Arts: A snapper of unconsidered trifles

Jonathan Miller takes photographs as well? Well, yes. And strange, haunting, rather fine ones at that.
Click to follow
It comes as no great surprise to learn that Jonathan Miller knows his History of Photography. Or his History of just about anything, really. To adapt Sherlock Holmes's immortal characterisation of his more intelligent brother, Mycroft: "Every man has his speciality; Dr Miller's is omniscience." Besides, the proof of Miller's photographic connoisseurship has long been in full public view, both on the stage and on the page.

Take the catalogue for the exhibition he curated last year at the National Gallery, On Reflection, which, in addition to all the canonical paintings of or incorporating mirrors by van Eyck, Velzquez and Parmigianino, reproduces such touchstones of the photographer's art as Andre Kertesz's "Distortion No.6" (1932), Cartier-Bresson's famous shot of a workman jumping across a puddle, "Place de L'Europe in the Rain" (also 1932) and Bill Brandt's "Self-Portrait in a Mirror" (1965) and a New Orleans brothel study by E.J. Bellocq (c.1912). , as well as self-portraits by Diane Arbus, Robert Mapplethorpe, Man Ray, Ilse Bing, Edouard Boubat, Helen Chadwick and, again, Kertesz.

Or take Miller's work as a director, in the course of which he has cited the visual inspiration of, inter alia, Kertesz, Doisneau and Brassai. His Parisian production of La Boheme drew on Brassai's atmospheric studies of the "Secret Paris" of the 1930s - its whorehouses, transvestite clubs, opium dens and, as Miller phrases it, with characteristic impromptu pungency, "seedy run-down bars with kiss-curled lesbian prostitutes leaning against blistered mirrors". His 1974 Measure for Measure, at the National, took its cues from August Sander's more clinical exercises in portraiture. And for his BBC TV version of a ghostly MR James tale, Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, he got his cameraman to consult the country house pictures of Bill Brandt.

It may, none the less, surprise many people to learn that Dr Miller is a practitioner as well as a connoisseur of photography; that for some 30 years, he has - in what one assumes must be the five or six seconds a week he allows himself to relax in between writing and presenting television series, jetting between opera houses and repertory theatres worldwide, curating exhibitions, boning up on his neurological studies and devouring the output of the world's academic publishing houses - been busy taking photographs.

Strange, rather haunting, often rather fine photographs, at that. Not, as you might have expected, portraits of his glamorous and brainy colleagues, but near-abstract studies of odds and sods of urban detritus: tightly framed compositions of layer upon layer of torn wall-posters: random shapes etched into old metal signs by rust; ragged tarpaulins and shrouds of translucent plastic wrapping; sheets of corrugated iron splashed and daubed with paint, or rotting forlornly away to nothing; junked cardboard boxes, crumpled and sodden; distressed and faded paintwork on doors and walls and hoardings. Miller is, in short, a snapper of unconsidered trifles.

Some of the results of this 30 years of shooting in the streets have been gathered into a handsome book, Nowhere in Particular, published recently to all but complete critical silence from the critics. Miller seems mildly disappointed that his images of neglect should themselves have been so comprehensively passed over.

On the one hand, he's at pains to stress that he's not vaunting any great technical virtuosity here. "It's not easy to photograph well, and I'm not patient enough to deal with photography as a serious art form." The cameras he has used have all been "idiot devices," with automatic focus and exposure settings, and he doesn't do any of his own developing or printing. The only skill involved, he insists, is that of "seeking the configuration": of finding an image that might have been lifted from the walls of MoMA or the Tate lurking in the dirty brickwork of alleys and streets.

"I simply found that I became more and more interested in abstract formats based on realistic material... What I liked was discovering that abstract formats emerged from the framing of something which was in fact quite concrete, and I liked the actual textures and materials which contributed towards an abstract configuration.

"I think people looking at this stuff would say, oh, what a curiously inhumane, or inhuman view of life, never to include a human figure, but since I spend 90 per cent of my professional life with human figures on the stage, I feel I can take time out and photograph rubbish."

On the other hand, this long pursuit of what he calls "the negligible, the overlooked, the neglected, the incipient, the unfinished or abandoned" cannot be relegated to the status of a brilliant man's little hobby or violin d'Ingres, either. As the preface to Nothing in Particular points out, Miller's photographs belong self-consciously to particular artistic traditions. In terms of pure photography, he says that he "admiringly" recognises an affinity with the work of Aaron Siskind. (A more recent point of comparison might be another notorious boundary-crosser, Bruce Chatwin.)

Miller also elaborates on the connections between his snaps and various early 20th century traditions of "assemblage and collage and the apotheosis of rubbish," and, still further back, with Constable's fondness for "old rotten banks, slimy posts and brick work", as well as the less well-known paintings of architectural bits and pieces - truncated rooftops, almost featureless walls - by the likes of Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes and Thomas Jones. "I think I'm following in that tradition. That's the only explicit influence which I would say produced this work."

In common with all of Dr Miller's other books, Nowhere in Particular, also contains its moments of scientific and philosophical discussion. Among its scattering of brief autobiographical paragraphs about work and travel and encounters with friends or strangers is a helping of queries and pensees, often on the subject of vision. often reminiscent of Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations.

Oddly enough, only a couple are directly concerned with the conventions and influence of photography. (Example: "While being photographed I am asked to turn my head away but to keep my eyes looking towards the camera. This sidelong glance is very popular with modern photographers... it seems to imply that the glance has just alighted and that the subject has merely spared the look while otherwise engaged...") This reticence was the one part of the book which left me feeling Oliver Twist-ish, so I ended our discussion by asking whether, or how, he felt the advent of new technologies of vision had altered the way we perceive the world. In particular, has photography helped refine or coarsen our sight?

Dr Miller's considered diagnosis: Both. It depends how you use it: "The promiscuous Niagara of imagery which pours out of the photographic industry might have done something to harm our sense of the preciousness and value of the visible, but if you use photography properly, it is also a device for sharpening and restoring vision, and restoring memorability to something which might otherwise fly past."

And then, as if enacting his own proposition, his discourse flew rapidly on past the topic of photography to William James and Marshall McLuhan ("balderdash") and the Internet and the Southern Agrarians and the Annales historians... I couldn't possibly hope to reconstruct it all from memory, but fortunately the tapes were running. On the way out, I cursed myself for forgetting to bring my camera.

Nowhere in Particular is published by Mitchell Beazley at pounds 16.99. Radio 3 will broadcast a longer version of this interview on 19 Dec at 7pm