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Michael Collins

Record Pictures

In 2002, the Tate sent me to Dusseldorf to interview Bernd and Hilla Becher. When I asked them which photographers had been inspirational to them, Bernd replied that he did not find the canon particularly interesting. "Here", he said, "We look at this photography", and he pulled out from his bookcase a old gazetteer of the region with matter-of-fact photographs from local industry archives. "Ah," I said, "Record Picture photography", and they nodded in hearty agreement.

At its most elemental, photography has two fundamental qualities. A photograph can not only show its subject in far greater detail than could be observed in real time - because the photograph takes in everything within the frame in an endless, unblinking stare - but the photograph will reveal, subtly or otherwise, how the photographer was engaging with the subject. These qualities are exemplified in Record Picture photography, which emphasizes clarity of composition and matter-of-fact perspective, and in amateur family slides, where the dynamic between the photographer and the subject is explicit. Record Picture photography epitomizes the formal properties of photography (and is particularly suited to landscape, where the traces of histories are exposed) while amateur family slides embody the intangible and the unconscious; they are the Apollonian and the Dionysian poles of photography.

When I am photographing with my 8x10 and my head is under the darkcloth, looking at the image on the ground glass, intuitively I am aware of the formal principles of Record Picture photography, which I use compositionally, but for a picture to work, beyond any intellectual or formal intention, it must have a sense of fascination and wonder and respect. Record Pictures: Photographs from the Archives of the Institution of Civil Engineers (SteidlMack) and The Family Silver (Lecturis) are my guides, and I salute the largely unknown photographers whose work is in these books. To me, they are the stars in the firmament.