Next to a photograph of a listening station in this exhibition is a quotation from the popular philosopher Alain de Botton. De Botton says ‘for thousands of years, it was nature – and its supposed creator – who had the monopoly on awe.’ This new show of photographs from the eponymous book seeks to challenge this premise and to argue that man-made objects deserve to be held in as high esteem as natural ones. Sadly, however, this interesting idea fails to find convincing expression in this exhibition.
De Botton is a charismatic fellow, and last year made an appearance at the Port Eliot LitFest to discuss his new book. He made it sound fascinating and fresh: a new approach to thinking about the workplace. De Botton argued the case for work as merely a job; he claimed that it is a modern misconception to think that our jobs have to provide us with meaningful satisfaction or that we have to define ourselves by what we do, rather than, say, our interests.
Although this exhibition shows leaves from De Botton’s book alongside the photographs by Richard Baker, without the conception of the work as a whole being evident, or without the charm of the author himself discussing it, these isolated pages seem to have no meaning, no wider significance. Without the context of the argument as a whole, they become merely fragmented thoughts.
Furthermore, the hypothesis that the show seeks to disprove – that only God can create anything beautiful – becomes truer and truer throughout the show, and is particularly emphasized in the final image, a medieval church cowering beneath a vast and bright red factory. The humbleness of the church, the simplicity of its design, and the fact that it was built purely for the act of worship and for no material gain, contrasts sharply with the monolithic factory. If God can inspire the construction of many of the most beautiful buildings in the world – Notre Dame in Paris, St. Mary’s Cathedral in Florence – then the inspiration behind the monstrosity of the factory seems diabolical. The loveliest part of all of the photographs is when nature is glimpsed; the most moving are those which juxtapose modern technology with the natural world. The standout image from the show is of dew glistening on a thorn in hazy morning sunlight, while behind is the fuzzy outline of pylon.
The photographs which are featured in the exhibition often fail to capture the human element of the work place, an important aspect of De Botton’s printed book. The photographs are of specialized industries such as aeronautics or biscuit-factories – how much more interesting it would be to see portraits of civil servants at work, or to show a series of images of desks complete with the personal memorabilia of their owners. Pictures, a child’s drawing, a half-drunk cup of tea: these, at least, would give us some insight into a life. But the space in the Museum of the History of Science is difficult to work with, and only a small fraction of the photographs taken for the project are shown. This may explain why the exhibition struggles to provoke a personal response. Compared to, say, Stuart Whipps – another young photographer working in this field – the images in this show are strangely lifeless and unmoving: when devoid of the human or natural element, I found that they failed to inspire.
And despite their depiction of solid, concrete structures, they seem oddly transient. De Botton reminds us that modern jobs can be unsatisfying because we do not feel they have any inherent worth: with the speed at which technology evolves, a machine can become out of date even before it has left the prototyping room. The Larkin truism that ‘what will survive of us is love’ comes to mind: love for God, as borne out in the photograph of the church; love for one another, demonstrated in memories. No one could love a burnt-out aeroplane or a crane. And without this driving force, these images – powerful though some of them may be – show none of the alleged pleasures of work, and instead remind us only of the sorrows.