When Garry Fabian Miller was 19 years old, he stepped out onto the balcony of his flat in Clevedon and looked across the Severn Estuary towards the coastline of Wales. Exposed to the elements, his line of sight free from any human constructs, he was alone with the limits of his perception. On the distant horizon, sunbeams pierced the clouds and bounced off the water like a giant processor. Dissecting sea and sky, the line between them represented as far as the eye could see but never reach. Awestruck, Fabian Miller pointed his camera out to sea, frame centred on the horizon, and (click!) exposed a colour transparency to a unique imprint of light.
It was 1975, and the young artist had returned to Bristol after a period of photojournalism on the Shetland Islands. Over the next 18 months, he committed to photographing the same view, in square format, line dividing sea and sky. Only compositional changes in light and weather altered the otherwise controlled elements of the work. What emerged was a group of 40 portraits, all technically identical but representationally unique; bruised skies, verbal seas, miraculous circles of light, sun rays cutting through clouds, water dissolving to air in a fog of monochrome blue—the endless possibility of a landscape in constant flux.
Photography is paradoxical by nature. Whilst light creates every image, this must happen in darkness
First shown at the Arnolfini, Bristol, in 1979, Sections of England: The Sea Horizon (1976–1977) positioned his work in the context of the English Land Art movement. Fabian Miller said then, “my work is a search for the understanding and realisation of infinity,” and these words still hold true. The whole series is now being shown at the Museum of Wales in Cardiff. (https://museum.wales/cardiff/whatson/11790/The-Sea-Horizon/), and one of these works opens his landmark exhibition ADORE (18 February – 18 May), his third at the Arnolfini. Considered one of the most progressive figures in fine art photography, this survey exhibition opens alongside the publication of Fabian Miller’s memoir The Dark Room, produced as part of his Honorary Fellowship with the Bodleian Library, Oxford University. A powerful meditation on time, place and belonging, this interdisciplinary show platforms the next chapter of Fabian Miller’s artistic practice as he steps out of the darkroom and throws his archive open – like seeds to the wind.
What inspired the young artist to step out into the light that day is as significant as what motivated him to return and observe the changes. As the show’s title suggests, this has something to do with the adoration of light; but this is not a show about one man’s vision. It is so much more. If we return to the image of Fabian Miller on the balcony, we might read the house as a metaphor for the history of photography. He stood on the shoulders of generations of artists working with light-sensitive materials, beginning with Henry Fox Talbot, who invented the calotype process in the 1840s and experimented with photograms, creating images by placing objects directly onto the paper and exposing them to light. Crucially, it was 1975, the moment when colour photography began to emerge as a new, vital medium; and Fabian Miller had just been introduced to a phenomenal material: Cibachrome.
Also known as dye destruction print paper (ironically), it was used in the positive-to-positive photographic process with film transparencies. When exposed, unwanted dyes embedded in the paper were bleached away to leave a vibrant image, unsurpassed in clarity and detail. “Light is potential,” explains Fabian Miller, “and whilst photography is a material as miraculous as pigment in painting, I felt it had not been fully explored. Understood as a form of representation, it was about a light-sensitive material that could arrest and hold light. That is what I committed to understanding and making work about.”
Fabian Miller has built his practice, and therefore his life, around this kind of exposure. After his first exhibition in Bristol, he left for Dartmoor “and committed myself to the crucible (which features in the show) and a practice within that landscape. Since then, the pattern of my day has broadly been the same: I walk at sunrise, then go into the darkroom and start making pictures.” For over 30 years, between the day’s opening and closing of light, Fabian Miller has worked inside a darkroom “making pictures with a beam of light projected through things, or directly onto photosensitive paper.”
In the early days, Fabian Miller worked with transparencies in a camera. “I taught myself how to print pictures using this material.” Then around the winter or 1984/85, there was a shift, or rather a shedding. “I decided the camera was the problem. What I was interested in was the colour-making material and the light. I had to consider that there would be a world where the camera was absent and you could work directly with light and this light-sensitive material to make images appear.”
Fabian Miller understood there was an equivalence between the transparency print, which he placed in the head of an enlarger (and then projected onto paper), and a translucent object such as a leaf. “I was trying to create pictures of the sun pulling plants out of the earth. Whilst making complicated exposures, I saw that instead of trying to photograph a thing, I needed to take it directly to the enlarger. By placing it in the carrier, the object becomes the transparency.” Wonderfully, his experiment worked. Fabian Miller began making photographic images unmediated by a camera and has continued to explore new ways of creating images whilst attending to the cycles of nature. Many of his images are sequential, observing how colour shifts and fades over a season, like the green spring of leaves on a tree in photosynthesis. His favourite images teeter on the point of vanishing – fugitive and evanescent – our mind grasps the feint, pixelating mauve of a fritillary “like a pulse”.
Whilst these works challenge our assumptions about what photography can be, they are also the result of a thoroughly material enquiry exploring the spectrum of potential that exists between Cibrachrome and light. Rooted in a practice intimately bound to the physical reality of his time in this place, they also reflect Fabian Miller’s spiritual journey. Analogue, tactile and often mundane, where other artists working with the medium of light, like Chris Levine or James Turrell, abandoned the rectilinear demands of paper or canvas with immersive installations, Fabian Miller focused on the durational capacity of photosensitive material. The strange, chemical nature of making an image with a leaf will outlive the leaf itself but is also subject to vanishing when overexposed or left outside in the light. One might say Fabian Miller contemplated the afterlife of his images and the transience of his process in this life.
Photography is paradoxical by nature. Whilst light creates every image, this must happen in darkness. Like water turns stone to sand, the very thing that allows us to see colour through materials also bleaches colours away. The ultimate truth of all things is that they will vanish into the light (just as the only constant law of physics is that all things heat up). This material fact would play out over Fabian Miller’s lifetime through the very material he had committed to using. In 2012, the factory that made Cibachrome shut down production. Then in 2022, after an illness provoked by the chemicals in the paper, Fabian Miller’s darkroom closed.
We often underestimate how technology influences artistic practice, but one only has to pick up their phone to see how digital photography has changed our relationship to images. (to learn more – https://materialmatters.design/Garry-Fabian-Miller) For Fabian Miller the rapid adoption of digital images resulted in the decline in production of the materials upon which his practice depended. “One day, we will understand that darkrooms like mine were one of the last pools of primal darkness in which a form of pure thought could be investigated and made visible,” said Fabian Miller in his lecture The Light Gatherers at the Bodleian. “It is a place of truth and visions – my darkroom closed. In the last weeks of November 2020, my last exposures were made (voice quivering). I had spent the last 50 years in these darkened rooms. It was my life. It will have taken my life.” (https://arnolfini.org.uk/artists/garryfabianmiller/#garry-fabian-miller)
Surprisingly then, this show is called ADORE. “I understood they wanted a title that had to do with these endings, but I did not want the show to have this identity. I wanted to come up with a name that said wherever you are in your life is a miracle, and life is a wonderful thing.” This show brings us full circle with the young artist living in Bristol and the youthful energy of new beginnings. It charts his creative response to the closure of his darkroom and seeds a new era of collaboration, one in which he bears witness to the surprising afterlife of his archive of exposures. “I spent my formative years in Bristol,” says Fabian Miller, “the culture and art I encountered changed my life and made me want to become the person I am.”
Housed in a prominent Grade II listed accessible building (Bush House) on the city’s harbourside since 1961, Arnolfini is woven into the fabric of Bristol. Presenting an ambitious and wide-ranging programme of visual art, performance, dance, film, and music, it also had an important bookshop that Fabian Miller experienced as “a doorway to another world”. However, during lockdown, Arnolfini closed “it was lost, and so 50 years of culture in Bristol were potentially lost. Then it was saved by Gary Topp (Executive Director), and I seem to have arrived at the right time.” Thus one ending was also a beginning, like a positive-to-positive transfer, opening towards the light.
For Fabian Miller, this moment has been hard won. “If you want to make work that you believe can be transformative, it comes at quite a high cost. It means exposing yourself in a very raw way to experiences and emotions, and often this can be quite dangerous.” Like the English Romantics Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth, who also feature in this show, the constant exposure to chemicals required to make images in the dark room, might have ended his life. And yet, precisely because he was “driven to enter worlds we believe exist”, another door opened. “If you can access them (these other worlds), it might open the world up positively. “If ADORE is a perfect word for this moment, the transformation and the show, then EXPOSURE is basically what my life has been… a photographic exposure.”
There is an image in the show that embodies this end and beginning, part death star, part birth of star. It articulates the dangerous beauty of a life committed to an intimate relationship with chemistry and light. It holds a ring of sunlight bursting on an infinite horizon, encircled like a crown of thorns. Now emblazoned in my mind, who knows what it will inspire? ADORE gives Fabian Miller a chance to journey past what might have been his last chapter, stepping out of the darkroom into the light. Before he vanishes, he offers up a lifetime of exposure to highly skilled collaborators across an expanse of disciplines.
With a myriad of artists and makers, gardeners and Quakers, thinkers, and writers, ADORE is a communal space animated with new tapestries and rugs created with Dovecot, Edinburgh and Dash + Miller, alongside a rich array of pottery, printmaking, archive material and textiles. Engaged in a series of ongoing performances and publications with the poet Alice Oswald, he has also collaborated with Sam Fabian Miller on a (show-stopping) time-based media work and (heart-stopping) music with Kathleen Frances. The artist has donated his archive to the V&A as an “open-source transformative generator”.
Fabian Miller’s dedication to understanding photosensitivity has wholly altered my perception of darkness and made me more mindful of light. His next project, Three Acres of Colour, is inspired by Ethel Mairet’s 1916 publication, A Book on Vegetable Dyes. Circling back to his own roots in the context of land art, by committing to grow these primary colours, he is marking our relationship to light, which honours Mairet’s view that ‘strong and beautiful colour is essential to the full joy of life’. If you want to make a pilgrimage for art’s sake, then go to the Arnolfini in Bristol before this ends.
Words: Nico Kos Earle All images: © Lisa Whiting Photography
Garry Fabian Miller: ADORE – Arnolfini Arts 18 FEBRUARY – 28 MAY 2023