A scavenger's hoard

For 30 years, Jonathan Miller has been taking photographs of details that caught his eye: torn posters, rusty trucks, peeling paint. It is art, he writes, done by decay
Click to follow
THE PHOTOGRAPHS that I began taking nearly 30 years ago are negligible things to which one would normally pay no attention at all. Nevertheless, these fragments and details attracted my eye and I felt the irresistible urge to record them.

I was unable to draw or paint what I saw, and in any case, I recognised that even if I had had the skill, I preferred a more mechanical method of capturing such appearances - something analogous to the method by which the retina makes its "prints". So, with one or two exceptions, I used a cheap automatic camera that would relieve me of the task of taking light readings and calculating exposures.What I wanted to do was to choose the view, frame it accurately, and let everything else take care of itself.

For the same reason I was happy to deliver the film to a 24-hour developing service, secure in the knowledge that the unpredictable variations of commercial processing would introduce peculiarities that I couldn't possibly foresee. But, in the final outcome, I preferred what I got to the picture I thought I was taking - and from then on I looked forward to such chemical "accidents". Fidelity was not, after all, the name of the game, though to be honest I am not quite certain what game I was playing.

It's difficult to reconstruct the scenes from which my "bits" have been captured. With certain conspicuous exceptions, the photographs were taken flat on and close up, so that the configuration more or less coincides with the plane of the paper. They're abstract designs derived from real surfaces - assemblages, if you like, in which haphazard wreckage and decay has done most of the art work for me. Even when the arrangement is unmistakably three-dimensional, it's impossible to tell what the immediate surroundings would have looked like - few of these pictures are even implicitly scenic.

They certainly aren't picturesque either. In spite of the fact that there is a recurrent theme of ruin and disarray, once regarded as a distinctive feature of that particular genre, there is too little nature and too much rubbish to satisfy the romantic definition of the picturesque. I admiringly recognise an affinity with the photographs of Aaron Siskind; like his, mine are just bits and pieces from nowhere in particular. I can't pretend that they add up to much, but in an odd way that has nothing to do with evocativeness, the collection is more than the sum of its randomly scavenged parts.

In a lecture devoted to the achievement of the 17th-century painter Claude, J M W Turner doubted that his French predecessor "could have attained such powers but by the continual study of the parts of nature". He was referring to the sketches in which Claude alluringly records his informal observation of natural detail. And yet as far as Turner was concerned, the idea of dignifying such studies as free-standing works of art was more or less inconceivable, because although he conceded that finished landscapes were, in a sense "pictures made up of bits", he saw no justification for exhibiting "pictures of bits" as such.

The irony is that while Turner himself rarely, if ever, painted what he would have described as a bit of a scene, many of his contemporaries did. The fact that such sketches were increasingly rendered in oil indicates that they were produced as an end in themselves and not necessarily with a view to a more "serious" painting imaginatively composed of such bits.

Thirty years before Turner's lecture, the French artist Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes had painted unusually "beheaded" pictures of Roman rooftops, in which the normally subsidiary details of chimneys and tiles assumed a monumental significance. At the same time, the previously conventional landscape painter Thomas Jones reframed his own vision and composed a series of disconcertingly eccentric canvasses representing the overlooked and undervalued backs and tops of Neapolitan houses. The serious attention thus given to the negligible aspects of the visible world gathered momentum in the years that followed, and in works from 1820 onward it is possible to recognise a genre of self-sufficient "pictures of bits".

Turner's antithesis between "pictures of bits" and paintings imperceptibly made up of them has its natural counterpart in vision itself. The reason is that the capacity to resolve fine detail is confined to a surprisingly small area of the retina, the fovea, around which visual acuity falls off so steeply that it's impossible to take in the details of a whole scene at a single glance. Try fixing your eyes on the last word of this sentence and see how difficult it is to read the surrounding text. The result of this restricted acuity is that our perception of the visual world has to be assembled in discrete installments. Although we are not explicitly aware of doing so we are constantly flicking our gaze from one part of the visual field to the next, and by bringing the specialised centre of the retina to bear on one sector of the scene after another we collect an anthology of sporadic snapshots from which we build up an apparently detailed picture of the world around us.

This is an extract from 'Nowhere in Particular' by Jonathan Miller (Mitchell Beazley, price pounds 16.99). To purchase 'Nowhere in Particular' at the special price of pounds 14 (including p&p), please call the credit-card hotline on 01933 443 863, quoting reference number W360