“the machinations of ambiguity are among the very roots of poetry”
Unusually among most successful contemporary photographers, Jason Fulford is an artist with whom it is not reflexive to associate a singular image, or a specific milieu. One might automatically identify Judith Joy Ross with a Protest the War portrait, Alec Soth with a dilapidated American myth, or Pieter Hugo with a near baroque African anachronism… But Jason is a photographer whose work is so intensely defined by its polyphonic nature, by its plasticity, and by the kinetic eccentricities of its sequencing that single images seem an insufficient measure with which to summarise it.
Any extended exposure to Jason’s work creates a strong sense of seriality and interplay, of contingency, of an ephemeral and explosive connectivity between images. His work is typically made up of transitive images: images that are always fundamentally co-dependent, as opposed to free-standing. Every individual image is subject to the shifting dynamics of the sequence to which it belongs; each image can be made to blend into, or to lead through to its successor, so that in keeping with the strictly mathematical sense of a transitive relationship: Because a = b, and b = c, we begin to believe that a = c.
It is in this sense that I think Fulford’s photographic world is a rabbit warren, or an echo chamber — an environment that seems as we sense it barely to conform to the strict principles of three-dimensional space. In Jason’s work, the natural recurrence of form which might ordinarily induce in us a sense of logic just as easily produces absurdity. A tent, the flanks of a fjord and the shoulders of a sloping hill are as integrally connected as the procession of a marching band, and the cascade of a great waterfall: form binds together what is disparate and disjunctive, suggesting both the possibility of order and the probability of randomness.
In Fulford’s photobooks, waiting for a plot is as fruitless a pursuit as waiting for Godot in the Beckett play, and every bit as absurd. His books depends for their effectiveness upon our predilection for play, our wilfully connective and associative inclination to reconstruct discourse from discrete and essentially unrelated moments and objects. The pictures are governed by a rule, and the sequence is not random in the sense of meaninglessness, but the rule is play. The photographs suggest that to be playful, to test, to experiment with the plasticity of the photograph and the electricity of the imagination can be as instructive as it is bewildering. The sequences are geared toward their own cumulative expansion, contraction and contradiction, geared towards illustrating how mesmerisingly plural even the most incidental of subjects can be.
“We must take literally what vision teaches us: namely, that through it we touch the sun and the stars, that we are everywhere at once, and that even our power to imagine ourselves elsewhere — “I am in Petersburg in my bed, in Paris, my eyes see the sun” — or freely to envision real beings, wherever they are, borrows from vision and employs means we owe to it. Vision alone teaches us that beings that are different, “exterior,” foreign to one another, are yet absolutely together, are “simultaneity”; which is a mystery psychologists handle the way a child handles explosives.”
Follow the Lego Brick Road.
In Jason’s work, every image is the equal of the one that follows or precedes it, and no single image is pre-eminent. This notion is reinforced by the square format of his photographs, which makes all images in a sequence proportionally identical, and ostensibly interchangeable. Precisely because the images are equal, they can be made to seem equivalent by their mere juxtaposition.
It feels to me as though each image has been invested with an equal amount of intense curiosity at the point of its making, and then left to the rhythms, the complementarities and the discord of its conjunction with those other images it is ultimately drawn to. Neither portrait nor landscape is afforded any automatic pre-eminence, and each image forms its part in a kind of musical phrasing that privileges ambiguity and coincidence over a strict hierarchy of form. Since any two subjects can be equated, all images are equal: something close to a radically democratic neutrality perhaps, but one that is nevertheless suffused with playful intent.
Binding together seemingly unrelated and arbitrary moments in such apparently interchangeable form, Jason’s sequences alternate between puns and palindromes, patterns and pairs, between convergent and divergent forms that consistently frustrate any expectation of a linear evolution in story. It is from this contingency and ambiguity that his sequences develop guile, become bemusing, intriguing, witty and occasionally frustrating. As his images bemuse and intrigue, they point up the wondrous complexities of perception, the arbitrary bases by which we categorise experience, and the irresistible lure of a world made over for us solely by the patterning of the photographic lens.
“Clay is fashioned into vessels; but it is on their empty hollowness that their use depends.”
— Lao Tzu
To wander around one of Jason’s books is to spend time in a world of ideas, of ideas found in the world and rendered up as images in a kind of instantaneous act of discovery, of ideas as the perceptible contours of an essentially connected world — a world crafted from the electric simultaneity of vision. The world of a Fulford photobook is at one and the same time a world of whimsy, of escapism, of oddity and perpetually meaningful play. We have the sense within the enclosed space of his photobooks that one image may lead us anywhere next, that we are wandering through a multi-dimensional rabbit warren of little Narnias hidden within crevices, behind doors, or in the space between the pages.
The pictures are not an expressly documentary record of a specific place or group of people, but rather a kind of multipolar Easter egg hunt through the random attractions and disjunctions thrown up when a photographer marries their curiosity to the instinctual responses of perception, and then tests the ground where the rigours of sense-making and the impulsiveness of photographic seeing meet. A common feature of this work is the persuasive influence of repeating or interlinking forms. The interweaving branches of a tree echo the overlapping faces of masonry; the rhythmic patterning of a tiled and painted pavement mirrors the angular pose of wire mannequins, changing the ostensibly ordinary into the potentially bizarre.
To browse through the chapters in Crushed, for instance, is to enter a world of equivalence and dense metaphor, a seemingly unending echo chamber in which there is no perceptible distinction between the immense and the microscopic, the interior and the external. Twinned forms echo each other through the alternating guise of contrails, statues, lamps or pathways, are enriched by the addition of allusions to visibility, a notion expanded into an allegory and then quickly subverted, first by irony and then coincidence. We find ourselves in a world where trees extend their shade like grasping hands, and we are ceaselessly drawn by the image to step through the looking glass. At the precise point where we might sense the outline of a thesis, a lamb intercedes, or a car wreck interjects, and what has passed is newly reworked by the disjuncture of what follows. In these books it seems that ideas pattern visual experience, and that experience reciprocally structures vision.
The Unknown Known.
Within the sequences in each book, images are by turns attracted toward and repelled by each other in a rhythmic cadence, and resonances made up of colour, or form or content crash headlong into non-sequiturs and stubborn incongruity. Just as form can give pace to the evolution of a sequence, so a picture’s subject can give weight to a broader sense of absurdity. The front cover of Crushed depicts a classically-styled stone staircase in the open air, rising up at the lip of a tiled pathway at the edge of a bluff like an escalator to some invisible floor, while the back cover shows a group of men squatting attentively around a hole in the pavement down which a wooden ladder runs. Both staircase and ladder beckon us on, neither staircase nor ladder suffice to tell us of our destination, but each refer themselves to a journey toward the unknown — a journey toward that which presently cannot be seen.
Beyond the evident gratification of wittily rendered anachronism, these images double as epigrams and warnings — pointing us toward the inevitability that something in all of this seeing will remain unresolved. We are either encouraged by the experience of viewing to relinquish the expectation of a conclusion made up of neatly congruent lines — encouraged to abandon the persuasive appeal of syllogism — or we are unsettled, deterred, uncertain.
Some of that uncertainty arises from the notion that each photograph is both a clue and a riddle, and is thus in some essential way inscrutable but necessarily subject to our curious scrutiny. One picture patterns another but not a set of external events in the world, and this makes us as viewers dependent on the world of the pictures in spite of our instinct to tie them to forces outside of the book. In this way the pictures often operate as metaphors for our relation with the world, and with vision, and in their rhythmic connectivity they describe the idea of ‘pattern integrity‘ that titles a chapter in Raising Frogs for $$$.
In Jason’s pictures, metaphor arises not at the point when the image is created, but in its placement and dynamic functions within the sequence. The individual image in this way depends on its natural affinities or apparent dissimilitude with those that surround it. To paraphrase Max Kozloff, picture-sequencing like this can make vision ‘a mystery to perception itself’. The work makes a visible declaration, or rather visibly enunciates the idea that photography and vision reveal to us the essentially connective and synthesising nature of perception — perception being a faculty as dubious and dynamic as it is morphological or metaphorical.
“It is nature’s counter-balance to its own meaninglessness, to have created a being whose very purpose is to find meaning”
Opening Raising Frogs for $$$ with an image of a bland beige wall, boarded up with a wooden panel riddled with a patterning of non-sensical holes is at once playful and wilfully metaphorical. The wall is decontextualised, isolated, smudged, and bears no obvious relation to frogs. It is neither a terrarium nor (apparently) a nursery for tadpoles, but a pictorial gambit that states, to some extent, the photographer’s case. We are irreparably drawn to look, and in looking we are drawn to find meaning. We will invariably make sense of what we see whether it conforms with what in fact is, or merely with what we happen to believe.
The image of the wall is followed by photograph depicting a tangle of climbing frames and a ladder that portends an irresolvable mess, a certain illogical or obscure meshwork of relations, and that at the same time hints toward a space for play. This picture is in turn followed by a ramp, which serves literally and transitively to link where we find ourselves with what is to come, a picture which describes an object that exists to launch us over the neighbouring fence and into that which is not depicted, into that which remains unknown. The frogs may or may not be hidden behind the wall, but teasing out the wall’s significance can be sufficient pretext for a giggle or a revelation.
“The nature of metaphor depends on innumerable varying factors; but its raison d’être is always the same: it is what connects the event and the artist’s judgement of it: it is the means of rendering the subject and its meaning visually inseparable. The thing interpreted becomes the interpretation.”
Jason’s photography presupposes in its audience an absolute faith in the radical powers of imagination and vision, and depends on us to allow the efforts of both of these to reconfigure what we know about the world as it is given to us to experience it. The pictures suggest that that world is a complex and shifting mixture of perception, intention, analysis and intimation — a kind of discourse, or story. They suggest that no accident can be entirely without meaning, and that any object when properly seen possesses elusive and yet compelling mystery.
It is difficult to operate for long seeing in this way. The heightened state of receptiveness to allusion that the photographs depend upon, their receptivity to coincidence, to corresponding and contradictory forms, all point toward a way of seeing that must in turn condition a way of being in the world. And that way of being suggests a constant sensitivity to coincident forms, and incongruous subjects. It is ironic, in a sense, that such playful work at one and the same time foregrounds the effort required by play.
A Democracy of the Absurd.
“The Absurd… is an absence of correspondence between the mind’s need for unity and the chaos of the world the mind experiences”
- John Russell Taylor, The Absurd
The world as we know it is riddled with patterns, covered by arrays of corresponding or consonant forms whose sympathy to one another is, or appears to be, emblematic of some deeper underlying coherence. That coherence can seem to us ephemeral or ineffable, but its appearance is conditioned by the constraints of our perception, and by our essentially arbitrary, temporal and contingent experience. The absurd is that which appears incongruous, inconsistent with the pattern of reason, inharmonious in some obtuse and irresolvable way.
The most radical aspect of Jason’s photographs is their categorical indifference to any hierarchy that privileges one type of subject over another. Within the precincts of his photobooks, any and all subjects are absolutely equal, and this equanimity enables him to return something of their original strangeness to the most commonplace of things. Bedsheets and highways not only enjoy equal standing, but turn out bear an eery resemblance to each other. Mushrooms not only resemble goats, but remind us that we are surrounded by swarms of dormant possibilities. Paging through the layouts can give a feeling of flitting or slipping between parallel dimensions (setting out from a bathroom interior and winding up in a courtyard that seems eerily familiar). The equivalence of all subjects seems to suggest that the simple beauty of form is its own virtue — an ethos that perhaps conflicts with a certain kind of moral seriousness, but one that is neither childish nor reprehensible but rather the surest path to discovery.
This radically egalitarian way of photographing alters the descriptive obligations of the single image, because place and identity have subsidiary functions, and no one subject trumps another. Photographed within the narrower, more balanced parameters of the square format, this gives each image a strong impression of concision, of compactness and completeness. By exacerbating the horizontal, lateral and temporal discontinuity of the photographic frame, by cropping out the extensive reach of the line, by reducing the scope, the breadth of the horizon, the world we see appears more atomised, miniaturised – radically dissimilar to our innate sense of the breadth of the field of vision.
In this there is a fairness as democratic and realistic as the nature by which our lives. Our inherently selective nature, and the arbitrary habits of individual perception are of a piece with what gives the pictorial rhythms of Jason’s work an air of hypnotic irreality. It is work that is chaotic enough to unearth harmony, and structured enough to embrace the inevitability of the absurd.