This is a black and white photograph which shows a Michelin car tyre in crisp focus, angled away from the plane of the image. It hardly casts a shadow and seems to float in space. The photograph was taken in a studio using specialist equipment to display and light the object. Williams does not set up and operate the equipment himself, but works on set and directs the camera operator and lighting crew, just as a film director or advertising photographer does. The manufacturer’s information stamped on the side of the tyre, much of which can be read in the photograph, forms the basis of the work’s lengthy title (referred to in short here as Michelin). The title also includes the date when the photograph was made – 27 December 2007 to 2 January 2008. The work was produced in an edition of ten, of which this is number one.
Williams was a student of Douglas Huebler (1924–1997) and John Baldessari (born 1931) in the 1970s, but whereas their photographs were often deliberately ‘deskilled’, Williams’s photographs are characterised by a technical precision achieved using the production techniques employed by the advertising industry. By making work in this way he aims to provoke questions such as: what does it mean to go to such lengths and great expense to picture something as everyday as a car tyre? This in turn raises broader questions about the methods and processes of both fine art photography and the advertising industry.
Although usually everyday or industrial objects, the subjects of Williams’s photographs are carefully chosen and a number of factors influence this choice. In the case of the tyre used in Michelin, there were several determining factors, some of them art historical. Williams was interested in Roy Lichtenstein’s painting Tire 1962 (MoMA, New York) and in German painting of the 1960s, including Konrad Klapheck’s tyre painting Die Macht des Vergessens (The Power of Oblivion) 1968 (Private collection) and Gerhard Richter’s Ferrari 1964 (Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas) and Alfa Romeo 1965 (Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden), as well as Peter Roehr’s photogrid of tyres Ohne Titel (FO-40) (Untitled [FO-40]) 1965. Williams made Michelin at the time when he was moving from Los Angeles to Germany to take up his position as Professor of Photography at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, and this transition sensitized him to the European reception of American pop art. He was also interested in the way Klapheck had turned the pop subject of Lichtenstein’s and Richter’s paintings into a work about the effect of a culture obsessed with fast cars, in which the past quickly falls into oblivion.
Other socio-political factors also influenced Williams’s choice of subject matter, specifically his interest in the history of the Cold War. He chose this particular Michelin tyre because it dated from the 1960s and was the kind of tyre that would have been used to construct barricades during the student uprisings in Paris in May 1968. In this context, the image of the tyre suggests the idea of revolution, but Williams was also fascinated by a fact discovered during his research – namely that the rubber for these tyres came from a Michelin-run plantation in Vietnam. Ironically, the students were making their barricades from materials available to them as a result of colonialist industrial activities.
Although these different connections are important to Williams and assist in an understanding of the work, he does not want them to interfere with the initial encounter with the photograph. When Michelin was first exhibited, Williams authored a press release which explained the source of the rubber and the use of such tyres in 1968, but had this text displayed well away from the photograph itself. Similarly, he has stipulated that the long title for the work should always be installed some distance away from it, rather than next to it.
Mark Godfrey, ‘Pop? Progresso Fotografico? Radio Daniele? Christopher Williams? Kodak Color? Kapitalistischer Realismus?’, in Christopher Williams: For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (Revision 11), exhibition catalogue, Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden 2010, p.85
John Kelsey, ‘Progresso Fotografico’, in Christopher Williams: For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle (Revision 10), exhibition catalogue, Bergen Kunsthall 2010.