John Hilliard


Notes de mon entretien avec John Hilliard le 6 février 2011, chez lui à Londres

Experimentation on the essence itself of photography. Started before 1970. Studied sculpture, and saw US sculpture only in photos in magazines, plus many sculptures were ephemeral or unconventional objects, so had to be documented by photo. Documenting was crucial.

Started thinking at photography as a medium in itself, with a critical attitude. Nobody thought like that then; was (later) inspired by Rashomon, Robbe-Grillet (questioning representation of reality), then was just groping in the dark.

Started to doubt how photography was representing reality, wanted to explore that.

His first photography (in book), 1968 or 1969 was one of his sculpture covered with photos of same sculpture: “Photosculpture”.

Camden Art Center asked for a solo exhibition of his works in summer 1969 (he was 25); between invitation and exhibition, he decided to show only photos, and not sculpture. They were puzzled, thought of cancelling exhibition. The flyer was a manifesto (see text). Got good review by Guy Brett in the Times.

Then had a group exhibition at Lisson gallery, end of 1969

Choice of what to do with the camera, how to use it.

60 Seconds of light in 1970; Camera recording its own condition in 1972.

Did not know about Mulas (met later Mulas’ s sister: Mulas did not know either about Hilliard), nor about Dibbets.

Then started to doubt what else to do with question of production: it was limited, it had gone around. In answer to question, did not think of throwing away the camera.

Had not been trained as a photographer, did not know much about philosophy either.

Took 6 months in 1972 to read philosophy (every morning, several hours), Russell, Wittgenstein.

It helped reinforce his analytical approach. His work is very rational, experimental, quasi scientific, like a manual, not much emotional, not subjective. Not inspired much by French theory then (Subjectivity of the author not important, what matters is the work: Barthes before his betrayal in Camera Lucida)

Then in 1972, moved from questioning production to questioning representation.

Cropping the picture, what is outside the frame? Not influenced by Stieglitz Equivalents (did not know), nor by Carl André, although similar thinking.

His knowledge of photography was more the mass media, fashion and photojournalism, he was ignorant of the history of photography.

Show an object from different spatial viewpoints, a bit like Cubism (shows photo of ‘Cubist Party’)

Cairn or tree from 4 different directions (N S W E), or a human from 2 directions, with different backgrounds (e.g. books and tools for a young artist in a dress to go to a vernissage).

The object shown is secondary. The real subject of the picture is the process of representation.

Not a real narration, just the possibility of a narrative. Rather the alternative perception of something; it is not temporal, even in the successions of images.

Compressed images: more difficult to understand than the contiguous ones (ex bottle from 4 directions with 4 people in striped shirts, horizontal, vertical, diagonal ascending and diagonal descending).

But most spectators enter through the image (erotic cigarette quotation; German journalist), and then discover the process and question the image.

He works in phases, rarely goes back, but may reuse some techniques (e.g. now people upside down, and a mirror).


Use of text with photos.

Photo as a defeasible criticable entity.

David Company said he is the only one working on the ontology of photography.

Flusser: knows of him, but has not read him; his theory [I explain] applies, at the same time, he still uses a camera, so not totally in rebellion against apparatus, rather rebelling from within.


Artists he respects (but not necessarily influencers): Gilbert & George (were at school with him), Hamish Fulton (also a walker), Victor Burgin, John Stezaker (very inventive).

Students of his: Richard Deacon, Rachel Whiteread (he did not teach photography, not specialized), Helen Chadwick (now dead, put photo emulsion on furniture), Lindsay Seers, Laura Medler and the other two in the Vienna exhibition.

Likes classical culture, inspired by it, rather goes to a classical museum than to a contemporary art show.