My first camera was a 21st birthday present from my father. A Pentax MX. Sometimes presents can be things that you don’t really like or want but I remember treasuring this. I remember taking some photos of the steep steps in Newcastle leading down to the quayside. At home, I made a picture of a
Ten years is an archive of photographs made in the following years with my birthday present.
I’d say that John Peter Askew is a Proustian artist, interested in memory – you can tell as much from his own comments, and from the look of his pictures. But why is his work important? Because he deals with everyday and ordinary life. This is a lot harder to do than one might imagine, and most contemporary photographers prefer to deal with invented and constructed worlds. This may not be an admission of failure on their part, but it does mean that one has to go out of one’s way to get onto their wavelength. Askew, on the other hand, represents the kind of material which we come across all the time, but which we either overlook or take for granted as part of the background. He runs risks with this kind of subject matter because a commonplace subject might be unredeemedly commonplace. What happens in his work and his art is that the commonplace is enhanced by his capacity to see the picture as a whole, in terms of both negative and positive shapes co-existing in harmony. He achieves a remarkable stillness even monumentality in many of his pictures.
John Peter Askew’s photography proposes a kind of complicity: his topic is that of individual consciousness, and of the kind of worlds we all carry within us. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know who these people are or where and when these pictures were taken, but these represent a kind of picture making. We meet people in the normal course of events, and to some extent, we get to know them. In The Family of Man and its
John Peter Askew emphasizes the liberal element in photography. It has always been there, to some degree or other. The great documentarists are liberals, their aesthetics bolstering an ethic. In the patient descriptions of Walker Evans for example, clients are asked to study the screen intently and piece together the evidence. The implication in that modernist photography was that we had to take
John Peter Askew insists on his individuality. He passes through life making connections, and the whole constitutes an autobiography. Life his pictures say is local and personal. (…). Think of all his pictures in religious terms. Askew has seen Paradise and it has revealed itself to him as an intimate local place, and companionable. Religion answers all our worries about oblivion, and one figure for oblivion is infinity. One of his very fine pictures is of nothing more than a tree rising in the foreground against a green hillside mildly sloping. The swelling tree and the curving hillside fill the frame and keep us from investigating that far distance compressed along the skyline. Askew’s sixth sense knows what is at issue and just how it may be kept at bay, by the subtle beauties of the moment.
Ian Jeffrey is one of the most important art historians in Britain, who has consistently addressed the nature and development of photography as an art form throughout his career. He is the author of several influential books from The Real Thing: An Anthology of British Photographs 1840–1950, (1974) and Photography: A Concise History (1991) through to Phaidon’s The Photography Book (1997) and How to Read a Photograph (2008). He has also written extensively about individual artist-photographers including Jeff Wall, Diane Arbus, Eadweard Muybridge, Etienne-Jules Marey.
This essay is included in the catalogue that accompanied the exhibition