Interview: David Parker: The Phenomenal World
by Richard Whittaker, Nov 2, 2004
I first saw David Parker’s astonishing photographs at the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco. Their power, beauty and mystery were palpable, and I wondered how I might meet the photographer. I was told he lived in England, but that in a year would be in San Francisco for an exhibit of his work. My efforts to contact him in advance of his exhibit at Koch were unsuccessful, but I showed up at the opening where I was fortunate enough to succeed in arranging an interview. Parker’s schedule was tight and we talked in a back room at the Robert Koch Gallery amid various interruptions and a somewhat hectic atmosphere. But in spite of it, and thanks to Parker’s generous attention and concentration, the following conversation unfolded…
Richard Whittaker: What are the beginnings of what I see here now, these wonderful photographs, The Sirens?
David Parker: These seascapes are the latest manifestation of a project which was originally conceived back in 1993, primarily as landscapes. My main interest was in what I call the big geology of the U.S. Southwest, plus other interesting geologic land forms elsewhere.
Eventually I realized that the identity of the locations was unimportant; the mere fact of their existence was what excited me. That work eventually became The Phenomenal World, which incorporated a few seascapes, but at that time, they certainly weren’t the primary focus.
I realized that I was looking at a kind of epic landscape which, for me, had mythic, symbolic and metaphoric overtones. It was clear that putting a set of geographical coordinates to such photographs would anchor the images, not to the spectator’s psyche, but instead to a set of map co-ordinates, removing in the process any mystery the images may have.
That started me on a track that allowed me to think in terms of what, if anything, the grand landscape could still offer post “New-Topographics,” and certainly in a post Ansel Adams era. Was there any mileage still left in the monumental landscape? Was it a gross anachronism today? And could it be approached without falling into the trap of what Eliot calls a “worn-out poetical mode”? For a while, I doubted that it was possible.
RW: I gather that you keep up with the critical conversation, so to speak.
DP: I think it’s vitally important to be aware of the latest developments in the medium specific to my subject area, but not to be unduly influenced by them.
RW: Well, before going off in that direction, I wanted to go back to the question of the antecedents of this work. What led you into photography?
DP: Okay, my background: leaving school, I trained as an engineer. I went through the full five-year apprenticeship that we have, or should I say had, in England, followed by three years of design work. I spent eight years in engineering, diesel engineering. I learned a lot from it, but didn’t really like it. I spent the last two years thinking of how to dig a tunnel to the perimeter fence. [laughs]
RW: You wanted out.
DP: Yes. Since childhood, I’ve always been pretty good at drawing and painting, and that was my passport out of engineering and into commercial illustration. I was too old at that stage to become a student, so I learned on-the-job really, doing newspaper advertisements and moving on to brochures and general design work. I was never very good at it, but good enough to get me through.
I was always interested in photography from a pretty early age. My father bought me a developing and printing outfit when I was ten or eleven (bits of which I sometimes still use), and I had a kind of desultory relationship with photography. I’d have periods where I’d be avidly taking pictures, developing and printing them, but then move on to something else, and then come back to photography.
As time went on, I stayed more and more with photography and it became my abiding interest. I was living in Staffordshire, which is where I was born. Then I moved to London where I spent a few years doing graphic and scientific illustration for magazines and books, usually with an airbrush.
An opportunity presented itself to go off taking pictures in Peru on an archaeological dig for six months, so I chucked my job in and had a great time. Twelve years later, my first book Broken Images was published, a work set in Peru.
RW: So you were finding the photography meaningful in ways that engineering and commercial art weren’t.
DP: Yes, absolutely. The photography was a vehicle for release, in some respects, from doing the kind of work I felt I had to do to make ends meet. There was a real passion there which was taking hold of me, but also taking a long time to focus. I’m kind of a slow developer, you might say.
RW: Well, I can relate to that.
DP: I take great comfort from the fact, for instance, that one of my great heroes, Anton Bruckner, wrote his first symphony when he was forty and went on thereafter to produce an impressive and searching body of large-scale works.
Music has been quite important; it’s been linked into my thinking about photography, particularly with these projects. I’m drawn to what might be called “the large forms,” the great symphonies and operas, Homeric epics and the great traditions in landscape painting; large scale works in any medium require a strong embracing concept, held together by a complex organization and a controlled formal definition. It’s a philosophical as well as an aesthetic challenge.
If you think about it in musical terms, ideas are developed thematically within a piece of music, and you see the relationship of the development of each musical theme against other themes. It’s the bringing together of this complex tapestry of musical and philosophical ideas, worked in with the development of new forms which so impressed me. I suppose the catalyst for me was listening, at age nineteen or twenty, to Wagner’s Ring Cycle and being completely astounded that one man could have created something of such staggering depth, coherence and complexity.
Without going into that too far, Wagner’s development of what he called the leitmotif system introduced a new formal rigour into the work. Musical ideas, or motifs, referenced specific symbols or characters within the drama, and as the drama develops these musical motifs interact and evolve with the other musical motifs. Organizing that over a fifteen-hour cycle was something that impressed me very deeply.
RW: Do you find yourself in any difficulty with the art world in trying to articulate what it is about your work, your passion, that draws you onward?
DP: That can be tough, particularly since I try to build into my work a high calorie count of interconnected ideas, which is difficult to put across succinctly. The tenor of the work, being black and white, can also be an obstacle. Obviously in recent times, color is the favored mode of expression, and I have no problem at all with that, but someone such as myself, working traditionally, has to face up to misunderstandings and an entrenched hostility to anything which isn’t superficially at least “cutting edge.”
However, I have to admit to moments of doubt in the early days of this project when considering tackling the epic landscape in black and white with sepia toning. I could hear the dissenting voices in my head saying, “Can you be serious? Why are you returning to the 19th Century?” Again Eliot, a poet whose preferred perspective on time was the eternal, comes to the rescue here; “The way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.”
RW: Yes. Isn’t it strange? When I look at your work, it puts me in front of this mystery of being here in the world, and rarely have I seen photographs with this power. It’s a difficult thing to talk about these days, you know?
DP: Yes. And then people start to say well, the work’s “very spiritual,” a word I generally tend to avoid because it’s so loaded, referring as it does back to artistic traditions which I’m expressly trying to avoid. If anything, I’m more interested in re-exploring now-abandoned photographic traditions; I’m speaking of the work of the early photographers, Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan, etc., because I feel that the vocabulary they developed is perhaps capable of being articulated in a modern, contemporary way; accumulating many images to produce a singular statement.
One of photography’s primary instruments is this process of accumulation rather than the making of a single bold statement. I often feel that its natural form is the book, which allows you meditatively to turn the pages almost mantra-like. It can put one in a mental state analogous perhaps to meditation.
RW: One thing your work evokes for me is a taste of the wonder and the incomprehensible fact of existence.
RW: It’s not easy to come to such moments.
DP: Well that’s right. It’s a realization of something quite ineffable. An image is often a better equivalent than a description in words.
RW: There’s something powerful out there—or really, it’s here, if we could see it. Your title “Sirens” must refer to this somehow. In the Odyssey, the sailors were drawn to the Sirens, weren’t they?
RW: These are difficult things to bring language to.
DP: Exactly. In some respects I feel that the siren song is, amongst other things, the song of art. All art attempts somehow to draw the spectator in, but what interests me is that moment of sudden engagement and seizure we feel before a work of art.
If I can just digress slightly, James Joyce makes a distinction between what he calls proper art and improper art. Proper art he describes as art in the service of art, and it’s static. In other words, you get that moment of what he calls aesthetic arrest. For me, this is what it’s all about. You’re not thinking about anything else, seeing only the image. You are in a state of enchantment with the image, probably because it is acting as a kind of vehicle to take you somewhere beyond itself. The image is therefore acting as a symbol, and a good symbol, if it’s worth anything, refers to something beyond itself.
On the other hand, he talks about “kinetic art” which he calls improper art. I guess he’s referring to commercial art and didactic art—art in the service of something else. I was always much more interested in this static moment of deep abandon, really, to the image before me, and there is no reasoning taking place here. It’s the surrender to a psychological moment.
RW: We’re confident of the power of our thinking to grasp things, but rarely notice that there’s more than this ordinary thinking. There’s much more that comes from being inside of bodies. There’s the entire ontological sphere of experience, and it seems to me your work speaks to some of these other parts.
DP: Yes. It’s almost opposed to the “rational” world we find around us. It’s asking us to open ourselves to something which is not amenable to language. Mendelssohn said that “the meanings behind my music are too precise for language,” or something like that. So I feel that this is where the challenge lies with any kind of art work; it’s to evoke a sense of mystery about this world that we think we know.
It’s kind of a paradox, really, that there should be any mystery at all. But photography shows us a different world to the one our eyes see, and becomes the medium for translating the world’s strangeness to us. The English painter Turner sagely observed that “the truth of the imagination is more important than the truth of the eye.” The camera is a tool for arresting a moment which is often invisible to us.
RW: Quite interesting. True.
DP: With my previous landscapes, the view that they present describes an angle of about 180 degrees, and is absolutely beyond the grasp of the eye!
RW: Are you at all a student of Carl Jung?
DP: My knowledge of Jung, specifically, is not deep. I’ve taken what I needed from Jung, but my interest is primarily in the various mythologies, which comparatively speaking, throw up the same basic archetypes everywhere, though in different guises. For instance Thor, Indra and Zeus are essentially the same guy. Likewise creation, quest and fire myths share many correspondences.
RW: I wonder what your thoughts are about evoking archetypes today?
DP: It feels like what I’m doing is using the landscape as an arena for exploring these symbols and mythic archetypes and, in a sense, doing what has been done for countless generations. I think that geology has been very important in shaping myths and legends. We’re all familiar with the local pile of rocks that’s called “The Old Man of this” or “The Old Woman of that.” I feel that I’m doing something similar; I’m looking back into a particular classical mythology and responding to the landscape at the same time. To coin a rather clumsy word, I’m mythropomorphising the landscape instead of anthropomorphising it. For me it’s a process of re-attunment to a hidden source of rhetoric and expression.
RW: I’m interested in your own experience at these sites, spending time in these places waiting for the light and so on—what is your experience? I take it these images must have a strong relationship with that.
DP: Very much. Yes. They are records of my own excitement, astonishment and general feeling of being given some sort of secret knowledge in a curious way. A lot of the places I go to these days are often not marked on maps.
When you get a boat out and sail around the coast, you get a totally different view of the world. It’s almost as if it’s not the same place at all. You could walk along cliff-tops and get one view, but out in a boat, it’s like you’re seeing the real underbelly of the world in an odd way. Revelations just come thick and fast.
I’ve been out with friends, who have been similarly “gob-smacked.” [laughs] I’ve even been with local fisherman who’ve known the area well, and have taken me out and landed me on a rock with my tripod and camera and have just spent time slowly drifting whilst I made my picture. They’ve told me it’s been an extraordinary experience for them also because they don’t normally spend time like that just idling amongst the rocks.
Some of these places are like sculpture gardens, and they just fill me with wonder and evoke all sorts of associations. That’s so exciting, because I never know what’s just around the corner or what ideas will suddenly be generated as a result of seeing a particular shape of coastline or free-standing rocks. It’s intoxicating, really, and quite addictive.
RW: That excitement and intoxication, that’s part of the Siren call, right?
DP: Absolutely, it is! Very definitely, and I was not unaware that I was being lured siren-like out to these places. I like to characterize my fishermen friends as my little local Charons, guiding me safely across the dangerous waters of the unconscious.
RW: At times you find yourself in a different world.
DP: Sometimes it is! Recently I was in a place that was completely extraordinary; a large island of rock with subterranean tunnels which you could sail through. At the westerly-most end, there was a headland which was like the fingers of a hand coming down into the water. [makes a shape with his hand, all the fingers spread and touching down on the table top] There were so many arches! I spent time sailing around, in and out of these arches, desperately looking for a place to plant the tripod, but couldn’t find a place. So that’s one photograph that probably will remain in my head. It was like a voyage to the underworld, literally.
RW: Well, that reminds me. There’s a special atmospheric quality in these photographs. I take it that you look for soft light?
DP: Generally yes, I do, but it can also be strong sunshine. My enemy is a partly cloudy sky, that is, a mixture of blue sky and white clouds. The white clouds then become difficult to print out, and also the clouds pass in front of the sun and momentarily shroud the subject in shadow. So I like either flat lighting or cloudless skies.
RW: So what results in the prints is a very soft, sort of vague space which is very quiet. It evokes something of the eternal.
DP: Yes. The photographs take about eight minutes. The principle camera I use is a 360 degree panoramic camera which only sees the world as a vertical slit behind the lens, which travels across the film as the camera rotates. This gives what I think of as a sort of a time dilation. The whole image is never gathered instantaneously, and this often allows for some serendipity. For instance, if I have to photograph in partly cloudy conditions there could be a brief break where the sun comes through the clouds and a streak of light appears which then will slowly fade, placing a little highlight in an unexpected place. And also with the peopled landscape photographs in my last book The Phenomenal World, where the placement of figures in the scene can’t be foreseen.
RW: I don’t know those photos.
DP: Do you want to stop here and I’ll just get the book? [returns with book] Okay, here’s a case in point. We see a scene with quite a few people in it. When I start the exposure, the position of the people is unknown; they come and go, come and go. The serendipity here [small figure in photo] is that this guy stood transfixed, motionless, in two different parts of the picture in exactly the same posture! I didn’t choreograph that at all. It just happened in this one out of about a half-dozen exposures.
Similarly here there are people scattered around. Now this guy [pointing]—when I knew the camera was just about to take him, I asked him to just stay put until the camera had time to pass over him. When I’d started this exposure about seven minutes earlier, he wasn’t there.
So, it’s exciting when things like this suddenly happen, because it puts a completely different view on my intentions. When I visualize the photograph in the first place, I’m looking at the shape and composition of the image. And I know that people are going to come and go, but I’m never sure what will happen exactly.
RW: Things happen which you couldn’t have planned, and you’re also referencing myth and archetype in your photographs. In both cases, you’re dealing with a bigger world than just the ordinary, day-to-day world.
DP: Right. It’s the universal. If a myth is to work properly, it’s got to be accessible by pretty well everyone. And so what I’m looking to do is to cram as much into the picture in as simple a way as possible, to evoke this feeling of communion, you might say, with some mythical idea.
RW: To touch something larger than myself.
RW: Now that’s strikes me as wonderful, and it also strikes me as difficult. There’s a tendency not to be moved much by certain kinds of presentations pointing that way, so to speak.
DP: Nowadays I think there’s less willingness to engage with what I call the larger ideas, the larger forms and complex ideas. This stuff is difficult. It requires an audience that is willing to put effort into engaging with the unfamiliar. Maybe that’s a result of the fast-moving pace of life and the much talked about attenuation of the attention span. But I think also it’s perhaps to do with forgetting something of the cultural heritage.
A lot of my reading has to do with what’s been written hundreds of years ago, or maybe even thousands of years ago. Generally speaking these works have survived because they speak of something universal about the human condition. That’s a wellspring of inspiration which is either disregarded or just overlooked. And yet, it’s entirely relevant today, which is why we still read this stuff.
I think it’s possible to put a modern perspective on many of these ideas. For instance, here [opens book] I’m looking at a picture of an arch. Arches are very interesting metaphors for transition. They can be seen as gateways and thresholds, but also bridges between worlds, between the temporal and the eternal. In this particular image [pointing] my own shadow appears, without my body, literally disembodied; an effect achieved by the slow scanning of the image slit of the camera over the eight minute exposure.
This evoked for me a quotation from Dante: “before you ask me, I will tell you: this form you see breaking the sunlight here upon the ground is a man’s body.” Now this has to do with Dante’s passage through Purgatory where he’s just come out of the Inferno with his guide, Virgil, who is a shade, so-called, and therefore is ethereal and doesn’t cast a shadow on the ground. Coming out of the Inferno into sunlight before climbing the Purgatorial mountain, they are greeted by another group of shades running down the mountain to greet Virgil. They suddenly halt in terror at the sight of Dante’s shadow, much as we would if confronted by a phantom.
I was not there with the idea of illustrating Dante when I made the photograph. It’s a construction I added later, but the thing is, I’d read Dante before and had been interested in this graphic idea showing the difference between mortality and immortality. Dante’s image here is absolutely startling.
Because of the way this camera moves, it describes a period of time during which anything can happen. Those are my feet here in this picture, [points] again disembodied; so I’m there, and I’m not there. [turning page] There’s my hand on the rock, which kind of references the hand prints you see on Aurignacian caves in Europe and around the world. In the past the hand has been placed on the rock, the mouth filled with red ochre, and the outline of the hand literally spray painted. The rock is seen as the repository of the life force, so the placement of the hand on the rock is a way of communicating in some way with that life force.
RW: I find it wonderful to hear how you’re relating this work to some of the great wisdom tradition of literature. It seems we have less and less of a connection with such things nowadays.
DP: Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, says, “We live today in a terminal moraine of myths and mythic symbols which formerly inspired and gave rise to civilizations.” There’s a bit more to it than that, but we’ve kind of lost that substrate.
RW: Indeed. And what have we lost? What are the statistics for the use of prozac, drugs in general, the reliance on entertainment and so on, to get us through the night—or the week?
DP: What we require is a focus and trajectory through our lives that enables us to negotiate this complex journey, and it’s always an individual, very personal route we all have to take. The map for each person has not yet been drawn.
RW: Yes. It’s always a personal route, isn’t it? The “heroic journey” it’s been called sometimes. That can’t really be discarded.
DP: We’re crying out for heroes and I think, in some respects, we’re not being supplied with the right kind of contemporary heroes. Sporting heroes are all very well and good, but they’re not carrying us forward in the way that helps us to develop an inner life.
RW: And if your work speaks to anything, it speaks to the inner life, I think. Not wanting to name places has to do with that. The way we name things tends to foreclose our inner relationship with them.
DP: It’s the Rumplestiltskin factor. Name it, and it’s gone.
RW: And we’re moving so fast that we don’t really meet anything. And, in a way, these photographs are like places where the world is being met somehow—the world as a mystery.
DP: That’s right. The world as a paradox. All of those things.
RW: When you go out there, it takes time. But you’re probably not plugged into an iPod, or anything, right?
RW: Excuse me for asking. It was kind of a horrible thought and I was sure I already knew the answer. [laughs]
DP: [laughs] Absolutely not! No! My camera is very heavy and needs a heavy tripod to support it. That gives me just enough space in the back pack for some water and a sandwich maybe, so I’m never tempted to carry non-essentials. Because of its weight and bulk, this camera is a very jealous mistress so that even carrying a small “digisnapper” along as well is an extra burden, not to mention a distraction!
The idea of reaching a place after a long hike and getting the walkman out—well, it’s not what I’m there for. [laughs] I would be reading the landscape in terms of what I was bringing to it, rather than in terms of what it can give to me.
One goes naked into this, in a sense. One should be ready to respond to whatever presents itself without any distractions.
RW: And that’s not a given, is it? I mean, to get naked, to become open, in other words. It’s not all that easy.
DP: Well, I find that I can snap into it, that is, if I find something that throws me out of the thought patterns that I’m in. If I have an encounter with just a bunch of rocks that says something to me, then I’m instantly focused on what its photographic possibilities are.
RW: Something speaks to you.
DP: That’s right, but I’m a strong believer that you need to go at least half-way toward something for it to open itself to you. So I spend a lot of time just chasing after these places; going out hiking, or going out in a boat. It’s usually directed to some specific objective, but normally what I find en route is something unanticipated which is even more interesting!
RW: I don’t know how this will strike you, but I have the impression there’s a sort of British tradition of explorers going to far off lands. Have you ever felt yourself part of something like this?
DP: I’ve never thought about that. I’m aware of it and I’ve been interested in the history of exploration, but I’ve not seen it as an exclusively British pre-occupation. I’m not nationalistic in that way. For me, the only significant exploration that really matters is the one that I’m personally engaged in. ∆
David Parker’s work can be found at Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco.