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Documentary & portraiture photography

2.1 The gaze in portraiture 2.2 Image and text 2.3 Case studies
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arrow Case Studies - Hamish Fulton | Karen Knorr | Duane Michals | Barbara Kruger

Hamish Fulton has succeeded in creating intriguing work where the combination of words and pictures is reduced to very simple levels. Not content to inform us through a picture alone, Fulton provides us details he feels essential to a greater understanding of the efforts and route he has undertaken to complete the work, and the walk.

This is the photography of experience, an attempt to harness immediacy. The ingredients are stripped bare, and the information listed in a clinical fashion. The words become photographs - they emote visual situations triggered by the single image which acts as a visual guide to the imagination. The provided text is supposed to trigger our imagination to create more pictures in our mind of the experience of the walk. Herein lies the artwork - the stimulation of the mind to recreate using clues - triggers. This is minimalism in two contexts.

Does the combination of word and picture extend the narrative? Do the clues, the triggers form enough of a stimulus to create and sustain a narrative enough to form an emotional response? Or do we just look at the facts and assume that as the work has been done, the emotional landscape has been created, and we are free to witness it in a gallery situation, separate, observational.

Fulton is deliberately cryptic about his own work, in “photo, text, text, photo” he describes his work in this way:

“BUILD
an experience

The walk is.

The artwork is about.

Walking is the constant.
The art medium is the variable.

THOUGHTS SILENCED BY BIRDSONG.”

Fulton describes his working method and reduces it to an ambiguous poem ending in Zen like evasion. True meaning through experience is evasive in Fulton’s work. The meaning is in the walking, the art work seems to be arbitrarily created from the minutiae he feels he couldn’t complete his work without - the route details, and a photographic record of the purpose, often the end point of the walk.

In fact, the photograph is often dispensed with entirely, and a bare diary of the journey is presented like a list of facts that provide evidence of the walk taking place. It is a curious approach to undertake such long walks and record such minimal observations, and then present them in such a simplistic way. Each step seems to be overlooked and condensed into one photograph, a list of climactic and geographical observations, then printed, framed and hung on a wall. The words become images - or image triggers. The single photographs are visual reference points where the duplicate journey of the imagination of the viewer either starts or ends.

All the facts seem quite bland when looked at individually. Together, they tell a story, albeit not a very interesting one, as Fulton goes on many walks and presents many of them in similar ways. Compiled, the works look like a catalogue of adventure, and starts to have a rhythm. Here is where the key to the work lies for me. The rhythm Fulton starts to create when his work is seen collectively rather than in individual parts is reminiscent of the rhythms one creates in one’s head when walking. These rhythms become the way of walking, the sounds of the footsteps you make, the timing of each step, repetitive, endless, sending one into a trance which is self sustaining, addictive, and self motivating. It becomes like a mantra, repetitive themes and techniques suggest a steady pace, a trance like concentration, similar to the rhythms of walking for such long distances over long periods of time. Walking is a trance-like compulsion, and the words are notes in a musical sense, repeated over and over to prolong the succession of steps to the end point. In this sense the words become songs, like the songs soldiers use to keep going on forced marches. The artwork made is a validation of the experience, and a result of it.

Fulton is listening to this rhythm in his head, and details fall into this rhythm, trapped because they fit between the steps. These are the details he writes down, remembers, and uses as triggers. I assume the photographs fit the same way - they signify a point where the walk means something beyond the location- and describe the oneness with Fulton and the landscape. This is why they may appear arbitrary to us, who have not undergone the essentiality of the walk. To Fulton they are defining moments - and are thus recorded and represented. More than that, Fulton calls his art a “symbolic gesture of respect for nature.”

In the recent exhibition at the Tate Gallery, London, Fulton’s work is presented in a concise retrospective. Work from the early eighties to the present is included, and the striking impression is the development in the graphic presentation of the type elements of Fulton’s pieces. He says he is influenced by advertising, and considers it an art form in itself, and has borrowed heavily from large format printing techniques to produce large word only pieces.

© John Frederick Anderson

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