Of Psychology, Philosophy & Physicality.
by James Elliott
The 20th Century's most revolutionary work of photo art
It is the world's first painted and sculpted photograph.
The revolutionary 'Symphony For The Camera' took 332 hours of work to create.
It introduces the concept of the epic photograph.
Elliott created it without any assistance whatsoever, as with all his art.
'Tis well writ.
If you paint a picture, photograph it and then destroy the painting - what do you have?
And is it a work of art? And if not, why not?
And if the degree of power, beauty, substance and gravitas in a photograph is greater than that of a painting, then which is the work of art? Back in 1974, in an age that did not consider photography Art, these were the sort of questions I constantly found myself asking.
"Metasphere" is the world's first painted, photo-sculpture. In the years leading up to Metasphere I had been busy expanding the creative parameters of Photography as a medium and already created a lot of original work, but I loved the idea of a photograph, in which every square centimetre would be created by the artist. I wanted to create something amazing and take myself to the very limits of my capabilities. I was after all, only 23, and I had absolutely no idea what they were.
Metasphere evolved out of the myriad of other things I was working on at the time. I was working on photo art day and night, subsequent to my epiphany that photography had not really been used to create great art. It had been used for everything else, but not that. In this whirlwind of creative activity, I needed neither financial incentive nor a tutor. It was pure passion. An astonishing metamorphosis from that teenage wasteland of indolence and indulgence, to that raging, workaholic fire which is inspiration. Photography had become my life. I did nothing else.
In 1972 I had created an image entitled 'Infinity & Eternity'. A very ethereal, spiritual picture, which was one of my early artistic triumphs. It was at the time, a creative and technically ambitious picture, for me. Beyond previous endeavours. I created the entire scenario with the back end pointing towards the sky. I created the enclosure, spheres and cross and painted in the colours. It was literally created around the camera. No-one had done this before, with such autonomic control. I also had to balance the exposure of the sky with the lighting on my creation. Not an easy task, as it was created indoors and so had to be flooded with very bright light. To this day, I still think the colours are beautiful. And judging by people's reactions, it definitely captured the aura I was after. On reflection, it does occur to me that this may well be the world's first painted, photo sculpture and not 'Metasphere'.
Later in 1973 I heard a piece of music on Westward Television. I liked the music so much that I wrote to the TV station, enquiring as to the authorship of the piece. They told me by return of letter that it was a piece called 'Buried Alive'.
'Astonishing thought', I thought. This led to the creation of an image entitled 'Requiem'.
I later discovered the information supplied by Westward TV, was in fact an error and it was actually "The Days Of Pearly Spencer" by David McWilliams. One of those rare pieces of poetry that turn up in the pop domain.
Anyway the idea of 'Buried Alive' stayed with me. I had also been listening to the strikingly evocative 'Vincent' by Don McLean. A brilliant elegy for Van Gogh, which is again, poetry of an intensity rarely encountered even in poetry's eponymous domain, never mind songwriting. Perhaps contemporary music lyrics have become the poetry of today. Pity contemporary art is lagging behind. Not much poetry there, I thought. The McClean track is the only piece of music I ever stopped the car for. I was out driving around, searching for new Gothic locations in Devon, when I first heard it. I pulled over and listened to every word. It absolutely demanded your attention and for all the right reasons. I guess back then I just loved atmospheric dirges. And I knew I wanted to create art of that intensity. It was just so me.
Incidentally, it often surprises people just how much of my early work was inspired by music and not by things I saw in the visual domain. It had to be that way as I had little knowledge of fine art and therefore no heroes. I consequently found myself forging new trajectories. And music had been a passion since I was four years old. It still is. How can you have a life without a soundtrack?! Unthinkable!
If we take as a prima facie example of music inspiring my art, the Gothic classic 'Remorse'. This was partly inspired by the rock track 'Throw Down The Sword' by Wishbone Ash. A highly regarded progressive rock band amongst the cognoscenti. It had this great closing refrain that went:
"There were times when I stood at death's own door......only searching for an answer!"
Followed by a stunning, harmonising, twin lead guitar solo in a beautiful, soulful, almost weeping minor key. I loved the ambivalence expressed in those lyrics. They had a suicidal and philosophical connotation of abandonment. Of the eternal quest for the meaning of Life and the emptiness, stupidity and futility of battle. 'Remorse' was inspired by other things too. The notion of shaking off one's mortal coil after a life full of evil and regret. What will you regret in your final hour? And last but not least, the fact that I had just invented a portable camera obscura device to make it technically possible. It's my own hand in situ. Alchemy if ever there was. Inspiration is always a synthesis of elements working synergistically.
Underneath the dead buried on high. Weird thought.
And I had seen stalactites and stalagmites first hand in real caves (as opposed to tourist attraction caverns). I had a stalactite in my room, which I had broken off the ceiling of a cave and taken back home. I thought it beautiful and fascinating. The death element probably came from me serving as an altar boy at funerals for Buckfast Abbey, the famous church. I went to convent school across the road for four years. The orthodox religion left me, but I still use crosses to this day, as a symbol of spirituality and mortality. it is the most universally understood symbol. Skulls are corny, obvious, odious and tasteless. And unoriginal even for Hamlet. They always look like they are laughing, somehow. I have used crosses from the Sixties, but nota bene they are NOT crucifixes. Distinguish.
From the age of eleven, I had no belief in an anthropomorphic God. You can keep the personifications, I am nowhere near that naive. But by nineteen, with my interest in quantum mechanics and astronomy, I began to perceive the miracle of it all. So precisely ordered that science and mathematics tell us, it cannot occur by random circumstance.
Back in the early part of the 20th century there was a 'Directory Of Gods' who had existed at one time or another. It contained about 35,000 entries. Draw your own conclusions.
As Montaigne said, centuries earlier: 'Man is quite insane, he couldn't invent a maggot and yet he invents Gods by the dozen.' Funny how the Intelligentsia have always known the answers. And it has always been the ignorant and the stupid who have caused the troubles in this world. Ergo the answer is enlightenment.
My own view is this:
I follow no creed, religion or other unproven philosophy.
These instant, off-the-shelf, packets of vocabulary, simply cluster the ignorant.
People too lazy, gullible and naive to think for themselves
and thus discern the monumental error of their primitive, hereditary beliefs.
Such a lack of individual thinking encourages the swarming of clueless tribes.
I do however, perceive the hypercomplex, miraculous order in everything.
From atomic structure, to the farthest reaches of the Universe.
I observe it everywhere. I see something of the Divine in that. I am not an atheist.
I desist from calling these metaphysical superpowers 'God',
lest they be conflated with man-made religion. This is not the byproduct of religious inculcation.
The cruel brainwashing of helpless children. Their minds as soft as putty.
One can teach a child morality, without resorting to scary fairy tales.
But my perception of reality is something much deeper than religion.
More like an awareness of the miracle, that exists in absolutely everything.
A sense of awe and wonder that never escapes me.
Life is a wonder to behold, to a man of perspicacity.
The attempt to define this is only human, but it is human folly.
Hence all the anthropomorphic gods and personifications.
Man trying to figure out the Cosmos, is like an ant trying to figure out London.
This leads to the ludicrous, conjectural quack science, of the bIg bang theory.
Almost as preposterous as Adam and Eve.
The incredulous mythology of orthodox religion, really should beggar the belief system of children,
rather than cause conflict in adults.
So 'Metasphere' is all about that perception of reality. The complexity and miraculousness of it all.
The incomprehensibility of physicality.
In my family home there was this poorly painted picture, of white horses against a background of red. Pure saccharine. It was called 'Tranquility'. I remember thinking 'That can't be right....... red for tranquility? Blue surely........'.
My mother told me, long after I became an artist, that as a baby, I had a gift for colour. She recalled that at 18 months old I could name all the colours. One day she tried to trick me. She pointed to something blue and I said 'Blue'. Next she pointed to something green and I said "Green". Then in an attempt to outwit me she pointed to something turquoise. "Blue-green", I said. All my limited vocabulary would allow.
When I took up photography seriously, I had no money and couldn't afford a camera. Perfect. I would go to the library and read about the science behind it all. Fascinating facts about the spectrum, optics and how the eye is constructed with millions of nerve fibres leading off to the brain, just for the vision in one eye. 120 million high sensitivity rods for monochrome and 6 million cones for colour. All lined up perfectly and functioning impeccably. The fovea centralis for high definition...... the blind spot in each eye.... and how the brain can alter what the eye is seeing in terms of colour and perspective. 'What else?' 'What else does it alter?' I kept asking. 'What other lies does our brain tell our eyes?"
Discovering that colour only exists in the brain. Other creatures perceive colour differently. Often more monochromatic. Earlier in 1974 I had created 'Nucleus' which was undoubtedly a precursor to 'Metasphere'. Although a great picture in its own right, it was also the trajectory which pointed me in the direction of my masterpiece. As did the sculpting and painting elements of 'In Peace'. Both pictures were catalysts.
I was learning how chemical reactions rearranged the particles but they still remained constant. Nothing was gained or lost. How something can be a wave, but a particle when you look at it. I also found all this absolutely extraordinary. The complexity of this world I had just been born into was unbelievable! So this streetlight, which had just always been there, created light by electrons making quantum jumps? How can the Uncertainty Principle - not being able to determine the speed and position of an electron simultaneously - be a principle at all? A theory of incomprehensibility to explain what we can't yet explain?
As if that weren't enough, scientists had just discovered quarks, even tinier little particles inside the protons and neutrons. I was trying to take this all in. One day I looked at a girl and thought of her being made up of all these atoms, whizzing around like particles, waves, clouds, polymorphic incomprehensibles .....whatever!...... and I just thought fucking hell the complexity is just mind-blowing! Then you are reading all this stuff, that if the atoms have 80 protons and electrons instead of 79, the substances are as different as gold and mercury. And if atoms are constructed as we believe today, then the principal constituent in a human being is space! So we are fundamentally energy. Should have guessed. No-one did.
Was mathematics just a primitive artificial code invented by humans that Nature in all its fascinating complexity, was now reducing to a joke? And would it be reinvented at every turn to accommodate discoveries of greater complexity? Perhaps the fundamental flaw of learning lies in our attempts to make everything definitive, when in fact, everything in the Cosmos is infinite. From particles to perfection to space. Perfection is just an attempt to make the infinite, definitive. Impossible task. Imperfect concept. Interesting irony.
I was thinking stuff like this: if you travelled to what you thought was the centre of a sphere, with an imaginary point that occupied no space and then magnified your location 20,000 times you would find you were not in the centre at all, so you would then have to continue travelling into the centre. You could repeat this indefinitely and never arrive at the centre. Inner space therefore, must be infinite and infinity must exist in all things, from the tiniest atom to the farthest reaches of the galaxies. Whatever shape we eventually decide atoms are, certainly the most important recurring form in the Cosmos is a sphere. Well more or less, as needless to say, nothing actually is one.
Then with all this storming my mind, one day I suddenly saw it. I saw the world as it actually is, free of conditioning. And God I was just in awe. I mean, I was terrified! I saw in a heartbeat that all knowledge was superficial. The only way I can articulate this is to say that it was as though someone just made me materialise on the planet, fully grown and able to perceive, but nothing in my brain was conditioned. I had never seen anything here on planet Earth. Zero complacency. Zero familiarity. Zero phenomena comprehension. I saw in an instant that it was all a miracle, like the mist on my eyes had suddenly cleared. The fog of familiarity had lifted.
I would try to explain this to people and they just thought I was mad. "Yes James" they would say fixing me with a 'knowing' stare and a smug smile. Particularly annoying as they actually knew fuck all! It isn't madness, it's just heightened perception. Decades later a collector would say to me "James, only you would try to pass off your madness as heightened perception!" which made me laugh hysterically, because I know I'm not mad. I have of course, also met some people since my twenties, who have experienced the same thing. But not so many.
So anyway the idea behind 'Metasphere' was my attempt to create a masterpiece about this feeling I get when I look at familiar things and see the complexity in them and don't fully understand what they are. I thought maybe, just maybe, if I create an object which obviously is something, but isn't actually anything people have ever seen before, maybe they will get the feeling I get.
And do they? Occasionally yes, often no. But it does fascinate everyone. And of course, they all read meanings into it, from the poetic to the prosaic, depending on their backgrounds and experiences.
It was only really whilst exploring philosophy and psychology in the Nineties that I realised why. We don't see things objectively as they are. Everything perceived with the eyes, is radically reinterpreted according to the knowledge and experiences stored in each individual's brain.
Another extraordinary thing about 'Metasphere', is that the image is neither abstract nor figurative.
When I created 'Metasphere', the photography of the day concerned itself with photo-journalism, celeb portraits, fashion, landscapes and so on. Much of it in black and white. A generation who spoke highly of truth, whilst having scant acquaintance of it. No deep understanding, anyway. Even on a basic level, how the hell can black and white be 'the truth'? The arguments in favour of photo-journalism were hardly cogent, though unsurprising in a nation of writers. I had little doubt photo-journalism would disappear and it did. Everyone at the time was waffling on naively about 'truth', as if it were some kind of objective recording. Utter nonsense. A camera cannot possibly view things objectively, as you need a human brain to operate one.
And the corollary of that, is that from the moment you point a camera in a direction you have introduced subjective thought into the equation.
The fact that my images are partly from objective reality and partly from my mind, simply render them a higher form of truth, for that is exactly how reality is perceived. We observe, we think, we sleep, we dream, we analyse, we imagine..... mad people hallucinate, as do people taking 'I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about inspector' substances. Experiences stored in the brain reinterpret everything we see. So a synthesis of external and internal realities simply result in my images being more authentic, as that is fundamentally how life is perceived. We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.
I had an incredibly colourful and dramatic childhood and teenage life, and consequently was easily bored. For this reason I evolved as a person of extremes. I love life intensely. I love to really LIVE and feel alive! And photo-journalism just looked as dull as ditchwater to me. All this boring old black and white snapshot stuff, all seemed a bit grey. No pun intended. That was the real issue. I always found mono snaps a bit of a snore. I had covered that ground years earlier, become very good at it, but still felt dissatisfied. And art it definitely was not. As for black and white, I always saw it as photography's technological 'work in progress'. That's why I abandoned it in 1969. In general the shift came twenty years later, so I was just ahead of the curve. Or perhaps just lacking the usual sophistry one finds in the Art world. I hadn't been brainwashed with the catechism of contemporary culture. Maybe I was just in synch with my time.
I nonchalantly dismissed games as a boy, they all seemed a bit daft to me, but I used to love pinball as you were just challenging the machine, rather than engaging in vulgar one-upmanship with a peer. Decades on I am still the same, I am not competing with anyone - just myself. Even more than playing pinball, I used to love watching the technician repair them. When the machines would malfunction - as complex machines always do - I would gaze in awe at the circuits and solenoids and the sheer complexity. There was a glimpse of the future on the inside of these machines. Primitive computer technology. Almost proto-robotic. These things were a complete mystery to a twelve year old.
Later I studied electronics to try and figure out what was going on. Then I would throw down the book and bust open a resistor or transistor to try and figure out what was going on in there. Nothing, apparently. I also remember at that time, dismantling a television set piece by piece, because I wanted to know where the picture was coming from. Nowhere, apparently. I never did get the TV set back together. My mind was always this way - reaching for cognition in a totally empirical way. And that is undoubtedly the road to understanding - not passively reading the theories and creeds of others.
I was also beginning to learn that it is easier to destroy than create. It can take years to build a pink palace with towering pinnacles and secret passageways and beautiful light. It takes only seconds to destroy it. One moment of stupidity. Creativity is the ultimate human glory. Destruction presents not the slightest challenge even to a cretin. This is why cretins are the principal perpetrators of destruction in the world at large. Even in art, the ugly, weird, boring or destructive are just facile ego trips. Any careless imbecile can churn it out. And of course they do. And you would think all those debilitated intellectual advocates would have figured it out by now. But clearly they haven't, somehow. Conversely, to strive for something beautiful, honest, original and brilliant, free of corrupted values - that is the hardest, yet most rewarding, thing on Earth.
Never confuse ugliness with gravitas, nor stultifying stupidity with originality. Anyone can do something sensationalistic or controversial, just to grab attention. There is a Grand Canyon of difference between succinct, laconic expression and shouting your head off. Sensationalism fizzes fast but fizzles faster. Ugliness and sensationalism are easy, but like discordant, cacophonous 'music', quickly tiresome.
On first sight of 'Metasphere' many people are thrown and attempt to compare it with the nearest thing they can associate it with. Psychologically, there is always a tendency to compartmentalise. And it is lazy inexactitude. Many people do the same thing when they see me in my hat. If I listed the comparisons I have had with other famous people, it's hilarious as none of the people I get compared to are even remotely like me, or indeed anything like each other! They just all wear inferior hats, and their vocations and physical appearance are very different to mine. But a remote connection is enough for most people to 'chunk down', when confronted with something they haven't seen before. Ambassadors of approximation can be annoying.
In Hollywood it's an ongoing joke that movies have to be "like other movies." You can imagine the conversations between the film makers and the money. "So we're talking Blue Lagoon meets Robocop, right?" Just hilarious. What people really want is brand new clichés. They want something new, as long as it isn't. They feel thrown and lost if something is absolutely new. Story of my Life.
For my work in general, people often reach for the nearest tenuous connection they can find and use. As I said, this is merely as poetic or prosaic as the observer. No more, no less. Words like "surrealism" or "fantasy" are completely erroneous descriptions. "Fantasy" is a word I absolutely detest. I never fantasise! I do things! My work is not surreal, either. Surreal is ten naked girls standing on motorcycles as they ride over Niagara Falls, whilst simultaneously a thousand blue apples fall from flying trees as pink flamingoes flee from a sky raining stilettos. That is surrealism! Just running the permutations! Sensational and intriguing for a moment but ultimately meaningless.
My work is about the search for higher levels of meaning. Not at all disparate, like surrealism. 'Metasphere' is totally real - think about it. It had to be there. And there is a cohesive synergy between all the elements. It is harmony not discord.
Even when photographing a girl, what the hell is it that I see in the viewfinder, that suddenly gels and gets me all agitated, frenetic and inspired?! What is it? It wasn't there half a second ago. What is getting me all excited? What apparently insignificant change suddenly made it all mean so much? I have no idea, but I know it when I see it and always search for it. Even with an image like Metasphere there is a point at which that still occurs, but the time scale is just more protracted.
The sculpture itself was a nightmare from hell to create. Just endless sanding, filing, honing, modelling, shaping and smoothing, so as to render everything seamless and flawless. Anything less would have been a recognisable object and ruin the illusion. I wore smog masks for health reasons, but the excessive dust caused by perfecting the piece made me ill twice, as the dust inevitably got in to my throat. Never again.
There were times when I really felt as if I had bitten off an awful lot more than I had chewed before. I lost faith for a bit. I was about 200 hours into it and almost gave up, but I just couldn't bring myself to throw away two months of my life. After all, life is just too precious.
There were even more things going on in my mind, at the time I created Metasphere. I had become fascinated by the concept of a super modern, almost futuristic, space age aesthetic. This is very much still with me. A world where everything is clean, slick, timeless and geometric.
And of course, I was thinking about order and chaos, space and matter, dynamism and inertia. Pure geometric simplicity and the complexity of form. Spatial relationships.
Many think the work is aerosprayed, which I guess is a testimony to the perfection of the finish, but it's not. I used brushes, with a special stippling technique I evolved to eliminate any trace of brush strokes, unevenness or sheen.
Much of my work takes years to be fully understood. When I created 'Metasphere' no-one would publish it. They just could not see it as a photograph. Although it was first exhibited in 1977 at my 'Debut Show' in Mayfair, London, it took six years to get 'Metasphere' published. It first appeared in Photography magazine in 1981. They ran an article on me called "If It's Not Original - It's Not Mine". The editor introduced me to his friends as "a man of the future". People always said my work was "ahead of its time". You could look at it that way and say 'Metasphere' is like prototype Cyber Art long before there was any. I know that. That is one way of looking at it. But I think my work reflects the time I live in with absolute veracity, but without the social preconditioning of thought and praxis which makes so much Art old, before it is even created.
Most 'contemporary' art created today, even the garbage that gets described as 'cutting edge', is not contemporary at all. It is based on clapped out concepts which are decades old. I'm not concerned with all that. That which went before me is of marginal interest. This is my time here and now and my influences are taken from life, not historical concepts of art. And of course, I have also pioneered art in the new media. Photography was a natural choice for me. And so was Cyber Art when it arrived in the early Nineties. I may well be perceived as 'ahead of my time' but by definition, nothing can be. A lot of people are just stuck in the past, it's more comfortable there. Greyer too, alas. I prefer adventure and that is why I have been an innovator all my life. To discover the fresh and the new, there inspiration lies. It is nowhere to be found in borrowed ideas. Or trotting out the same formulaic motifs. I'm too easily bored.
The actual word 'Metasphere', I coined by using the prefix 'meta', meaning 'above or beyond'. It was important that even the title was new and gave nothing away. It also, of course, implied that there was more to the image than meets the eye. I have of course, since, invented a vast number of words for my titles. A great title can add much to a work of art, as surely an inept one can destroy it. I love to innovate at every level, including with titles.
Actually, snoring and joking apart, 'Zzzzzzzzz......' would make an excellent title.... now all I need is the idea....... cue gorgeous girl with eyes closed...... floating through the clouds..... surrounded by explosions!!!
Olé! Another masterpiece!
To find the timeless in the new, to express something you hold close to your heart and to search for that which speaks to you without consciously attempting to say anything - that is the essence of all great art. And ironically, exactly how I wrote that sentence. As I wrote it, I had no idea what it meant. I had to go back over it to get the meaning. I create my art in precisely this way, barely conscious of my actions, intuitively making the right moves. Like a somnambulist in a casino who constantly keeps hitting the jackpot! So any post rationale outlined here, is just my own attempt to comprehend what I did. Had you asked me at the time, I wouldn't have known. And in the deepest possible sense, I never will.
'Why question?' is a question.
The question of 'why?' goes on forever.
Abbey Road, St John's Wood, London
Knocked into shape: 12th April 2002, 11.54 p.m.
Completed: 9th Jan 2008 4.10 a.m.
(Well, I had a lot of other things to do)
Augmented and updated with further illustrations: 15th Nov 2015
Polished the atoms, punctuation and syntax: 20th November 2015
© JAMES ELLIOTT 2015