Title: Snap Happy

Author: Mark Amery

In: Sport 30: Peter Black-Real Fiction

Publication details: Fergus Barrowman, March 2003

Part of: Sport

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Sport 30: Peter Black-Real Fiction



The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense.
Take what you have gathered from coincidence.
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.

[Bob Dylan, ‘It's All Over Now, Baby Blue’, Bringing It All Back Home, 1965]

‘The Diana’, also says Robert Hirsh, ‘challenges the photographer to see beyond the equipment and into the image.’ Peter Black recounts how recently he was given a cheap camera as a free gift with a haircut. The plastic rolling mechanism broke within two films and the camera provided no exceptional results. Proof that ‘cheap and cool’ are no more synonymous than ‘expensive and refined’. Black's photographs over time are as bound by their difference of technique as they are by the consistency of some of his themes. As if to say it's the looking, not the equipment, that counts.

‘Moving Pictures’ was Black trying to be even more adventurous with the camera in motion than he had even been before. With ‘Autoportraits’ (1986), he walked around the central city shooting copious amounts of film. He deliberately held the camera out in front of him away from his eye (like our man on the ten-gallon drum) and at elbow height (that child perspective again) in order to avoid making compositional decisions. Furthermore, Black did not view the photographs until the assignment was completed to avoid developing a conscious theme.

The results however suggest an artist who, camera in hand, can't so easily escape his talent—the compositions often suggesting an intuitive sense of control and structure. More skilled at this level than he perhaps thought, with his second sequence of ‘autoportraits’—a series called ‘Streetworks’ taken in 2002—he attempted to be even more random. Catching a glimpse of something of interest, he'd hold the camera up and away from himself to snap it. Like a quick, brilliant sketch artist responding to impressions, Black is always prepared to push himself that little bit further by testing the parameters of his control. There is nothing artless about it.

‘I am interested in the language and form of photography and through that creating my own boundaries,’ Black told Peter Turner in 1992. ‘That's what really excites me. It's challenge, a little like saying, “I want to play rock and roll, which I know is steeped in history, but what can I do with two guitars and a bass that Chuck Berry didn't?”’

It strikes me that Black looks where people, rather than the camera, look. One imagines that while other photographers are sizing up their subject and carefully composing before going in for page 16 the slow kill, Black is letting his eyes roam like other passersby towards incidents of interest. Gazing down at the pavement of the street corner, before flicking across to a baby or a dog. Staring vacantly into the scrawny bushes by the side of the bus stop, before meditating briefly on the reflections in a shop window. The humanity of a Black photograph is that it's as much about a crowd of people as it is about the photographer's eye as one of that crowd itself.

It's consequence of this most unobtrusive of approaches that Black surprises us with what he manages to catch. It's what you capture when it's your eye, not the camera, doing the looking. His photography focuses on the urban spaces between the things other photographers are busy focusing on. Perhaps not surprisingly, he finds there the most poignant of ordinary human moments.

In the third photograph [p96] a monkey holds a camera. It looks like a pretty flash 35mm. The camera appears to be attached still to the arm of the photographer taking the picture. It could be a clever play on an advertisement in an old National Geographic magazine: ‘Any monkey can take a great photograph with a Nikon SCX411 Special.’ The photograph however also suggests a moral: that if you're too overladen with cameras, your subject is likely to get your camera before you get your subject. For this monkey, perhaps the photographer's equipment-laden body has come to resemble a tree. A suggestion that it's not how swish your camera is, but how attuned you are to the subject itself.
Black and white photograph.

From ‘Autoportraits’, 1986