Spot the ball: Robin Maddock's uncompromising, ambiguous vision of California

From the title of his photographic blog, Ugly Moments Strung Together, you sense that Robin Maddock is prone to critical self-analysis and distrust of aesthetic purity. Despite having two well-received photobooks already published by Trolley (or maybe because of it), Maddock says that he felt disoriented and perplexed when it came to finding inspiration for a new project or approach to work towards.
His third book, III, also published by Trolley and shot largely in the harshly-lit urban topography of Los Angeles and San Francisco, is the culmination of this period of introspection and points to a future direction of enquiry that seems at odds with his documentary roots.
His first book, Our Kids Are Going To Hell (2009), resulted from his work following police on raids in Hackney. The second, God Forgotten Face (2011), shot in his home town of Plymouth, was already more introspective, even if it remained recognisable as a documentary project, capturing the city as a kind of microcosm of Little England. Or so Maddock thought when he started, thinking of it as a kind of follow-up to the Hackney work, but his misconceptions were soon challenged.
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“I sort of went as an explorer and quickly realised the work was too detached, too cold,” he said in an interview in BJP (#7799). “I had to be there a while longer, to have a bit of a meltdown, to humble my eyes somewhat.”
This time round, however, there was no Gigi Giannuzzi. The founder of Trolley, who Maddock trusted more than anyone to edit his work and bounce ideas around with, died at the end of 2012. Trolley continues under the watch of Giannuzzi’s partner, Hannah Watson, and the latest book has a dedication at the back that reads: “For Gigi, who would have loved to have hated this book.”
But that wasn’t Maddock’s only reason for feeling lost. Describing his sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction with his own creative powers, a recent text he wrote (as a brief for a workshop that never took place) reads almost like group therapy for a generation of photographers currently struggling with ‘blank piece of paper syndrome’. “Recently, moving house, I was forced to look at my bags of old pictures from the last 20 years and I was appalled. I realised that most of the things I shoot, I’ve shot 10 times before, mostly without any success. I started to think that maybe this being lost is part of the journey. If we start with something fit for consumption, it’s not a style we’ve worked out for that subject, it’s [just] mannerism… I’m lost visually, but there’s at least a feeling I know I want. Every project can start like this, groping around.”
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Fear of mannerism, hatred of cliché and a sense that everything photographable has already been accounted for wake up many an ambitious photographer in the middle of the night with cold sweats. For a generation of photographers who are more visually literate and routinely spoiled for inspiration than all who have come before, this can be a real bind. Exhibitions and photo festivals come round like a perpetual carousel, a multitude of shrink-wrapped monographs fly off Chinese presses, and a year-round diary of competitions and prizes excites the hopeful. Even as potential inspiration gleaned from peers, rivals and masters abounds, it can be matched by a creative paralysis based on ‘seen-it-all’ ennui.
First published in the May 2014 issue. Subscribe to British Journal of Photography and get the best contemporary photography delivered to your door every month.