Mike Chisholm is an independent artist-photographer, based in Southampton, UK.
Mike was born in 1954 in Stevenage, a New Town 30 miles north of London. He was educated at local state schools, then studied at Balliol College Oxford, the University of East Anglia, and University College London. For thirty years he worked in the higher education sector (Bristol and Southampton universities) but now concentrates on photographic and writing projects. In recent years he has exhibited his photographs and bookworks internationally in several solo and group shows.
His blog, IDIOTIC HAT, is widely read and regarded by many as a must-read source of photographic inspiration, ironic wisdom and amusement.
STATEMENT (read out at the opening of the exhibition A Tourist From Mars , Innsbruck, Austria, 5/6/2014):
Good evening, inhabitants of Earth, and greetings from Mars!
I make photographs primarily because I feel a need to do it, not because I have a project to fulfil, a grant to justify, or a thesis to illustrate. In the words of the American photographer Garry Winogrand:
"I photograph to see what things look like when photographed."
This may sound evasive, or even facetious. But it is why I came to photography. I, too, like to see how the world looks when it is photographed.
The title of this exhibition might have led you to expect a Martian to be sitting here -- I am sorry to disappoint you. However, I would point out that your camera is a Martian: it sees and records with the unfiltered clarity of an alien life-form. Do you know the poem The Blue Guitar, by Wallace Stevens?
They said, "you have a blue guitar,
You do notplay things as they are."
The man replied, "things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar."
That's how it is with your camera. Things as they are are changed upon that blue Martian camera. So, if not a Martian myself, I have become a close collaborator with my metal Martian friend, and have learned something of her ways.
For example, those of you who are artists may have received that excellent training for hand, eye, and brain known as Life Drawing. That is, the drawing of a naked model by art school students. Life drawing strikes me as a genuinely Martian discipline. By means of various defamiliarisation techniques (e.g. the drawing of "negative space") the students learn to transcribe onto a two-dimensional sheet of paper what they actually see, and not what they think they see, or what they expect to see. They are simply learning to see as a camera sees. Ironically, many photographers never learn this lesson. In the memorable words of that certified Martian George Clinton of Funkadelic:
"Free your mind, and your ass will follow!"
I have never expected or attempted to make a living from this activity, and yet it is as necessary and as entirely serious to me as, say, prayer would be to a religious person. I photograph every day, if I can. Naturally, it gives me great satisfaction when other people find interest (and indeed pleasure) in what I produce, and I am grateful for opportunities like this to show my work. But my main motivation comes from within.
I once wrote a sort of anti-manifesto, which I have adapted here:
Self-motivated photography is like writing poetry: if you are after fame and fortune, you are in the wrong game. You do it for its own sake, and the appreciation of a small, dedicated, statistically-insignificant audience, most of whom will be practitioners themselves. Even to be famous within such a small circle is to be invisible to the wider world. Martin Parr [a British photographer] is as little-known to the general public as Paul Muldoon [a British poet]. But invisibility does have benefits: you're free from the expectations of paying audiences, so there's no excuse for your work not to be "as serious as your life" [pianist McCoy Tyner on music] or even as daft as a brush, if that's what you prefer.
It is important to emphasise that I regard photography primarily as a process, not as an outcome. I photograph every day – in my lunch-hour, on the way from the car-park to my office – in the same way that a musician practices scales. I recommend this: try to find photographs where you are, and never wait to be where you wish you were. As they say, "Wherever you go, there you are".
The 80 or so images you see on the walls here are a by-product of this primary activity of creative seeing, not its purpose. A relatively small by-product, too. I show photographs constantly as a "work in progress" on the Web via my blog. There have been over 2000 images posted there since 2008. Two thousand: that's an average of five a week. Again, I recommend this sustained level of productivity: I believe firmly in Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hours". Or, as Henri Cartier-Bresson put it long before Gladwell, "your first 10,000 photographs are your worst"...
It is very necessary, for me, to spend time in a "no-mind", creative activity. I have a highly academic background, and my rational side is organised, thorough, and narrowly-focused. I need the counterweight of art-making in my life, in the same way as the waking mind needs the balance of the sleeping mind.
I prefer to work in this instinctive, unthinking way. Scandalously, I often have my camera set to “program mode”. In the end, I had to concede that its judgement and reaction time was generally better than mine. When I am photographing, I hope to achieve that blankly receptive, absorbed state of mind people call “getting in The Zone”. The Zone is that place where one feels most fully oneself, by forgetting oneself. In the paradoxical words of composer John Cage:
"I have nothing to say
and I am saying it
and that is poetry
as I need it."
(Lecture on Nothing, 1949)
Or, in some words of Goethe that I came across a long time ago:
Es gibt eine zarte Empirie, die sich mit dem Gegenstand innigst identisch macht, und dadurch zur eigentlichen Theorie wird.
(Maximen und Reflexionen 509)
[there exists a delicate empiricism which makes itself utterly identical with the object, thereby becoming true theory]
Now, those are the words of a true Martian!
Thank you for your attention. I hope you find something of value for yourself in my photographs this evening.
Mike Chisholm, June 2014