John Hilliard was born in Lancaster and studied at the local art school before enrolling in the sculpture school at St Martin’s School of Art in London. His first photographic works were made in the late 1960s to document necessarily transient sculpture installations. Increasingly he became interested in the way in which photographic records or ‘replicas’ came to stand for works of art and from 1970 Hilliard started on a series of works concerned with the mechanics of photography - the attributes and capabilities of the camera itself.
By 1972 the emphasis of his work shifted away from the innate functioning of the photographic process towards an exploration of those common devices - cropping, focussing, captioning - which direct the reading and interpretation of photographic images and this analysis became a consistent preoccupation. In Hilliard’s early work the sole function of the subject matter was to reflect the conditions which caused the appearance of the print; images of the camera itself, of the darkroom clock, of the photographer, were used to make explicit the effects of the aperture size, exposure time, shutter speed. These works excluded all external references, using the closed environment of the artist’s studio to isolate the precise operation of photographic cause and effect.
From 1972 Hilliard began to employ imagery from the world outside the studio, exploring the camera’s power to depict social narrative and landscape. The works in the British Council Collection are clearly conscious of the evocative power of their content, but Hilliard’s attitude to his subject matter remained essentially didactic. His landscape works were preconceived, starting as diagrammatic sketches for which he then had to find locations, and his treatment of these locations was openly selective and manipulative; his subject matter was a vehicle through which he could demonstrate a particular aspect of photographic practice. In the presentation of Sycamore Exposure the fusion of adjacent images into one overall composition, a fiction derived solely from the contrasting qualities of the photographic prints, further stressed the distance between the photographic image and the landscape from which it originated.
Photography as Medium, The British Council 1981