The Creation Of Metasphere 1974+5
The Early Essay
by James Elliott
1360 words - reading time : 8 minutes

Metasphere was a labour of love. It was madness. It made me ill twice.
I almost gave up on it.

Masterpieces first began to appear in my work around 1972, when I was 21.
But only in a sporadic kind of way. Mastery is an incremental process.

Initially with artistic development, many and varied attempts must be made for a minimal result. As things progress this becomes quid pro quo - a certain amount of effort yields a certain amount of result. But ultimately after many years of hard work, the wedge reverses itself, and minimum effort yields fantastic results. I am at this stage now as I write this. Sometimes a flick of the wrist creates a masterpiece, but back then, it was still very hard work. In 1974 the quality of my work was already quite consistent and many great images were created in that year. Having accomplished a reasonable level of mastery fairly young - 23 is not very old - I decided I wanted to create something amazing which took me to the absolute linits of my capabilities. Metasphere became exactly that.

At my studio in Buckfastleigh, Devon, I had two rooms. The Red Room and The Purple Room - obviously so named because of their colour schemes. The Red Room had blazing red graphic wallpaper and maroon paintwork and this was where I lived and slept. It also had a marvellous corner desk I had built, where I would sit and think and organise things. The Purple Room had walls painted dark purple with lilac paintwork - a harmony I still very much love. This was what I termed "The Darkstudio". Along one entire wall I had especially constructed a work bench, cautiously divided in the centre to create a dry bench and wet bench - for printing and processing my silver dye bleach colour prints. The rest of the room was given over to a studio for creating images.

The window had a removable solid shutter for light-proofing and on this was a huge poster of Brigitte Bardot. I had no idea who she was at the time, I just thought she was glam. A friend called by one day and said "Oh yeah, I am a huge BB fan......" and I remember wondering what the hell he was on about. I never judge people on the basis of celebrity, my only interest is excellence. The two converge less often than might be imagined. I remember vividly, working away happily, sloshing around in the dark and listening to Don McLean's truly wonderful "American Pie"........ sheer bloody poetry......

My work had evolved enormously, more than I could ever have imagined when I began and I wanted to create my first magnum opus. In truth I had probably already done that, but was simply still blind to it. I wanted to push myself really hard - to use ALL my power and just see what I was capable of. Something so amazing that even a hyper-critical neurotic perfectionist like myself could see it's brilliance. I had created things like 'Nucleus' 1974 and 'Infinity and Eternity' 1972, both of which had a very space age aesthetic and I knew I wanted to create something philosophically deep and very much of my time. And so I did.

I started the image in November of 1974. By the end of December I realised that I had bitten off an awful lot more than I had ever chewed before. I lost faith for a bit. The only thing that kept me moving forward was that I didn’t want to throw away the two months of my Life I had already committed. The symmetry and spatial relationships were just excruciatingly difficult. Throughout the creation the camera remained static and the image was orchestrated entirely for the camera. Cameras are normally orchestrated for reality. This image turned photography on its head.

You know Photography is a hard, unforgiving and critical taskmaster. You don't need a critic. The medium itself makes it glaringly obvious what is wrong. Even when I thought I had reached the end of this incredibly long journey, three times in succession my hopes were dashed as critical scrutiny revealed flaws. Each time the film was processed I projected the image three feet wide and examined it, section by section, from only inches away.
You know the feeling you get when you look at an image and realise that in some almost insignificant way, you have got it wrong.....well....it is just like a shadow passing over your heart.

You go through this process of mentally trying to delude yourself into believing "It's fine - no-one will notice that tiny flaw." Problem is, your heart already knows the truth and isn't even listening. So sooner or later you find yourself getting over the disappointment and you are busy back at work perfecting your creation. But that moment, when you have to face up to doing it again. The fact that you gave it everything you had and still got it wrong - it's like a mood from hell. Sheer bloody anguish.

25 years on as I write this, I no longer experience that. I have already created more masterpieces than could reasonably be expected in any lifetime. So if a picture fails, I either do it again, do something else, or shrug my shoulders and dance. I understand process better now. But in those days it REALLY MATTERED. I think it does in ones formative years. Nowadays I am aware of my capabilities and know there are plenty of masterpieces yet to come - but in those days I was still just finding my feet.

Anyway on the fourth attempt in February of 1975, everything looked perfect. I left the creation lying around for days and examined the projected transparency over and over, meticulously, at point blank range. To have overlooked a flaw and destroyed the sculpture at this stage would have been fatal. Years later, several American art dealers expressed horror that I destroyed the sculpture at all. "You DESTROYED it?!" they would exclaim. But yes, I destroyed it, as it was always intended to be a photograph. Nothing else, that is quite enough. Photography was my chosen medium.

“The image took 332 hours of work to create. I remember one of the greatest problems was the colour. For the first time in my Life I discovered how very few completely different colours there are in the spectrum. Most of the paint colours I mixed up because they weren’t available. There was a terrific amount of brightness and saturation balancing. Everything had to be colourful, but without surface reflection. Although the colours contrast, they also harmonise, which is an extraordinary achievement. Everything had to be flawless so the sculpture was huge and I spent weeks sanding, filing, shaping, smoothing and honing and although I wore a fresh smog mask every day, the dust inevitably got into my throat and I became ill twice because of it.

With Metasphere, by creating a three dimensional, painted photo-sculpture with absolute autonomic control, photographing it and then destroying the creation, I illustrated very clearly that not only was photography art, but it could include all the other visual arts as well. The absence of any scale reference, is entirely deliberate and to sustain the illusion of confronting an unknown object, no photographs were taken at intermediate stages, off camera, or of me working. This was a conscious decision, even though I knew it would have helped people understand why it took so long. This seemed less important than cloaking the image in mystery, which is essentially what the image is all about - the mystery of human physical existence - i.e. The Mystery Of Life.”

Written by James Elliott 1997.

METASPHERE 1974 + 5 didn't just break world records for the amount of time spent on a photograph. It has also many times smashed the world record price achieved for a living photographer. It last sold for $40,000 (£25,500) in 1995.