File Note 120: Peter Fraser - Camden Art Centre

Essay by Amy Sherlock



The Things That Count Images References Quote Biography Credits

The Things That Count

I have a very clear memory, as a youngish child, of watching, one Saturday morning, a television programme about quantum mechanics. I must have been up too early for cartoons and caught the end of one of those shows, broadcast at insomniac hours, which The Open University used to screen on the BBC. The programme described a thought experiment. Imagine you have a pair of gloves. You separate them and put them in boxes. You post one to a friend in London; the other, to a friend in Paris. The friend in Paris opens her box to find the right-hand glove. The friend in London, therefore, has the left-handed glove — whether he opened the box before, after or at the same time as the friend in Paris. Except, the narrator explained, that when the gloves are in their boxes, as yet unseen, either glove could fit either hand — or, more accurately, neither has the quality of ‘handedness’ at all. It is only when one box is opened that you know the shape of the other glove. Somehow, over whatever distance may separate them, these two items are connected and there is something about observing one that determines the other. The gloves represented particles and, the narrator went on to say, a team of scientists somewhere had done a real experiment that proved this theory.

I was a very literal child and I tried to imagine a two-thumbed glove in its box, hermaphrodite, caught somewhere between left and right. (I had not, at that time — and perhaps thankfully — heard about Schrödinger and his famous dead-undead cat.) But I struggled — I still struggle — to get beyond the materiality of the object. Someone, somewhere, had cut the leather for those gloves, had stitched the seams around the fingers, had carefully made one to fit a right hand and the other to fit a left hand: it wasn’t possible that they could shape-shift, just like that. I trusted, absolutely, in the thinginess of things.

On the surface of it — and I think surfaces are important to him — Peter Fraser is not a photographer who doubts stuff. From his earliest photo-book, 1988’s Two Blue Buckets — titled after a striking image of the eponymous objects, one candy floss-hued, the other glossy forget-me-knot, almost touching on a slate-grey floor — to his most recent series, Mathematics, Fraser has presented objects from the marvellous to the mudane with a disarming matter-of-factness. We could say that in another way, as fact-of-matterness. His images are never staged but found, already there, givens. (‘The forces in the world have a much better idea of where things should be than I do,’ the artist has said.) I find Fraser’s work — like that of his mentor William Eggleston, with whom he spent a youthful summer in the American South in the early 1980s, and his former Bournemouth College pupil Wolfgang Tillmans — to be flatly non-metaphorical; his objects are not cyphers for other things. (That’s not to say that they don’t suggest bigger pictures. A sense of the social — and with it a politics, an ethics — is always present. How could it not be? These are photographs of life.)

The Mathematics works are simultaneously more hermetic (in their framing; in their distinctness from one another) and more expansive (in the variety of their geographies and objects) than perhaps any other of Fraser’s series to date. Two halves of a cherry tomato sit on a round plate, their cut edges beginning to curl in the dry air; a corrugated-steel hut crowds out a winter-drab landscape, its flaking blue paint revealing flame-like tongues of a scarlet layer beneath; in an open stadium thousands of young couples stand poised to dance, hands on one another’s shoulders, their garlanded folk costumes at odds with the glass-cube architecture of the city in the background. Fraser pulls back, he zooms in; but, though the scale and nature of what is observed shifts, things are presented intimately as they are. This gives the work a kind of urgency, each shot an exclamation point, that seems undimmed from the rapt eye that saw beauty in a plastic sheathed pile of breeze blocks in the very early series ‘12-Day Journey’ (1984). (Fraser speaks unselfconsciously of epiphanies.) 

Of course, every photograph happens in the imperative tense: it’s an instruction to look — again, more closely, at this. But what are we trying to find here? Where are the ‘mathematics’ the series’ title points us to? Everywhere, says Fraser. Following Galileo: ‘The book of nature is written in the language of mathematics.’ Look around you: human, animal, vegetable; stone and sea, snow and air — there is nothing that exists that does not have mathematical expression. (In the physical world, at least; let’s leave aside, for now, the question of the spiritual, of which there is undoubtedly an element in Fraser’s work). Maths can explain why the sunlight passes through the diaphanous crowns of a bunch of tulips, and the length of the shadow one building casts over another in the morning sun, and the repeating, slip-sliding scale pattern on the underbelly of a snake. 

There is something powerful (and comforting) in the idea of a mathematical universe determined by universal laws. This is approaching what Einstein (after Spinoza) understood by God — God who ‘does not play dice’, per his infamous dismissal of quantum mechanics and its uncertainty principle. (In Einstein’s telling, proved incorrect, the spectral gloves of my childhood are always already left and right: there is no both/neither.) Physicists haven’t yet found the Theory of Everything that would bring together both general relativity and quantum theory, but I don’t think they’ll ever stop looking. In one photograph from the Mathematics series, craning up to see the magnificent cupula of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, every available surface flickers with intricate calligraphy and restless, repeating motifs. Rendered with improbable clarity by Fraser’s high-resolution camera, it’s an overwhelming density of pattern — too much for the human eye to take in; a voluptuous expression of the perfect geometries of the divine. 


Albert Camus, The Outsider (Hamish Hamilton, 1946)

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (Airmont Books, 1967)

Yukio Mishima, Spring Snow (Alfred A. Knopf 1972)

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (Picador, 1978)

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974)

Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts (John Murray, 1977) and Between the Woods and the Water (John Murray, 2004)

WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn (Harvill Press, 1998)

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (Vintage Books, 2009)

Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Death in the Family (Vintage Books, 2014)

Max Tegmark, Our Mathematical Universe (Penguin Books, 2014)

Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (Vintage Books, 2014)

Sergei Eisenstein, Battleship Potemkin, 1925

Alfred Hitchcock, Vertigo, 1958, and Rear Window, 1954

Charles and Ray Eames, Powers of Ten, 1968 and 1977

David Lean, Lawrence of Arabia, 1962

Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, 1966, and Stalker, 1979

Stanley Kubrick, 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

Akira Kurosawa, Seven Samurai, 1954

Ingmar Bergman, Fanny and Alexander, 1982

Wim Wenders, Wings of Desire, 1987

‘…to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to his work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his region. It will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like the blind man cured in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision…’ Flannery O’Connor


Peter Fraser (b. 1953, Cardiff, UK) graduated in photography from Manchester Polytechnic in 1976. In 1982, Fraser began working with a Plaubel Makina camera, which led to an exhibition with William Eggleston at the Arnolfini, Bristol, in 1984. In that year Fraser went on to spend time living and working with Eggleston in the US. Recent solo shows include The Photographers’ Gallery, London (2002); Brancolini Grimaldi, London (2012); Tate St Ives (2013); Real Jardín Botánico de Madrid (2017). In 2004, he was shortlisted for the Citibank Photography Prize.


Amy Sherlock is a writer based in London. She is deputy editor of frieze.

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