Andy Hughes: Musings About Making Photographs

We invited Andy, prior to the opening of his exhibition Photographic Works at the gallery on Jan 26th, as a guest blogger. He writes about his fine art practice in relationship to St Ives, illustrates a few of his key works and tells us about his current research.

With the invention and development of photography in the late nineteenth century many have discussed and concluded that it liberated painting with the burden of depiction. Whilst for some the argument about art and photography is over, for others it might not be, especially as photography appears to be one of the most ubiquitous and attractive media forms in the public sphere. There are now hundreds of millions of new photographs circulating around the world everyday. Photography has that very particular way of describing with precision the likeness of things, objects, places, spaces and people. It’s both a science and an art, enabling humans to ‘see’ the farthest and deepest depth of our galaxy as well as reminding us of a lost loved one, a long departed pet or a sublime snow covered mountain.

Fine Art Photography
What one might term ‘fine art photography’ conjures up a myriad of forms of image making; from a fibre based darkroom print made by a keen amateur to a larger scale work by Gursky. There is no one simple way of looking at the discourse described as fine art photography: the topic and discussion about what constitutes fine art photography splinters into all kinds of sub-groups. There are artists who ‘use’ photography, photographs ‘used’ by artists, photographic artists, contemporary photographic artists and so on.

I would describe my practice as ‘making photographs’ and that my project Dominant Wave Theory consists of a set of photographs that were created under varying conditions that reflect my particular mind-set. Clearly when one organises a large body of work into a project and book you can be explicit in terms of writing about the work. You can outline the conceptual frameworks that surround the work and direct the reader towards some kind of conclusion.

The text by Susan Daniel McElroy for the Art Now Cornwall exhibition held at the Tate St Ives in 2007 describes my work with precision.

Hughes presents us with not only an ecological message but a knowing heady rush through artistic strategies using the power of photography’s saturated colour to highlight, frame, and play with scale, in an irreverent awareness of art historical practices (Daniel-McElroy: 2007).

Having lived and worked for nearly twenty years in and around St Ives the experiences, interests and direction of my work have been influenced by both its geography, cultural and artistic histories. Dr Chris Short contextualises my work in terms of looking at my surrounds and St Ives Modernism.

Across the body of photographs contained in the present volume, we may identify three dominant issues, each of particular importance to Hughes’s encounter with West Cornwall in general and St Ives – Hughes’s home for nearly a decade – in particular. The first is the formal, aesthetic engagement of the land and sea that was so important to leading British modern artists in and around St Ives from about 1930. Hughes describes his relationship to this tradition as ambivalent, at one moment developing in relation to it, at the next seeking to avoid it (Short: 2006).

Dominant Wave Theory Work
Often when talking about my photographs some assume that a series of works depicting discarded waste objects washed up on the shoreline is very obvious and clear; it conveys a direct didactic message, almost journalistic perhaps. But when one stands in front of a full-scale work it’s not entirely the case. A typology of plastic waste washed up a beach in all likelihood does offer a journalistic reading but as Dr Short discusses in his essay many of my works speak in a contradictory voice. Am I entirely cognisant of how this becomes so?

Repeatedly, though, the previous identity of the objects depicted threatens to return, to destroy the purely formal quality of the work. Unlike Hepworth’s social message that remains buried within the form of the work of art, Hughes’s photographs speak with two, apparently contradictory voices. The aesthetic dimension of the photographs is challenged the moment that each object, as waste, speaks. The voice with which it speaks is social and political: it speaks of responsibility, of economic excess, even of destruction (Short: 2006).

Recently another photographic artist commented on my work in a private discussion ‘Your work seems to be at one time commercial but on another level it’s not that at all – it has a peculiar sense of existing somewhere between fine art and commercial photography.’

Andy Hughes, Begrave St Ives, Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles (Red Lighter)
Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles (Red Lighter)

Hermosa Beach was made just before sundown and is a great image to explore in relationship to the meanings such work offers. It plays with the traditional visual motifs of the sublime sunset. Rather than trying to illicit the ‘perfect moment’ the upturned lighter acts as a kind of inverse black monolith. Namely, the monolith from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – a film that explores elements of human evolution and technology. The setting sun is precisely centred, cascading the light rays through a scratched and distorted plastic surface. A red sky at night heralds a new dawn; a dawn where the previous days left over food and consumer waste suggest a landscape that is an environment oozing with waste.

I, Jack Russell Work
My recent project I, Jack Russell may appear to some a million miles from my work made previously but in terms of reflecting on it, now the work is complete, I think people will see it is not. I understand that my interest in beach debris is a theme that has its roots in my personal history: growing up next to a coalmine and chemical factory; playing as a child on coal slag heaps but owning Jack Russell’s since I was a child has certainly influenced my practice too.

Dogs have been featured in many art works for many centuries. Artists such as Gainsborough, Warhol, Wegman, Nixon, Lucian Freud and others have all made works that have featured dogs. Photographing the kind of dog I grew up with doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. Roberts Adams summarizes one of my first thoughts on this. ‘Artists live by curiosity and enthusiasm, qualities readily evident as inspiration in dogs’ (Adams: 2005).

Andy Hughes, Belgrave St Ives, Girl With Dog, Camborne Show 2012
Girl With Dog, Camborne Show 2012

The above portrait depicts both a dog and human swathed in modern folded textiles and is at its heart both an observation and construction. The Madonna and child are pictorially represented here, but the dog gazes not at the viewer, nor at the owner but beyond the framing and out towards a blue sky…

Alaska Study Work
Just over a year ago, I received a letter from the Anchorage Museum in Alaska. Its contents included an invitation to join a very dedicated and renowned team of scientists and international artists in a journey along the Alaskan coast. Titled GYRE-X its remit hopes to change the way we view some of the most disturbingly profound cultural artefacts of our time, marine debris. It’s a collaborative approach involving the Anchorage Museum and Smithsonian. A unique project in which artists and scientists will make-work and consider this threat to life in our oceans today. It’s a groundbreaking approach to a problem that didn’t even exist 50 year ago.

Andy Hughes, Belgrave St Ives, R/V Norseman, Alsaka
R/V Norseman, Alsaka

And so this summer I will travel to Alaska and join the team on-board the R/V Norseman for what will be a truly amazing journey.

Join Belgrave Stives and me at #photostives 4-5pm GMT Sat 26th to extend, discuss and enquire about the work. Note, discussions can develop using the hashtag throughout the lifetime of the exhibition too.

Adams, R. (2005) Why People Photograph, Aperture: New York
Daniel-McElroy, S. (2007) ‘Andy Hughes’ in Art Now Cornwall Tate Gallery: London
Hughes, A. (2011) I, Jack Russell Booth Clibborn Editions: London
Short, C. (2006) ‘The Work’ in Hughes, A. Dominant Wave Theory Booth Clibborn Editions: London. p. 4-6.

All work is available to purchase through the gallery.

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