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

“I think it happened there because of the light and shadow and also the way we know it’s in America within a few pages. I liked the light, white void [of the ping pong ball], a modest intervention in a place known for grandiosity; it became my alter ego in a lonely time too. It is a product of California, not about it. I did a similar thing 20 years ago as a student and never had the sense really to follow it up. I think in LA I knew I couldn’t bring anything new to the place by being straight. I found out later that even using a ping pong ball suspended in the air had already been done in the same city by [conceptual artist] John Baldessari in the late 1970s. So in the end, it was an unconscious pastiche, I suppose.”
*SMALL 167412_A67

Upon being grudgingly accepted into the art universe, the discourse around photography has sometimes become so serious and self-referential that we need reminding of the pleasure of running around an unfamiliar landscape with a camera. Throughout III you sense that the collisions and impromptu alignments of forms in these scenes of now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t must have been great fun to shoot. Balls are bouncing, paper is levitating and milk is streaking downhill, but the monochromatic conjuring tricks on the page make you want to experience some of this reverie for yourself.
“The fun was discovering a small idea that you couldn’t have known that morning – something totally pointless that felt like it could have meaning; that was the game. California was perfect for those good days when the sun is out and you have a spring in your step and you get two pictures before lunch. I loved to walk on the same streets as Raymond Chandler, Charles Bukowski and John Fante – that was a buzz too – nostalgia for a time I never knew. Even though the look of the work is retro, everything seems to be about the future in that kind of emotional state, when your system starts to make sense.”
*SMALL 167412_A14
Whether something as simple as finding a few props and drifting around a strange town is the key to opening up a new field of photographic aesthetics or just a tool to unblock the ennui of Maddock’s here-and-now is unclear, but the book’s riffs on form, light and shadow exemplify the best in [William] Eggleston’s challenge to be “at war with the obvious”. 
“I don’t think you ever arrive, do you?” wonders Maddock. “I mean, the landscape is shifting all the time. I want my previous work to look better as time passes, but I’m not in control of that now. So, I hope my best work is ahead of me. The limitations of certain approaches, or photography in general as a medium, has to be one of our ongoing concerns. This doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the way I worked before, but that I want to evolve it, to keep the hunger – the eye of the tiger!”
*BIG 167412_A20
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.