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Digest of a conversation with James Lawson

JL. Let’s talk about Source, the new work that you showed at the exhibition, Light from the Dark Room. Can we locate it in the evolution of your work, and thereafter say, perhaps, what might come next. First of all, could you describe the piece?

DW. Let’s see; it consists of five, three-foot-square panels, unframed and sitting proud from the wall a few inches - hovering as-it-were. They’re printed in deep blue in the central area; so that when the five are in sequence, the blue vibrates somewhat.

Vibration’s important?

Yes. The panels read from the outside in or vice versa. The central panel is blank so-to-speak. The two on either side are almost identical, having the white line or thread down the middle, absolutely still. On either side of that there’s a vibrating line - not quite identical. And that’s it, as a physical description.

What you seem to be describing g is an Abstract Expressionist painting: but it’s not that, is it? It’s a photograph. So, how did you make the photograph?

It took me a long, long time to do it - embarrassingly long. It takes me an embarrassingly long time to do everything. It started out as drawings about two years ago. There’s a problem with this sort of work, the work that I’m moving towards, minimalist sort of work. The level of perfection has to be so high. There’s so much planning and calculation. In some ways it’s a move away from the intuitive way of working that I had when I started out.

Has that journey from your first photographic work, which you describe as intuitive, been a regular progression?

For all the surface difference, yes. Perhaps I can use a musical analogy, because music bas been a strong element in my background. It’s a bit like the change from someone who starts off in the music playing melody, and ends up playing jazz. I’ve made some fairly brave moves, I’m immodest enough to say. But if you were to look at each body of work, you would find similar things going all through. Even in the St Margaret’s work No Man’s Land, there’s a striving for something beyond photography as document. You’ll see attempts to record light coming through windows, glancing off people’s shoulders. The quest was eventually to arrive at Source via such things as ‘Is’: Ecstasies (fig.24) But to go back to Source: after the doodles, I set the thing up. The studio was like Jodrell Bank, with about forty different lights, and one piece of thread hanging from the ceiling. And that thread did vibrate.

It’s a real-time event that gets into the photograph?

Yes. I shot about four or five hundred polaroids. And in the first two or three, there was this perfect Mark Rothko painting. I could have stopped there: but it had to be a photograph. I’m fishing the same pool as painters like Rothko, but I want to do it photographically. Fishing that pool is a problem in the contemporary sense, I know, because it’s not very fashionable. It leaves some people cold, I guess - or baffled. Its relationship to cultural and social issues is not perhaps as overt as some would like.

Are you bothered that the legitimacy of art, these days, is connected with having an agenda that would pass a test of consistency and worthiness outside of art?

Perhaps I could explain my anxiety this way. My girlfriend is a sociologist. It has taken her seven years to research her present stage, working on ‘Gender’ for her Ph.D. Most of it is beyond me, as it should be, she’s the expert. The idea of combining sociology with photography in a college course of three years brings the danger that you produce third-rate sociology and third-rate photography. You can end up going though the motions, without any real feeling: and feeling is important to me.

So, it’s vital, for you, that the work itself should be capable of moving people?

Sometimes, when the concept is watertight - perhaps especially when it’s watertight - the end result can be visually arid.

So, what you’re looking for is a reverberant image, so that we, describing Source to ourselves, if we could get the right kind of terms - terms fundamental enough - could open up the firth kind of associations. If, for example, we talked about a silence and a sound, about a limitlessness, we’d be opening up the door as-it-were.

At the same time - and not avoiding the issue - there’s not a lot to talk about. That’s part of its problem in these Post-Modern times. But there are perhaps parallels for this kind of work, in drama - Samuel Beckett, for example - minimal, so closely worked, and in the end about what’s beyond words. It exists somewhere beyond the specifics of cultural and social reference.

There is a way perhaps of getting a bit closer to what’s going on and pinning things down to some extent, though not definitively; and that would be to see the work as an evolutionary stage.


One of the things I’ve noted is that you seem to have been interested in distance, as a photographic issue, I suppose. That the cameral stands remote, literally, from what it observes. Particularly in Ecstasies, I thought that you were trying to find caverns - dark places, closer to the world of matter - to find out that there are also paths of egress from out of matter. They’d be shafts of light or a hole through which light passes - and you discover a promise that darkness isn’t at the heart of things. It’s a tunnel, not a cavern.

It’s  not just a pit that you’re exploring. There’s hope in there. When I was work on “Is”: Ecstasies I had the presence of mind to print them in a way such that there are not solid blacks. If you look closely, you’ll find detail in all the darks. And with Source too, I spent ages lighting it in order to get the blue vibrating fringe around the deep black centre. It’s the juxtaposition that counts. My work is always about that. It could be youth and the passage into adulthood, or my Mum and Dad. Juxtaposition is the thing. And I’ve moved it into a semi-abstraction. Light and darkness. For me, it feels the same. This brings up the question of style: “One minute he’s a documentary photographer; next he’s trying to Minor White. What’s going on?” There’s a tendency, when you’ve achieved it, for the market place to know you for that style, and so you flog it, because it’s what’s expected of you.

If you’re questioning that fundamental premise that seems to be around all the time that a style is a guarantee of individuality, we might be better to say that a style - the formal thing - is like a handwriting, and a handwriting has got nothing particularly to do with individuality, because it could be an affection. If you continue to work in the same style in order to be recognised as the same person, your motive contradicts your end.

Yes. And often the earlier work of artists is more interesting, because this thought doesn’t burden it. This really does apply very often with bands. So, I take my lead from the problem that they often face, and try deliberately to move on, in terms of form and style.

Yes. Here’s an interesting dialectic. We’ve also been asking whether there’s, in content, something continuous in your work. What we seem to see in this last piece is an image which is about the creation of light. And the creation of light and the creation of sound are coincident in this ‘miracle moment’. I’ve suggested that you’ve been interested in distance. Looking for the light was another part of enquiry. Is this another preoccupation?

I’ve always been interested in the creation of light.

And Source is a definitive statement - about, almost, what God’s plan was.

That’s right. And I’ve been struggling to do that in all the other works as well. And, yes, this thing does feel like a definitive statement. But the situation isn’t that simple. The work, in hindsight, does mean the things we’ve been discussing. But, ultimately, I can’t say what it means, because, in the end, it’s so primitive. It’s unspeakable. But yet I can shoot five hundred polaroids, without really knowing what it means.

You’re chasing an animal, and eventually you get it cornered after five hundred polaroids. But even then, I couldn’t say, “Yes, this is what I mean, absolutely,” You know what you’re doing and you don’t know at the same time. I think that’s part of the creative process, the opposite of which might be what we were talking about previously, the illustration of a theory.

Often, it seems that you’ve got a frame into which to put the photograph that you’ve made, and that that frame is constituted of some larger humanistic concerns - some notion about love and death, meeting and parting, and so on - religious preoccupations.

They’re constant. Not necessarily through choice. It has sometimes been suggested that the work is dangerous - dangerous territory to explore. Some people thing it’s searingly personal, and are frightened off by that. And I think they’re right. But I’m not saying, “Big hero, me.”

The adjective that comes to me is ‘monkish’. The monk goes to his cell and thinks, and within that narrow cage he tries to think about the relationship of the world to what’s beyond it.

Well, actually, the reason I left music for photography was some sort of solitude.

Normally, when we talk about ‘dangerous territory’ what we’re meaning is, “You shouldn’t be taking that drug.” The feeling we have when we say that is that, “You’ll end up being dwarfed and overwhelmed by the immense panorama that opens up in front of you. And you’ll be lost and never able to get back home again.”

There may be something in that. But I’m trying to make sense of it.

I presume then that this terrain that you go into is one that you don’t think other oeople will be unable to recognise.

It would be a source of grave disappointment to me if no one recognised it.

I’m wondering if what you intend to deal with is religiously specific - obviously with the removal of the specific dramatis personae.

You can use the word religion, but only in the very broadest sense. You can’t speak to everybody. But I must say that I have been surprised on occasions. For example, when I showed ‘Is’:Ecstasies at the Photographer’s Gallery, we thought at one point of withdrawing the comments book because there were such vicious and vitriolic things written. They were pretty abstract, but people saw implications, I guess. But, by the same token, I’ve had letters from people I haven’t even met, saying that they’ve found my work the source of solace. But this perhaps worries me even more. It’s the sort of work for which you need some kind of faith that you’re not creating drivel. And your faith gets shaken. It comes and goes, and you can get into a sort of pathological state if you’re not careful. Religion without a proper basis. It can be dangerous. The lunatic asylums are full of people who’ve seen the light. I don’t want to stand on a soapbox.

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