Tripping The Light Fantastic Of Lipstick And Lost Love
by JAMES ELLIOTT
2750 words - reading time : 15 minutes
I was sat staring vacantly out of the window, deep in thought, when some movement in the peripheral area of my vision caught my attention. It was a spring morning in 1984. My London studio was on the first floor, as I always live either on the ground floor or the first and from my elevated vantage point, I observed over across the street, a lady picking up her morning mail through a frosted glass door. As she bobbed up and down and moved back and forth, I was fascinated by the way the image kept changing. As she approached the door, it became more focused and as she moved back, it just went into bobbing blobs of colour. I can still see it now as I write this fifteen years later.
I had also been reflecting on a deeply disturbing war film my father had taken me to see when I was 13. There is a scene where lovers who have been separated by the enemy and believing each other probably dead, suddenly recognise each other across a guarded divide. In a moment of compulsive emotion one screams out to the other and they run to each other in full view of everyone only to be shot dead, their outstretched hands ending only inches apart. As a thirteen year old I found this incredibly disturbing. War is the dance of the cretins. Justification a long slippery decline.
Also I had for several years admired Monroe, long before they resurrected her. In fact, she was dead in the water back then. I watched her movies at art cinema houses and had all her record albums. Elizabeth Caron, my muse of many years, looked incredibly like her. Better, probably and very much taller. So there is a strong element of that in "Kiss". For me the Fifties more or less defined glamour. Elliott has always been a glamour junkie. Take the glamour out of something and to me its as dull as dust. As dumb as daisies.
My mind works in complex ways. I synthesize the essence of a zillion things in a synergistic way and create something even more powerful and original. My system records the exceptional with incredible veracity. It's as if I am unable to perceive the other 98% of everything.
Another influence for this image was from Procol Harum's classic 'Whiter Shade Of Pale' which I heard and much loved as a teenager (still do). The haunting organ was perhaps how one imagined Bach always should have sounded. This was better. More mournful and expressive. Perhaps more like Johann Pachelbel. Or perhaps it wasn't like anyone, just fucking brilliant! Decades on the song is just refusing to lay down an die. I know 'Kiss' will be the same. It will just never die. The greatest art is timeless and eternal.
The Procol Harum lyrics were also very powerful. Firmly in the domain of poetry rather than prose. Overall it was a blend of tradition and modernity and that has always for Elliott been the ultimate in culture, and is a cornerstone of my work. For me as a young man, I always loved the dirges best and this track without doubt, was a dirge for a decade.
The closing lines of this lugubrious piece are :
"She said 'There is no reason
and the truth is plain to see.'
But I wandered through my playing cards
Would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open,
They might just as well have been closed.
And so it was that later,
As the miller told his tale,
That her face at first just ghostly,
Turned the whiter shade of pale".
If ever the tragedy of watching a love die was beautifully expressed, that was it. Whether the love is dying spiritually or the loved one is physically dying, the feeling of helplessness is overwhelming and makes us close our eyes in despair. As if we just don't want to see. This song is also probably one of the reasons why the whole image is so pale.
So anyway, I was thinking about the accessible and the inaccessible and how this can be partly a physical but also a psychological thing. That which protects also imprisons. Both life and love are a bit like that in a way. In our attempts to build castles in the air we fashion a prison of our own making. Everything has its advantage and disadvantage. I always craved security in everything. By 35 I had it. I never want it again. Give me thunder, give me blazing sunshine, but please no grey days!! One thinks of Shakespeare's "In life there is no good or bad but thinking makes it so". A hard one to swallow when you first hear it, but brilliantly perceived. Shakespeare was the first artist to inspire me, by the way, as a young teenager. It also never entirely escaped my attention that I looked like him.
And so there is the beauty of love and the pain of lost love. They are usually of equal intensity. This picture is about that. Emotion drenched inaccessibility. It was early Eighties and I was just becoming an absolute master of colour. I was moving away from the Zing! Crash! Bang! colour of my 70s work. It's not uncommon for first symphonies to have 'all the bells and whistles' and then as the composer develops, he realises that what you add is no more important than what you subtract. In other words, contrasting drama with solitude has even MORE power. There is a vast difference between succinct, laconic expression and shouting your head off. As Shakespeare would have said "Much sound and fury signifying nothing".
I'm not criticising my early use of colour, it is very daring and many prefer it - I just think my mastery of colour is now exponentially evolved. It's not a question of less is more. People who talk in clichés usually become one. "Less is more" is just part of the hideous inverse rationale being applied to everything in the late 20th Century. Yes dark is light and ugliness has a beauty, up is down....... hang on... I have an even better piece of cheese...... 'Less is more (more or less).' Ha! Anyway, it has to do with balance and counterbalance. Just trust me on that. Up is never down unless you are standing on your head and even then it doesn't last!
So this counterbalance of opposites I used with the colour AND the image itself. So not only is the "kiss" emphasised by the colour versus the neutral surroundings but also because it is also the only part of the central image which is in focus. Also I had learned from my studies in colour psychology that red "advances" as a colour and the neutral would not - hence adding another dimension. I had no idea that when the girl kissed the frosted glass it would turn as clear as normal glass. I knew it would be sharper, but I discovered that it cleared whilst creating it. This always happens. My own style of creativity is a process by which you discover the treasures within and the treasures without. We are locked in a cybernetic loop with reality. An artist must NEVER commit rigidly to a vision.
According to Elliottonian philosophy, in the moment we commit to a specific then we 'accept no less'. Unfortunately, we also unwittingly 'accept no more' because given that one is making a pre-analysis, we cannot yet imagine something we do not yet have a reference for. That is to come. And as surely as the sun will be there tomorrow, it always does. This is why creativity cannot be entirely planned. As we instigate the dynamic of creativity, things are discovered, both mentally and physically, which we could not have possibly predicted.
This is why people who create art by proxy are fakes. They do not in the least understand creativity. Art is not a spectator sport. One simply cannot delegate. One can create average things with assistants, but most certainly not great things. And please don't give me all that rubbish about Rubens and Warhol. They were obviously both commercial artists. Assistants are their badge, but great art is not created thusly. Citing examples of low standards from the past, does not justify them in the present. That is the answer to that one. We are meant to be evolving!
On August 27th 1984, I did some initial experiments in the studio and this convinced me I should go ahead. I actually started work on it on Monday September 10th and by the Thursday I had finished all the static elements. On Wednesday 19th September I set up and lit the image without the model present. That evening I slept at my girlfriends and when I returned to the studio the following morning the circular frosted glass had fallen out and smashed on the floor - irritating as glass is difficult to cut in circles. It all had to be redone.
For me without the freshness and exhilaration of the new, everything becomes moribund and dusty. Especially in a country like England, which can be a very hide-bound society, at times. It needs a good kick up the ass!! Fortunately there is a rebellious and anarchic streak in young Brits, so it often gets exactly that! Undoubtedly, that is where all the creativity emanates from, because considering its size, the creativity that pours out of this country is disproportionately great. The UK punches astoundingly above its weight.
I shot the image at 8pm on Thursday 20th September 1984. I shot thirty attempts. Twenty nine failed but I knew I had it. I originally shot 15 images with the girl's eyes open. They all looked awful, not at all as I imagined. This is why creativity must be empirical and absolutely controlled by the artist. Change to the original idea allows for exponential improvement. This cannot occur with art by proxy. It was shot on 6 x 4.5cm format. I wanted as much detail as possible to contrast with the lack of same in the glass. I used Kodak Ektachrome for its neutrality and a 150mm lens to give a kind perspective to the face. The rest were attempts to perfect the shape made by the lips and when I noticed the glass was clearing on contact with the lips - I just absorbed that into the creative process, as well. Contact with the glass was critical and had to be tried over and over - each time cleaning the glass.
Photography is about sustaining a creative continuum until you create a visual orgasm, suspended in time for eternal ecstasy. What you see forever may only occur for a fraction of a second and only occurs once. I have tried to re-create photographs - you can't. Better or worse, yes - but the same, no! Nothing in this life is ever the same twice. Given a cursory glance, many mistakenly think so, but closer inspection reveals otherwise. Anyway, the following day I processed the film and just recorded one word in my diary: 'Dynamite'.
I knew I had something special but I could never have imagined just how much it would become beloved all over the world, especially by girls (although male/female ownership is almost exactly divided). The majority of ladies cite it as their favourite image. "Streetwalker Blues" has the same effect on Men. Interestingly, these images were created sequentially. Must have been on a roll.
The image first appeared in the influential large format magazine "Camera". The magazine had previously run a twelve page retrospective dedicated to my work showing my development from 1973 to 1982, so the editor was keen to see the new developments. On presenting the work, it met with much disapproval from the editor, who went to great lengths to point out to me that the work was a regression. He even pulled out the previous 12 page spread and turned it page by page, commenting that the work was seen to be progressing up until 1982, but now I had "Definitely taken a step backwards".
I told him "We'll have to agree to differ". I suggested he put "Kiss" on the cover. He declined and put a pile of crap on the cover instead. If you doubt that remark - check out the issue. He then turned to me and said, rather enigmatically "It's pearls before swine isn't it?" and I simply replied "Definitely". (We know this story, don't we?). It did appear in the magazine, though. As I write this, "Kiss" has now been published in over 25 countries and has also appeared on many covers. 'Kiss' was first published alongside all the new fetish erotic work. Both incredibly innovative. That is really what I am about. Photographer doesn't describe me, neither does art photographer. Artist has become an awful pejorative. What I am is an art innovator working in new media.
It should be immediately understood that an image like "Kiss On Frosted Glass" is only possible in the medium of photography. It could never be painted. The geometrically precise texture of the metal could never be convincingly achieved, and I have yet to see anyone paint frosted glass - or for that matter fire and water - with any degree of verisimilitude. Photography is best equipped to represent modern life in all its exactitude and glory. Painting belongs to a lost time. If I didn't feel that way I would have painted. After all my initial talent first manifested itself in paint. I won painting competitions at the age of 6. Alas, at 7 I discovered photography and never looked back.
As an innovator it has always been my quest to create images in photography which are not possible by any other means and I have consistently achieved this. To me photography is a superior medium. Few, if any, understood this vision in 1970. As we approach the new millennium, far more people do. Photography is simply more powerful. Photography was the first new art medium in centuries, so of course no-one was expecting a change and people dislike change. But it doesn't take a genius to figure out that photography has crept up on us - rather like rock, pop and all its variants - and is now the dominant modern medium.
Of course you will always have old souls and those born too late, with an enthusiasm for vintage Bentleys, antique oak and classical music. Some people just don't appreciate anything until it's gone. Thank God for those people, they will collect my work in a hundred years time!! The truth about Art is that even the finest is rarely timeless. Great art travels through time better than average art, of course. but perhaps the true test of great art is how long the world remains moved by it.
I absolutely LOVE the era I was born into. Former times would have unfolded too slowly for me. That is why I am busy representing the contemporary and inventing the future, artistically. I'm not looking back. For Elliott, everything of great cultural value has been created in the last hundred years and will be created tomorrow. There are a few notable exceptions, I know. However much some may not want to believe it (the vast majority of humanoids have a negative polarity), the human race is getting better at everything.
Anyway, to bring this meandering piece back on line, "Kiss" taught me that effort does not always equal result. Although doubtless there is no substitute for mastery. Sometimes it takes years of hard work to do something with great facility. Like playing a musical instrument. As Michaelangelo said "If people knew how hard I had worked to acquire this talent, they wouldn't be surprised anymore". I'll drink to that. Champagne please... someone..........
The title, by the way, existed before I began. It has a euphonic quality that makes it a pleasure to say. My titles are works of art too. In Photography (and elsewhere in Art) I kept seeing "Untitled 49" and "The View Towards Rocky Heights" or "Hands With Thimble" or some other egregious or banal twaddle. As a young teenager I thought this was just unimaginative bollocks!! (It still makes me groan).
I continue my love affair with "Kiss On Frosted Glass" every time I look at it. I know its a masterpiece and it has hung permanently in my various homes in Hampstead, Belsize Park and Saint John's Wood, without interruption, since I created it, many years ago.
Written by JAMES ELLIOTT
Greencroft Gardens, London
This is the first piece Elliott ever wrote and published on the web.
Surprised by the number of people hitting his single page,
he decided to create a complete website.
This eventually evolved into the megasite that exists today,
but this essay was the first building block.
© JAMES ELLIOTT 1997