When Craigie Horsfield speaks about the images he makes, he often uses the phrase “slow history.” By this he means a history of daily events, interactions, and sensations that accrues and circles back on itself in “small” narratives about real lives lived. Horsfield adapted the concept from the work of French historian Fernand Braudel, who wrote of a “history of man in relation to his surroundings … that unfolds slowly and is slow to alter, often repeating itself and working itself out in cycles which are endlessly renewed.”1 This is not the history of wars, political events, or other “short, sharp, nervous vibrations,” as Braudel described them. Slow history is built from nothing more or less than daily encounters with people, objects, and places in one’s physical environment. These quiet events are the subjects of Horsfield’s photographs, which are offered as a corrective to what he sees as the alienating effects of the speed, forward motion, fragmentation, and flux of contemporary life.
Horsfield studied at St. Martins School of Art in London, where he began in 1968 as a painter but soon switched to photography because he was intrigued by its problematic relationship to the real world and “the immanence of its history.”2 Over the course of the next two decades, he filled boxes with negatives of various sizes, but never published or exhibited them until 1988. By then he had arrived at a technical means and format that owed as much to painting as to photography. He makes only one (usually large-scale) print from each negative, and prefers a square format, inspired by the Suprematist canvases of Kasimir Malevich. His prints have a matte surface that he thinks of as penetrable and vulnerable, like skin; the images are grainy, dark, and soft, with a painterly feel that cannot be fully experienced in reproduction.
Horsfield has made most of his pictures in London and various cities in Poland, where he has lived his life; as a group they form a kind of fragmented diary of his quotidian encounters. The Walker Art Center’s photograph was made in Krakow, where the artist resided from 1972 to 1979. There, at the center of Europe, he found a place where “desires, confused and distant memory, the subterranean movements of culture, of people and the land, break through to the surface.”3 Life there was, he felt, negotiated exactly as it might have been in past centuries. Klub Pod Jaszczurami, Rynek Glowny, Krakow. February, 1976.—made at a dance club, where Horsfield worked as a disc jockey—recalls Brueghel’s satirical paintings of sixteenth-century revelries in which dancers grip one another awkwardly, their faces distorted with lust or gluttony. The negative was made in 1976, but the artist didn’t print it until fifteen years later; he always allows some time to pass between the photographic act and the making of the print. During this lapsed time, the event recedes into memory and allows the print to exist as a discrete object rather than a recording. Separated, the two are nevertheless connected; Horsfield believes this may suggest that “all time may be conceived of as simultaneous.”4
In recent years, he has made large-scale installations (such as The El Hierro Conversation of 2003, a collaborative project describing the lives of people in the Canary Islands) as well as intimately scaled still lifes that he calls “irresponsible drawings.” These seemingly disparate practices bracket an oscillation between communal concern and individual sensual pleasure—the poles of human experience that Horsfield so values. “I see [my] pictures as positive; there is even a hopeful aspect at their center, an affirmation about life that has to be sustained. It is hemmed in by difficulty, always under threat, but it endures.”5
Fernand Braudel, On History, trans. Sarah Matthews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 4. ↩
Horsfield, interview with Jean-François Chevrier and James Lingwood, in Jean-François Chevrier and James Lingwood, eds., Craigie Horsfield, exh. cat. (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1991), 8. ↩
Craigie Horsfield, “A Project for Artforum,” Artforum 32, no. 9 (May 1994): 119. ↩
Craigie Horsfield, 24. ↩