with history, culture and society, and that work might now be made with, rather than about people.