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The Man Who Would Be King



Notes from a talk given by John Blakemore whilst a selection of his photographs was exhibited in conjunction with The Just Price of Flowers

John Blakemore started photographing tulips at a time of artistic crisis. He had put photography aside to study for an MA in Film. Looking for an activity which could act as a relief from his studies but that wouldn't lead him far from home, he started taking photographs in his kitchen. For a time all his photographs were taken in that one room - the kitchen. There would often be a vase of cut flowers on the table there, and at this time the flowers were most often tulips. These tulips usually ended up in the photographs. When his photographs began to focus in on the tulips however, the images were never strictly 'about' tulips. Blakemore claims to have no particular interest in the tulip itself. It was more a means for him to explore the activity of picture making.

Eventually this domestic period of picture-making was extended to working in his studio/bedroom, next to the kitchen. Here he moved from 35mm to a large format camera, photographing his subjects on a small wooden block by the window, using natural sunlight both direct and reflected.

As tulips are seasonal he started drying them in order to be able to work year round. He was fascinated by the "gestural quality" of the tulip stems and increasingly interested in photography's ability to be both descriptive and transformational, recording the object placed in front of the lens while also creating an image that fires the imagination and is suggestive of something other than itself.

Blakemore spends a long time looking at his own photographs and suggests this process of studied reflection is necessary and important for a photographer. He arranges his photographs into themes and sequences. The Dissections series investigates tulips that have been cut or torn. He will often photograph tulips when they are two weeks beyond their peak when other people may have thrown them away. When on one occasion he caught himself selecting the most 'photogenic' blooms to shoot, the realisation prompted him to deliberately not select his subjects in this way. Having focused on the petals and heads of the flowers for photographs he then subjected the stems to similar attention.

Celebrations is an investigation of tonality in the gelatin-silver print. Traditionally each such print would be expected to contain a range of tones from white through to black. Blakemore came to question this assumption and focused on making prints that work within a much narrower tonal range. He relates photographs in this series to paintings or sandstone carving. He is not particularly interested in whether Parrot tulips with their ragged edges are regarded as ugly or beautiful, he concentrates on their surface and texture. There are extreme close ups of petals.

Blakemore's later kitchen photographs reduce the presence of the tulip within the frame, so that it may only just be seen in reflection or silhouette, or small and hidden within other busy detail. The Tulipmania series is an attempt to create what he imagined a tulip maniac's house may have looked like.

Generations and Mutations were in part generated by the digging of his own garden. There Blakemore excavated fragments of a history which together with external commissions provoked ideas that he brought back to his tulip work. Generations includes bud, bulb and flower in the same photograph. Inspired by Paul Klee, one of his favourite painters, he made photographs with double exposures giving the impression of bulbs absorbed into the soil.

"You cannot arrange tulips they are flowers of independent mind".

Handmade books are now Blakemore's dominant practice. For the last seven years he has been working in colour a medium for which his thinking is radically different. His black and white photography is very much about process, his colour film was sent to Jacobs (until it ceased to trade. Now the Blakemore account is up for grabs). He combines his colour end prints in book form looking for the combination of images to create fictional spaces.

Proof-read/edited rough notes by James Yarker June 2012
Photograph: Pete James
With thanks to Pete James & Ela Myszek at Birmingham Central Library

John Blakemore is widely regarded as one of the finest photographers and printers in the United Kingdom. The tulip was a recurrent theme in a series of still life images Blakemore made over a nine year period in the 1980s. He was fascinated by their constant transformation and their sensual and gestural elegance.

The John Blakemore Archive was acquired by Birmingham Central Library in 2004 with support from the Art Fund, The V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Friends of the National Libraries and The University of Derby. The archive will be permanently housed in the new Library of Birmingham when it opens in 2013.

You can watch a short film about John Blakemore and his archive in Birmingham library here.

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